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Ten reporters from a range of news organisations, including Thomson Reuters, the BBC and CNN, offered their views on automated journalism in a study led by Professor Neil Thurman of LMU Munich and City, University of London.
The journalists, who cover beats such as crime, sports and finance and have various levels of seniority, shared their opinions with researchers after trying out automated journalism software from a leading (but unnamed) technology provider. The participants independently created template stories into which data were then inserted automatically.
"Repetitive… limiting… boring"
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they weren’t exactly blown away by the resulting articles. “I would never, ever, ever have written a story like that,” a BBC journalist said, while a senior sports journalist at CNN called the output “throw-away and repetitive”. A Sun journalist was concerned about the lack of a human angle, arguing that stories were pretty dull unless they were about people.
Left unimpressed with the quality of the content, the journalists also criticised the idea of creating a template story in advance.
“How limiting writing everything in advance is. You can’t get a reaction to those numbers, you can’t explain or interrogate them, because you wrote it all before the numbers came out,” a BBC journalist said.
Some found producing a news story this way irritating and unintuitive, and bemoaned the lack of creativity in the process. “I can’t tell you how bored I was. It is essentially computer programming and I hate computer programming,” was the verdict of a BBC reporter.
Potential for reducing costs and increasing speed
Yet, despite these negative reactions, many journalists saw the potential positives in implementing automated journalism in newsrooms, such as reducing costs, increasing speed, and serving readers with personalised content.
“You could automatically generate a story about, for example, Leicester vs Liverpool [a soccer match] and send a different version of the story to Liverpool and Leicester, and have a third one for neutrals,” a Reuters sports journalist said.
It was also seen as complementary to a reporter’s work, with two senior sports writers from the same organisation suggesting that “the first stage of the news cycle, the straightforward facts, could be automated,” with the human journalist coming in “further up the value chain.”
Not limited to sports
At Reuters in particular, automated journalism appears to be on the rise. Indeed, as one senior sports journalist put it, “we’re looking at it in all parts of the company.”
He said Reuters was developing a product “mainly for mobile devices,” in partnership with a US-based technology company, to cover US sports. Slideshow-style videos would be created automatically from photos, with narration “extracted” from an “automated three-paragraph story.”
And the use of robo-journalism isn’t limited to sports reporting. A financial journalist said the company is “looking extensively” at automation in the finance sector, with another adding that quite a lot of “snaps” – news alerts that are sent out before a full story is published – are already automated.
“Robo-journalism is limited in its ability to provide the contemporaneous context that is essential to much reporting, to understand the nuances of human expression that help determine how events are reported, and to consistently recognize the most important news angle,” Thurman writes in the report's conclusion.
”However, we believe it will be used more often to produce simple factual reports, increase the speed with which such reports are published, and cover topics currently below the threshold of reportability,” he writes.