Why reporters can’t be replaced by robots and algorithms

This blog post was not written by a robot. Nor is it the result of a fancy algorithm.

But it could have been,  Narrative Science would probably argue. The 30-person, Chicago-based company has created an algorithm that is generating text.

From the company website:

Narrative Science helps companies leverage their data by creating easy to use, consistent narrative reporting – automatically through our proprietary artificial intelligence technology platform.

We also help publishers who are faced with the constant challenge of keeping up with the speed, scale and cost demands of content creation. We offer an innovative and cost-effective solution that allows publishers to cover topics that can’t otherwise be covered due to operational or cost constraints.

It “trains computers to write news stories Steven Levy described in his Wired piece:

The computer-written product could be a pennant-waving second-half update of a Big Ten basketball contest, a sober preview of a corporate earnings statement, or a blithe summary of the presidential horse race drawn from Twitter posts. The articles run on the websites of respected publishers like Forbes, as well as other Internet media powers (many of which are keeping their identities private). Niche news services hire Narrative Science to write updates for their subscribers, be they sports fans, small-cap investors, or fast-food franchise owners.

And the articles don’t read like robots wrote them:

Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning … Friona piled up the steals, swiping eight bags in all …

Egads, some journos might be thinking – especially after The Atlantic blasted the company’s belief in a headline that In 15 years, 90% of news stories will be written by algorithms.

But  I don’t buy it.

At the risk of having this thrown in my face 15 years from now, when I’m jobless and reading a news story on a library-issued tablet, I have issues with the argument that journalism – good journalism –  can be done by a robot. (And I realize I have a biased view here).

Sure there are algorithmic possibilities for the the ‘thumb-sucker’ story, there are stories that don’t need a lot of thought – like the ones that Levy outlines above (which I don’t think is that gripping a read to be honest). But at a time when news organizations are trying to connect with their audiences, a robot doesn’t cut it.

Connections are not borne out of formulae. Rather, it is the humanness of storytelling that creates that cherished connection between readers and reporters. The great reporters and story-tellers know this.

A story that moves us most tells details – the twitches, the smell of a person, their ticks. It understands irony, subtlety, nuance.

Words are not just ink on a page and pixels on a screen. They are carefully selected – crafted – to tell a tale.  In the right order, with the right pace, and in the right moment, they can make us laugh, cry and angry. Even, ahem, aroused.

They make us feel.

And no robot or algorithm can be created to do that.

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2 thoughts on “Why reporters can’t be replaced by robots and algorithms

  1. I’d like to believe this post…I do believe it is true of you…but I suspect you truly are in the minority…so much of what I read could be the result of an algorithm…and that’s true of major dailies and major networks…

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