Robo-hacks: The death knell for journalism as we know it?

By Jack McCormick

14th July 2017

The robots are taking over. They’re stealing jobs in most sectors, but what about that bastion of human civilisation, the free press? Surely by its very nature news reporting should remain the preserve of the homo sapien brain, equipped as we are to understand cultural nuances and contextualise information?

Well, apparently not, if Google and the Press Association (PA) have anything to do with it. The all-conquering tech company has handed the newswire more than £600,000 to fund a project that will see a team of ‘robot reporters’ producing a staggering 30,000 stories for local media outlets every month.

RADAR (Reporters and Data and Robots) “will draw on open data sets on the internet and use natural Language Generation software to produce their copy,” according to Business Insider. PA has said it will create ‘story templates’ to aid reporting across topics including crime, health and employment, with data drawn from government departments, local authorities, NHS Trusts and the like.

Where local reporting is concerned, the partnership makes sense. Regional newspapers are shutting down at an alarming rate, or cutting staff numbers to frankly unworkable lows. The Johnston Press-owned paper I cut my teeth at – and one I delivered to hundreds of readers in my village as a teenager – operates with a skeleton staff. Today, my former editor oversees several different outlets instead of focusing on making a single title the best it can be.

If there’s too much going on in local communities for humans alone to cover adequately, using technology to help seems like a logical step. Pete Clifton, editor-in-chief at PA, said: “At a time when many media outlets are experiencing commercial pressures, RADAR will provide the news ecosystem with a cost-effective way to provide incisive local stories, enabling audiences to hold democratic bodies to account.”

PA’s motto is ‘fast, fair and accurate’, and you’d expect a machine to grasp those first two relatively easily. Accuracy, however, will likely prove a challenge. In fact, robots have already been caught out—the Los Angeles Times’ ‘quakebot’ program automatically published a story about a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in California in June after a notification was accidentally sent by the US Geological Survey. Worse still, the report was dated 2025 and referred to an event that happened 100 years prior, yet the robot in charge spotted neither mistake.

As it stands, and especially in the era of fake news, the whole system sounds somewhat easy to game (I’m offering a beer for the first PR who manages to trick a robot into publishing an outrageously positive client story). Indeed, Google and PA recognise the pitfalls and will employ humans to oversee the operation.

But it’s the last eight words of Clifton’s statement that jars with me: “…enabling audiences to hold democratic bodies to account.” As Neil Thurman, a lecturer in communication at City, University of London has pointed out, a key part of local reporting is court stories—I’ve spent enough time furiously writing shorthand in court (not guilty, your honour!) to know the complexity of the reporting process and the strict rules journalists must abide by.

Can an algorithm really weigh up all sides of a story to avoid ‘jigsaw’ identification of victims of sexual offences? Will they learn and correctly apply Section 49 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933? And how would they stand up in court to argue against a defendant’s anonymity in the public interest?

Thurman also told the BBC: “You can’t really cover [local government] through automation because it’s a lot about investigation, politics, personal relationships, who has said what to whom and so forth—it’s difficult to get that information in data feed form.”

More to the point, will a robot reporter hold authorities to account by persistently asking difficult questions? And, created under the watchful eye of Google, would they have reported in a fair and unbiased way the company being fined $2.4bn in a landmark EU antitrust ruling last month?

There remain many questions to be answered, and I’ll be watching with interest as the programme moves forward in the coming years. But does this sound the death knell for journalism as we know it? Probably not.