The programmable journalist — On the future of news publishing

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In a world where speed and availability become more and more important, it is nearly impossible for quality journalism to keep up with the demands of its recipients. Whether we talk about Brexit or terrorist attacks, the developments in Turkey or the US elections — having unlimited access to the latest information on any topic has become a matter of course in our western society. And sometimes, being the first to publish affects the quality of research. It is human to make mistakes in this constant publishing race and even journalists are subject to their human nature. So if said human beings were replaced by machines, would it guarantee a better quality of news publishing?

According to Kristian Hammond, chief technology officer of Narrative Science, the answer to this question is rather simple. “A computer will win a Pulitzer Prize in five years,” he says in an interview with MarketWatch and emphasises the fast technological progress concerning robo-workers. “I can’t give you all the details yet, but the technology is amazing.” It is so amazing that machines are able to generate content based on a data feed and algorithms much faster than human beings. What sounds futuristic at first is already daily routine when it comes to financial reports. “We remove the emotion from investing and make it as scientific as possible,” says Paul Henneman, founder of ValueEngine, a company for computer-driven research.

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But is removing emotions the right decision when it comes to journalism? After all, journalism is not scientific. The quintessence of high-quality news publishing is to question the status quo and to highlight grievances. It is not enough to print an article on the imprisonment of members of the opposition party in Turkey without contextualising the events and view them with regard to prior developments. And in order to question political correctness, journalists need an understanding of moral codes, news factors, and selection criteria depending on their cultural surroundings. A machine might be able to act after a generalised algorithm, but there will be delicate situations in which even journalists struggle to make the right choice. Situations wherein consequences of a publication will have to be taken into consideration.

Wikileaks is an outstanding example when it comes to automatic publishing. When the whistleblowing website leaked confidential documents about US diplomats without pre-editing, people lost their lives due to the lack of anonymity professional journalism would have guaranteed. While such an event could be avoided with programmed robots, flawless operation cannot be taken for granted, not only when it comes to security concerns or possible consequences. Sometimes, it is a matter of approach. Edward Snowden, for instance, did contact Guardian journalists because he had the data and the information, but he didn’t know how to break it to the masses. In order to make a topic approachable for a human mind, a human mind is needed as the “thinking process” of a machine is very much different from ours.

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In order to better understand the crucial differences between robotic minds and those of humans, we need to take a look at the history of technology. In his publication Computing Machinery and Intelligence from 1950, the inventor of the first computer, Alan Turing, writes on digital intelligence that “most of the programmes which we can put into a machine will result in its doing something that we cannot make sense”. In his paper, Turing discusses the question whether machines can think and he comes to the conclusion that digital intelligence cannot be compared to the human mind. In an experiment consisting of a dialogue between a machine and a man/woman, called “The Imitation Game”, the digital mind might able to imitate human behaviour if programmed to do so, but when it comes to complex matters, the answers given by the machine no longer make sense since they are not interpreted correctly.

So can a computer win a Pulitzer Prize in the near future? It might be awarded a prize for technological progress, but most certainly not for high-quality content. Journalism is not a profession with as high degree standards as medicine, but not everybody who works in journalism will produce the content it takes to win a Pulitzer Prize either. Education, training, and years of experience shape good journalism and if robots will take over one day, they will need the same amount of programming and algorithm training a human being would need. Therefore, it is debatable whether it is advisable to invest in this kind of technology or not, at least when it comes to news coverage. For now, robo-journalists are merely a futuristic vision but someday, they may be sitting on the desk next to us.

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