A text-generating “bot” nicknamed Tobi produced nearly 40,000 news stories about the results of the November 2018 elections in Switzerland for the media giant Tamedia — in just five minutes. These kinds of artificial intelligence programmes — available for nearly a decade — are becoming more widespread as news organisations turn to them to produce stories, personalise news delivery and in some cases sift through data to find important news. Tobi wrote on vote results for each of Switzerland’s 2,222 municipalities, in both French and German, for the country’s largest media group, according to a paper presented last month at the Computation + Journalism conference in Miami.
A similar automated programme called Heliograf has enabled The Washington Post daily to cover some 500 election races, along with local sports and business, since 2014.
“We’ve seen a greater acceptance of the potential for artificial intelligence, or robo-journalism, in newsrooms around the world,” said Damian Radcliffe, a University of Oregon professor who follows consumer trends and business models for journalism.
“These systems can offer speed and accuracy and potentially support the realities of smaller newsrooms and the time pressures of journalists.”
News organisations say the bots are not intended to displace human reporters or editors but rather to help free them from the most monotonous tasks, such as sports results and earnings reports.
Jeremy Gilbert, Director of strategic initiatives at The Washington Post, said Heliograf was developed as a tool to help the newspaper’s editorial team. “The Post has an incredible team of reporters and editors and we didn’t want to replace them,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said the bot can deliver and update stories more quickly as they develop, allowing reporters to concentrate on other tasks, and that reaction has been generally positive.
“The surprise was that a lot of people came up and said, ‘I do this story every week; is this something we can automate?’” Gilbert said. “These weren’t stories that anyone wanted to do.”
Similar conversations are going on in newsrooms around the world. The Norwegian news agency NTB automated sports reports to get match results delivered within 30 seconds.
The Los Angeles Times developed a “quakebot” that quickly distributes news articles on temblors in the region and also uses an automated system as part of its Homicide Report.
The Associated Press has been automating quarterly earnings reports for some 3,000 listed companies. — AFP