P057: The Rise of the Journo-Bots

If you think for a minute that I’m going to let an article about robot journalists go without mention, you are sadly mistaken, friend. I found just such an article in today’s Nieman Lab Daily Digest that has Nick Diakopoulos asking a bunch of provocative questions about robots doing public interest journalism. For example:

There are obvious economic benefits to robot journalism, but aside from writing a pile of straight news articles in finance or sports could they one day serve higher-order public interest journalism? For instance, could such robot journalists bring or enhance a critical mass of attention and public pressure to important civic issues? How are such technologies going to change the public media sphere that we inhabit?

It’s important to start examining some of these issues because (surprise) viable bot journalism is already A Thing, at least when it comes to covering specific topics. Nieman Lab’s Fuego is a bot that monitors selected Twitter accounts and aggregates trending stories about the future of journalism. It’s a great bot and a great way to stay up to date in that arena.

But is it “journalism”?

After highlighting some interesting use cases, Diakopoulos makes the leap (as any good journalist would) and calls for transparency in sourcing from these journo-bots. Just as a human journalist gathers information from a wide variety of (hopefully credible) sources, a journalism bot requires input to produce its output. Think of it like having a discussion with your relative who only watches Fox News: if the input source is not credible, the generated output will be equally worthless.

On the surface, this sounds like it might be a tough problem for a computer to handle but then again, that is the entire basis of PageRank. Interestingly, we’ve already seen what news through the lens of PageRank looks like, and it’s not pretty. How to proceed?

Open always wins

The future of public interest robot journalism lies in the Open Source movement. Only when both the source material and the source code are laid bare for public examination can a robot be seen as a credible purveyor of news. For while it is important that the source material be useful and accurate, the algorithm that turns those sources into stories is the true heart of a robot.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron