PR Implications for the Growing Trend of Automation in Newsrooms

Close up of robot head

If you thought it was tough selling a story idea to a skeptical reporter, try making your next pitch to a heartless, steely-eyed robot journalist.

In a March 2014 Wired article titled, “Robots have mastered news writing. Goodbye journalism,” a study involving undergraduate students found a generative software news article held its own with one written by a real-life journalist. In fact, the automated story scored higher in areas such as trustworthy, objective and more accurate.

This obviously is not good news to the human reporters who have managed to survive the deep cuts made in recent years, particularly at newspapers.

“…when it comes to implication for the future of journalism we should keep in mind that the algorithms are getting better and better” says Christer Clerwall, assistant professor of media and communications at Karlstad University in Sweden.

He’s the guy who had students make the comparison. While not exactly a scientific study, it is interesting to consider the possibilities and implications of the growing trend toward automation in the newsroom.

  • Recently The Associated Press hired an automation editor, and a number of newsrooms are now using algorithms to help them with stories. Automating certain aspects of reporting is supposed to reduce the workload of reporters – AP estimates it saves 20% of the business desk’s time – and it provides them with new data resources, which in theory help human reporters do a better job of identifying and telling important stories.

As is the case with other industries, automation in the newsroom also means fewer human employees are needed. In fact, journalism is one of the nine professions singled out as being in jeopardy by the rising use of robots.

But loss of jobs isn’t the only concern. Automation “is raising new questions about what it means to encode news judgment in algorithms, how to customize stories to target specific audiences without making ethical missteps, and how to communicate these new efforts to audiences,” according to a Sept. 1, 2015, article about automation in the newsroom by NiemanReports.

The author, Celeste LeCompte, points out one benefit of automation is that it can actually help connect audiences more directly: “In June, journalists at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) rolled out a news app to accompany a series on earthquake preparedness in the state. The app, called Aftershock, provides a personalized report about the likely impacts of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake on any user’s location within the state, based on a combination of data sets.” That’s really getting local and personal.

Training the automated software brings challenges of its own, such as providing appropriate guidance in which metrics and data are most important for a particular story, and learning to navigate through a panoply of variables. (Think of the data and variables involved in GPS giving the quickest route from point A to B.)

At least one person in the comments section of the NiemanReports’ article was not impressed, writing, “Big deal. A vast majority of journalists were programmed by the left long ago.”

What are the implications for public relations professionals? Some of this could actually work in our favor. For example, I’ve seen reporters either refuse to do stories or do terribly one-sided coverage because of what I suspected was their personal bias on the subject matter. No such problem when dealing with a machine, unless bias is programmed into it.

Another benefit is that we wouldn’t have to be concerned about dealing with the occasional reporter with an enormous ego or one who is emotionally fragile and unloads on people when they call at the wrong time. If a story is a “logical” fit, pitching it to an objective robot could be a real plus.

Of course, if the robots get fed up enough with PR pitches, they may resort to their own automation: “To submit a story idea, press 1 and record at the beep; to share a news tip in 30 seconds or less, press 2; to request a correction, press 3….”

photo credit: Corpo Automi Robot via photopin (license)

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