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Good bot, bad bot: the future of automated journalism

Could a robot ever win a Pullitzer prize? That was the question posed by Helen McRae, Mindshare’s UK CEO, at one of the first Huddles of the day with Hugo Rifkind and Alexi Mostrous from The Times and Beth Rigby from Sky News.

The panel were in general agreement that there are certain elements of the job that can be commoditised. As Beth Rigby from Sky News put it: “You can commoditise the who, what, where and when of a story but not the why because it’s dependant on relationships.”

Whilst everyone agreed that there is a role for AI in journalism, a robot is a long way away from developing contacts and persuading people to give away information that they wouldn’t normally do. The recent Paradise Papers story is a case in point. There hasn’t been a huge amount of human contact to get the story but the human analysis side is where the stories are coming from. As Alexi put it: “A robot couldn’t have come up with the Prince Charles angle.”

By News UK team.

The more worrying role that AI plays in journalism is the rise in the dissemination of fake news.  Whilst it has led to a flight to quality with increase in subscriptions to news outlets such as New York Times and The Times, it does make journalism easier to fake. Hugo Rifkind pointed out that the more you outsource to algorithms the harder it is to control. The extreme version of this is the hugely politicised state-backed propaganda stories that have a grain of truth and which are harnessed by social media.

Ultimately, the future for automated journalism comes down to the need for instinct versus analysis. Journalists will all agree that instinct plays a significant role in their work and the ability to identify whether something smells right. Alexi summed it up well when he said that “robots are nowhere near being able to behave in the way that humans deal with other humans.”