How Automated Journalism and Loss of Reading Privacy May Hurt Civil Discourse

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March 19 2012 7:11 AM

A Robot Stole My Pulitzer!

How automated journalism and loss of reading privacy may hurt civil discourse.

Journalist with typewriter
Automated journalism like that produced by Narrative Science could perhaps save media jobs, but it can also hurt civil discourse

William Gottlieb/Library of Congress.

Can technology be autonomous? Does it lead a life of its own and operate independently of human guidance? From the French theologian Jacques Ellul to the Unabomber, this used to be widely accepted. Today, however, most historians and sociologists of technology dismiss it as naive and inaccurate.

Yet the world of modern finance is increasingly dependent on automated trading, with sophisticated computer algorithms finding and exploiting pricing irregularities that are invisible to ordinary traders.

Meanwhile, Forbes—one of financial journalism’s most venerable institutions—now employs a company called Narrative Science to automatically generate online articles about what to expect from upcoming corporate earnings statements. Just feed it some statistics and, within seconds, the clever software produces highly readable stories. Or, as Forbes puts it, “Narrative Science, through its proprietary artificial intelligence platform, transforms data into stories and insights.”

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Don't miss the irony here: Automated platforms are now “writing” news reports about companies that make their money from automated trading. These reports are eventually fed back into the financial system, helping the algorithms to spot even more lucrative deals. Essentially, this is journalism done by robots and for robots. The only upside here is that humans get to keep all the cash.

Narrative Science is one of several companies developing automated journalism software. These startups work primarily in niche fields—sports, finance, real estate—in which news stories tend to follow the same pattern and revolve around statistics. Now they are entering the political reporting arena, too. A new service from Narrative Service generates articles about how the U.S. electoral race is reflected in social media, what issues and candidates are most and least discussed in a particular state or region, and similar topics. It can even incorporate quotes from the most popular and interesting tweets into the final article. Nothing covers Twitter better than the robots.

It's easy to see why Narrative Science’s clients—the company says it has 30—find it useful. First of all, it's much cheaper than paying full-time journalists who tend to get sick and demand respect. As reported in the New York Times last September, one of Narrative Science's clients in the construction industry pays less than $10 per 500-word article—and there is no one to fret about the terrible working conditions. And that article takes only a second to compose. Not even Christopher Hitchens could beat that deadline. Second, Narrative Science promises to be more comprehensive—and objective—than any human reporter. Few journalists have the time to find, process, and analyze millions of tweets, but Narrative Science can do so easily and, more importantly, instantaneously. It doesn't just aim to report fancy statistics—it attempts to understand what those numbers mean and communicate this significance to the reader. Would Narrative Science have unmasked the Watergate? Probably not. But then most news stories are easier to report and decipher.

Narrative Science’s founders claim that they simply want to help—not exterminate!—journalism, and they may very well be sincere. Reporters are likely to hate their guts, but some publishers, ever concerned with paying the bills, would surely embrace them with open arms. In the long run, however, the civic impact of such technologies—which are only in their infancy today—may be more problematic.

If there is one unambiguous trend in how the Internet is developing today, it's the drive toward the personalization of our online experience. Everything we click, read, search, and watch online is increasingly the result of some delicate optimization effort, whereby our previous clicks, searches, “likes,” purchases, and interactions determine what appears in our browsers and apps.

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