By Jatin Bavishi
Much of the younger generation grew up watching their father or grandfather spend an important portion of their morning hours reading the newspaper. Some also witnessed their utter dismay and restlessness if the newspaper delivery guy dared to turn up late.
Journalism is eulogised as the fourth pillar of a mature democracy as it performs the important role of disseminating information to the masses. A fundamental principle of democracy is freedom of choice, and this choice is contingent upon the availability of information. Until two decades back, newspapers enjoyed a virtual monopoly over this aspect. However, with the coming of the digital age, their space within the news market is being curtailed.
Google leads the race
Technology has definitely helped improve the reach of information, as well as opened vast possibilities of curating it to suit the taste of readers. Despite this, we might witness a new trend in the way we understand journalism. In July 2017, the Press Association (PA), a news agency based in the UK, received £622,000 from Google for its Reporters and Data and Robots (RADAR) scheme. The goal of RADAR is to automate the writing of 30,000 local news pieces a month. The money comes from the Digital News Initiative of Google, which plans to invest $170 million to support digital innovation in European newsrooms. The PA said to BBC News that RADAR will benefit “established media outlets”, independent publishers, and local bloggers. Various reports by credible sources (such as the World Bank) have already predicted that automation might be responsible for approximately 40% of all job loss in the next decade. Journalism was previously considered a sanctuary against this deluge, but the present funding has created apprehension amongst writers.
To be fair, even the PA would still require services of labour. Their editor Pete Clifton clarified to BBC that “Skilled human journalists will still be vital in the process, but RADAR allows us to harness artificial intelligence to scale up to a volume of local stories that would be impossible to provide manually”. Most enterprises that claim to be using algorithms have suggested that it will take time before robots could possibly completely replace writers.
In fact, they see writers not as rivals, but as clients. Currently, these algorithms are used primarily as a tool to overcome “writer’s block”. A professional writer from London who has been using content writing software for a while now has said that the software has reduced the time taken to write his articles. Earlier, he had to spend the time to learn about the topic, look for relevant resources, highlight main concepts, summarise them and rewrite them. With new technology, that is no longer needed.
Journalism has various categories, and automation might be most relevant for journalism that is data-driven. The availability of cheap and high-quality data has improved exponentially thanks to the penetration of the internet. Analytics India Magazine observed that even for the journalists hired for RADAR, their task is to help identify “data-sets” and curate and edit news articles generated with the help of software. Speaking on behalf of professional journalism, Dr Neil Thurman says that rather than a surge in data alerts, local news consumers may be more interested in a boost of carefully created news and analysis. He points out that this remains the domain of human journalists. Moreover, information is subject to politics and personal relationships with the source—something which cannot be automated.
The generalist vs. the specialist
The Hungarian Economist Tibor Scitovsky in his popular book Joyless Economy (1976) suggests a distinction between specialists and generalists. Briefly, the specialist has a specified objective and repeats the same task routinely, but in the process achieves expertise that augments efficiency. The generalist, on the other hand, has broad goals which are consequentially difficult to quantify in terms of results. They rely highly on judgement, knowledge, wisdom, and experience. Automated content would enable the creation of specific content, but journalists are the “perennial generalists”.
Moreover, the flood of fake news, doctored videos, and unsubstantiated inflammatory news content can create hurdles in the path of algorithms to create reliable information. Algorithms lack the theoretically good sense of judgement that the human mind possesses to segregate fact from rumour.
‘Humanising’ technology or ‘mechanizing’ humans?
Job loss to intelligent automation is a critical topic. In an interview with The Economic Times, Garry Kasparov, a World Champion at the age of 22 in 1985 and a flag-bearer for human intelligence in matches against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue (Kasparov won the first match in 1996 but lost the rematch in 1997), said that the evolution of human civilisation is the replacement of human labour by technology. It is essential and makes our lives better, more comfortable, and more productive.
When it comes to journalism, we can expect sophisticated technology complementing reporting, but on the question of complete replacement, we will have to wait. It will likely be a significant amount of time before we can artificially engineer commercially viable ways to foster innately human qualities like creativity and judgement.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius