The Vancouver Sun reports today that the Los Angeles Times is already using robo-reporters for some of its content, thanks to a computer program developed by the newspaper’s digital editor Ken Schwencke.
Journalist Ken Schwencke has occasionally awakened in the morning to find his byline atop a news story he didn’t write.
No, it’s not that his employer, The Los Angeles Times, is accidentally putting his name atop other writers’ articles. Instead, it’s a reflection that Schwencke, digital editor at the respected U.S. newspaper, wrote an algorithm — that then wrote the story for him.
Instead of personally composing the pieces, Schwencke developed a set of step-by-step instructions that can take a stream of data — this particular algorithm works with earthquake statistics, since he lives in California — compile the data into a pre-determined structure, then format it for publication.
His fingers never have to touch a keyboard; he doesn’t have to look at a computer screen. He can be sleeping soundly when the story writes itself.
Just call him robo-reporter.
“I doubt that people who read our (web) posts — unless they religiously read the earthquake posts and realize they almost universally follow the same pattern — would notice,” Schwencke said. “I don’t think most people are thinking that robots are writing the news.”
But in this case, they are. And that has raised questions about the future of flesh-and-blood journalists, and about journalism ethics.
Algorithms are fairly versatile, and have been doing a great number of things we sometimes don’t even think about, from beating us at computerized chess, to auto-correcting our text messages.