Digital, not personal. It’s a bot time.

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Recent news that the Associated Press will begin using computers to generate stories on sporting events was received in the journalism community like a high-and-tight fastball.

This wasn’t just a courtesy brush back. It was meant to send a clear message — we are replacing you.

Count me among those unsuspecting (former) sportswriters who was knocked to the dirt only to get back up ready to defend my honor. Where’s the integrity in the news game?

AP has made it clear it doesn’t need humans for these basic jobs anymore. It’s hired Automated Insights, a company it invests in, that has given the wire service a sophisticated algorithm using the English language and statistics to fashion text. The company’s defense is that it can keep tabs on thousands of college and high school games without the burden of staffing.

AP also has let bots, using Wordsmith, write basic business stories, such as those announcing quarterly earnings. Meanwhile, Narrative Science writes business copy for a number of business publications and the Los Angeles Times.

The news closer to Ohio is that AP — or is it AIP (Artificial Intelligence Press)? — would use bots to write high school and college sports stories this coming season. That prompted a call from WOSU Radio to ask about the ethics of bot reporting, which later prompted a request for further comment from the Kiplinger Program for the OSU OnCampus publication. Here’s what we said:

With news recently that the Associated Press was continuing its trend toward having news stories computer generated, are there any concerns from the journalism community?

The AP has been talking about using bots to write sports stories for a few years now and that program will be making its way into Ohio shortly. It’s beyond the experimental stage.

For sports, there seems to be value in their eyes. Sports are laden with statistics and that makes for a more formulaic approach. You take numbers and create an algorithm for prose based abound numbers:football field
Peyton Manning threw for 328 yards and three touchdowns as the Denver Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns, 31-28 Sunday.

That seems easy enough to do.

What that story lead lacks is any sense of human element, other than Manning’s name.

What if he suffered an ankle injury in the first half and left the game only to lead a comeback?

Peyton Manning, hobbled for much of the game Sunday with an ankle injury, found a way to win another game in the fourth quarter. Throwing a touchdown with 32 second remaining, he led the Denver Broncos to a come-from-behind win over the Cleveland Browns, 31-28.

Much different approach — focusing on the human aspect.

Can you see this being applied for stories other than sports?

Sure. It’s already being done. There was an earthquake story generated by a Los Angeles Times computer program in three minutes. But, I believe any veteran reporter who has done this long enough could  have written that same story in his or her head in the same time.

But, here’s the big difference:  You have to pay a human and given them benefits. A bot doesn’t ask for that, and therein is lies the reasoning. The driving decision is to cut costs.

The biggest concern for journalists and the public is the lack of news judgment that takes place. I teach a basic reporting course at OSU and I’m always emphasizing the need for them to use sound news judgment. That’s not a bot characteristic. It comes from thinking though each situation and making ethical, legal and reasoned decisions.

I have a line I use in class: “You’re not a stenographer or a robot. Don’t be formulaic. Tell it as a journalist using news judgment.”

What are the ethics of bot-generated story telling? Is there a code for that?

Ethics codes are built from personalized, but collective, moral norms, which generally become standards for a group or society. Morals are inherent to humans. Unless this is a Hollywood movie where robots can think for themselves and do good or evil, codes won’t help.

They could help the decision makers about the value of bot stories. The ethics code for the Society of Professional Journalists talks about the media being responsible, courageous, respectful, compassionate and diligent, to name a few attributes. Those are now principles that one assigns to computers.

For all of their flaws, journalists are still the best means by which to “boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience,” as SPJ’s Ethics Code encourages us.

It should be noted that the AP has developed some ethical standards for this work aside from SPJ’s ethics code. Here’s a piece from the Standards Editor of AP, Tom Kent.







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