Journalism and AI: a complicated but inevitable relationship
20 February 2019 | Written by Stefano Tenedini
Fast, efficient and always better writing: in a while, we will not understand if the news has written by a reporter or an algorithm. The technology does not stop, so it is up to the professionals of the information to understand and favour a positive evolution.
How much silence in the newsrooms of the future, indeed, already today. Journalists are silent, do not call, even the PC keyboards have disappeared, and the software goes online alone to publish the articles. “It is the press. In fact, artificial intelligence, baby, and you cannot do anything about it”, Humphrey Bogart would say today over the rattling of the presses. The algorithms produce the news automatically instead of journalists (more or less) human: the programs organize, interpret and present the data in a narrative way, with a gradually more refined quality. The AI analyses a mine of data chooses from an archive the right structure for the article puts in order key points, details, names, places, numbers, statistics and releases the article. Not bad.
Opportunity or risks? This journalism would be perfect in “The Pronipotes” by Hanna and Barbera, and we must get used to it. Perhaps the texts generated by the machine cannot yet win the Pulitzer, but the boundary between humans and bots is increasingly confused. There are those who consider it a way to free the editors from the routine work to devote themselves to insights articles, others see an improvement in costs and efficiency. But the information-robot also threatens the authoritativeness and veracity of the news and makes precarious work in a sector already in trouble for free news (even if often fake) provided by the social media.
According to Wired “for journalism on 23 January 2019, it was a Black Wednesday”. Only in the US, BuzzFeed has fired 15% of the workforce, 220 people, and Verizon (owner of Huffington Post, Yahoo News and many other newspapers) announced the cut of about 800 jobs: a thousand places went up in smoke. However, the impact of automation will be limited: for now, an algorithm can only combine data and figures and compose synthetic articles that follow a rigidly predefined pattern. Information requires investigation, analysis, interviews, elaborations and reflections: it can only be born from a human, and it will be so for a very long time.
An inevitable cohabitation. The relationship between media and artificial intelligence is, in short, complicated, but also inevitable and useful. If the potential ethical and deontological risks are faced, journalism itself can benefit from it. However, reporters should not turn their backs and take an active role in this context. Let us ask ourselves what we want the AI to do for us journalists: how do we think it can help us to do our job better? How do we want tomorrow’s journalism? You think little about the real problem, the skills: it is already hard to understand information technology, let alone reasoning with artificial intelligence. Only sensationalism remains: “Terminator is among us, computers govern the world, we will all die, let’s stop them!”
The future of journalism. The journalist must understand the logic of the AI to be still involved in the production of news. The editors must learn to use artificial intelligence also because “the function of journalism and its authoritativeness is at stake”, they say to the Associated Press. Algorithms can help reporters find and process news faster. The agency in 2019 aims to generate at least 40 thousand news from automatic models, especially in the sectors of economics and sport and is considering how to operate with images. The NHK Japanese think of virtual TV presenters, and the Finnish agency STT already puts online international news online, automatically translated in a few seconds. Investigative reporters can scour mountains of data, and policy-makers intercept trends between thousands of tweets and posts.
Of course, the “bad guys” use AI to create and spread misinformation. However, journalists can use the same tools to fight them. Just remember that for now, the robots are not the journalists of the future, but their assistants (even if awake and fast). It is up to us to decide if the innovations will replace us or support us in unpredictable challenges.