OPB’s John Sepulvado recently interviewed me for a story on robo-journalism. The piece led with The Upshot’s “Best and Worst Places to Grow Up,” a dynamically written story which I also wrote about a couple of days of before. In both, I shared my excitement about how technology is evolving as a tool to help us connect our work with communities.
What was left on the cutting room floor in the OPB piece was my response to the question: should we worry about robots taking our jobs. Especially as a professor of practice in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, how would I respond to budding journalists? My knee-jerk reaction even before the interview would have been this: algorithmically written pieces were only in the realm of transforming raw data into readable articles such as agate narratives in earnings reports and sporting events — as demonstrated in the Planet Money piece, Episode 622: Humans vs. Robot. (But I thought Scott Horsley beat the machine with his more entertaining narrative.)
Yet in preparing for the interview, I was surprised by how much the technology has improved since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. Take this NYT quiz, “Did a Human or a Computer Write This?,” as an example. One can extrapolate how technology will evolve as a tool in the next decade.
What, Me Worry?
So my answer to that question is this: If you believe that your primary job is to write stories, then yes, you should probably be concerned by the prediction from Kristian Hammond of Narrative Science that 90 percent of news will be algorithmically generated in 10 years.
But if you believe that your job as a journalist is to enhance public knowledge and enrich civic life (via API’s Journalism Essentials), then I think you should realize writing is simply one of the tools you have at your disposal. It is equally — if not more — important to ask the right questions, listen authentically, engage and collaborate with communities, provide context, and identify other ways to advance the narrative and the conversation for meaningful impact. All of this is in service of building a stronger democracy.
Let me be clear: I am not discounting the importance of a well-written story. The Times’ recent “The Price of Nice Nails” story was both well reported and written. The investigation obviously connected and shocked many Times readers by clearly revealing the exploitation happening right under our noses. Identifying this issue, connecting with affected communities and gaining their trust to share their stories is journalism. Algorithms can’t do that.
What Might the Future Hold
But looking into the crystal ball, robots will do more of our everyday tasks. And in many of these cases, the technology will make our journalism better. Especially if we consider algorithms for what they are: tools of the trade.
Let’s take Sarah Maslin Nir’s nails story and ask what would be possible if we looked at robo-journalism as a means to connect more people. And what would happen if we extended the customization as used in The Upshot piece to the semantic web and gathered more big data from our habits and behavior. Not only would it recognize my geographic location and map the nearest nail salon, but it could also, perhaps, reveal the cost of their services. It could scour your check-ins on Foursquare/Swarm and/or map your daily commute from home to work to list how many salons you pass every day. I applaud The Times’ effort (and ability) to write the story in multiple languages. What if algorithms rewrote the story based on your current reading level to increase access? (I explicitly meant “current,” as I do not want to encourage dumbing-down stories.)
Enriching Civic Life
But I want to go deeper. I’m keen to explore how the semantic web can help make stronger communities. What if my Facebook feed visualized those in my network who were also touched by this story and, perhaps, are connected to affected community members. And that group becomes a community of interest that is incentivized and empowered to help find a solution together.
I don’t dismiss the creepiness factor here. We, as an industry, clearly need to establish ethical and transparency guidelines. And getting all of this data structured in way for meaningful connections and conclusions requires an enormous amount of collaboration and, perhaps, some regulation.
There’s immense positive value in using algorithms to write a part of our stories to reach community members on an individual basis and for our journalism to enhance public knowledge and enrich civic life for all.
Andrew DeVigal is an endowed chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement at University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication’s Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. He is also co-founder of A Fourth Act, maker of Harvis. Agora Journalism Center is devoted to transformative advancements for better journalism and stronger democracy.