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Robo-journalism could replace hundreds of jobs at Thomson Reuters - study

Artificial intelligence technology is to be rolled out more widely in media organisations and has the potential to replace "hundreds" of journalists at Thomson Reuters alone, according to an academic study.

Journalists at Reuters and other news organisations believe “robo-journalists” do not have a good nose for news and produce one-dimensional stories, the research project at German and Swiss universities found.

In an exploratory study, researchers Neil Thurman and Jessica Kunert of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Munich and Konstantin Dörr of University of Zurich interviewed journalists and executives from CNN, BBC, Thomson Reuters, Trinity Mirror, and News UK.

The journalists were given hands-on experience with robo-writing software during a workshop. Robo-journalism is software that converts structured data into stories with limited or no human intervention beyond the initial programming. It is used by news organisations including the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, and Forbes.

The journalists believe robo-journalism’s reliance on data streams and the need to program news angles in advance means the stories produced lack the context, complexity, and creativity of much traditional reporting.

They also think the need to template robo-written stories in advance is a drawback.

A BBC journalist said “you cannot get a reaction to those numbers, you cannot explain or interrogate them because the story template was written before the numbers came out” and concluded, after using robo-writing technology first hand, it was not worth the BBC researching the technology further.

In spite of its limitations, automated journalism will expand, underlining the need for critical, contextualised journalism, the researchers found.

Journalists at Reuters and CNN thought it could "reduce costs" by replacing "expensive staff" who are doing "fairly simplistic and time-consuming work”.

A Reuters journalist believed automation could improve speed and accuracy, and said "we are looking at it in all parts of the company”.

Another Reuters journalist said automation will be used for stories they do not "have the resources to cover manually" or for topics currently below the reporting threshold.

Robo-journalism was seen as something that could both support and threaten journalistic objectivity.

Thurman said in the report published in the international peer-reviewed journal Digital Journalism: ”The increased volume of news resulting from automation may make it more difficult to navigate a world already saturated with information and actually increase the need for the very human skills that good journalists embody - news judgement, curiosity, and skepticism - in order that we can all continue to be informed, succinctly, comprehensively, and accurately, about the world around us.” ■

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