Rise Of The Machine Journalist: Stories written by software during the general election

Initially it might look like another scenario to add to all the dystopian prophecies out there  – computers taking over the role of journalists.

On Saturday’s Newswatch, BBC News Labs editor Robert McKenzie talked about one of his department’s projects which saw computers being used to write stories during the general election.

-Constituents of Aberdeen South misled in general election according to losing candidate Lumsden

How computers were used to produce stories during the GE

Mr McKenzie explained that computers decided which stories were written during result night at last year’s winter election campaign.

“We worked out what possible combination of stories might come up in every constituency, all the possible permutations we could think of, then we wrote all of these in a piece of software.  So you write in advance different sentences, different phrases which will appear according to the results, and as the results come in (the computer) controls which stories get written.”

Mr McKenzie stressed that while computers wrote the stories everything was checked by a human with someone always “in the loop”.

A story attributed to automation on BBC News
BBC Labs Robert McKenzie said “we think it’s very important to be clear how stories are created”

Other types of stories automated journalism could be used for

BBC Labs hasn’t just used automated produced stories for the general election.  A year ago stories were produced reporting on A&E waiting times in the East of England. 

Automated systems allowed McKenzie and his team to produce a report on every hospital trust in the East of England which could then be compared to national targets.

Robert McKenzie, part of the team pioneering automation in journalism at the BBC

Another industry taken over by automation

It’s the dreaded fear for workers – their job taken over by a faster more efficient computer that, most significantly, doesn’t need to be paid.

When asked whether automation would be used to “get rid of journalists” Mr McKenzie responded by saying this would not happen.

“I would say that’s not the case.  We wrote 650 stories in English and 40 in Welsh during the general election.  That would never have been possible without humans.”

Automation is already heavily used in the car and building sectors. In banking Deutsche Bank announced last summer it would axe 18,000 jobs as part of a new business model.

The lender is aiming to automate large parts of its back office through a project called Operations 4.0.  In this system algorithms would be used to automate hundreds of back-office processes.

It’s estimated 1.7 million jobs have been lost through automation worldwide

Automation – an aide rather than an enemy

Our hope is that we will be in a situation where we can provide much more coverage about everything. You will be able to get a much more personal view of what is going on in your neighbourhood as a result of data journalism like this.

In journalism the BBC Labs editor sees automation as an aide to the journalist rather than a replacement. 

The areas it can help include:

  • Face recognition technology: photographs can be checked to make sure the correct photo is used for the correct story.   
  • Verification: Using metadata computers can check dates and places where information was retrieved.  

This all amounts to saving journalists something they are always short of – time.  But McKenzie sees the ultimate goal of automation as improving content for the viewer.

“As far as I’m concerned what automation is here for is to add to the range of BBC journalism, not to substitute for journalists doing journalism.

“It can help journalists in a hurry and we could be in a situation where we can provide much more coverage about everything from traffic accidents to local crime figures, education outcomes to Ofsted reports.”

McKenzie did warn that automation isn’t fail safe. Computers still need to be programmed by people meaning there’s always an element of human error involved.

Back to the future with a more personalised service

Asked where he sees automation and journalism in five years Mr McKenzie didn’t make any concrete predictions but envisioned a future news service that was much more personal.

“Nothing is certain with technology but our hope is that you will be able to get a much more personal view of what is going on in your neighbourhood as a result of data journalism like this.”

Do you think automation is good for journalism or is it a threat to people’s jobs?  Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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