Writing a one column news story with the W's – Who, What, Where – is for most journalists just routine. These news stories are not long and are written using a fixed template. You could use this template again; just replace the data for a new story. Can you teach this trick to a computer? Writing by the computer is a matter of using a good algorithm; using certain words in sentences in the paragraph order of the news article. However you have add the data yourself, unless these data come also from a computer.
Published Memeburn: http://memeburn.com/2014/03/what-a-californian-earthquake-can-teach-us-about-the-future-of-journalism/
On Monday March 17 an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.4 on Richter's scale shook California according to the LA Times. The story was written by Quakebot, developed by Ken Schencke, programmer at the LA Times, reports Will Oremus of Slate. Earthquakes are recorded by the US Geografical Survey(USGS). When a quake occurs, the data are picked up by the Quakebot who uses this information in a predefined template to write the story and stores it in the content management system of the newspapers. Here it is:
A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.
According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater centered nearby.
This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.
At the same time the algorithm sends an e-message to the human editor, who can publish the story with push on a button. Of course not all earthquakes are handled in this way; a magnitude less than 3 is too small to have an impact and therefore neglected.
The Quakebot is not completely replacing journalists. The first story written by the algorithm is just the opening of a developing news story. Journalists will start their investigations: checking damage or interviewing sources about their experiences. The original quake story was 71 times updated and become at the end of the day an extended news story based on human reporting. The Quakebot is therefore an interesting supplement to the work of journalists. It works as a news alert which can be published immediately and followed up in due course.
The LA times has done more experiments with automated journalism. Well known is the homicide report, a crime map of the latest homicide in LA based of police data, showing who has murdered, where and how; regularly accompanied with a picture of the victim. This is not a news article but a map with pinpoints and data which tell the story about the latest homicide. And again these pinpoints on the map could become the beginning of a developing news story. The homicide report started seven years ago is and is since 2009 an independent start-up supporting the LA Times.
There is more information that could immediately be transformed into a standardized news story; think about unemployment figures, sports results or financial data. Forbes.com for example employs algorithms developed by Narrative Science to write automatic financial news stories. Automated reporting is possible as long as the data fits in the set of rules of the algorithm. Robots in the newsroom are faster and save time for the human reporter to the actual journalistic work.
There are some challenging questions: who is liable in case the bot makes a mistake? A journalists always checks his data, but the bot does not; for example reporting a policeman was shot dead, but later it appeared he was severely wounded. The law will follow later.
Robots in the newsroom are the beginning of a new development in journalism. Data journalism is already on its way to conquer the quality and in depth reporting. But the amount of data is growing and journalists need a first report, a news alert, from these data in order to start an investigation. For example about crime patterns. Growing mountain of data will be an incentive for automated journalism and more robo journo's
Bots and other cutting-edge tools used by innovative journalists today will be the topic of a discussion panel at the 15th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), titled “Bots, drones, sensors, wearables, etc.: The new tools for journalists.” ISOJ will take place on April 4 and 5 at the University of Texas at Austin.
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