I was weaving my way through Washington, D.C. traffic last week on the way to a client meeting when I caught an interesting story on 1A radio about “Artificial Intelligence. Real News?” For once, sitting in the car for an extended period is going to be a good thing, I thought. Excellent.
My ears initially perked when I heard about the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the royal wedding coverage transforming some of today’s major newsrooms. The panel of guests was impressive: The Washington Post Artificial intelligence guru Jeremy Gilbert; Nick Rockwell chief technology officer at The New York Times; Rubina Madan Fillion, director of audience engagement for The Intercept; and John Keefe, a developer at Quartz Bot Studio, professor at CUNY Grad School of Journalism and former editor of Data News at WNYC.
I really encourage you to listen to the whole program because this short post alone really can’t do justice to the range of interesting topics the guests covered — including the future of storytelling, reporting ethics, the newsroom of the future and more. However, what struck me the most is the delicate balance newsrooms need to strike between resource allocation and reporting quality.
The Washington Post made some very strong arguments around how AI can automate simple, data-driven writing tasks — like corporate quarterly earnings or sports scores — so that staff can be freed up to write the more in-depth and investigative pieces that the publication is known for. That’s why they’ve enlisted the help of an in-house automated storytelling platform called Heliograf. By contrast, The New York Times rebuffed the idea of “robo-reporting” by essentially saying that their editorial goal is to not cover the type of story that any old robot could write anyhow.
Guests also talked about the potential for AI to help do the legwork, together with humans. For example, chatbots can field inquiries about a story, or AI can sort through data sets so a reporter can have a head start on analysis without getting mired in the number crunching. But that also brought up the challenges of data bias and “what ever happened to talking to people” in terms of digging into the truth and writing something newsworthy.
These are troubling questions, given how strong AI has become. For example, I had recently checked out bot or not, a Turing test for poetry, and was having serious angst about my inability to distinguish between computer and human-generated verses (for shame!). So what does this mean for the media industry and brand content developers alike?
The takeaway is that there’s a time for pure facts and then there’s time for telling a story, and there are avenues for AI and human news-gathering that correspond with each depending on the audience. True investigative journalism and thought leadership as a whole can’t be fudged or fabricated by a machine. Original thought, emotion, judgment and the ability to adjust questions based on verbal feedback or even interviewee body language would be difficult or near impossible for AI, as we know it today, to pull off.
It’s like when I once I asked my mother, who was a technical patent translator in her day, what she thought about Google Translate and sites like Babel Fish. She laughed and rattled off quick examples of easy mistakes machines can make when they don’t understand language intricacies like technical terminology, social context or double entendre. Some of those examples are not fit to repeat here.
For agencies like Merritt that put a lot of weight on building seasoned writing teams that truly understand our clients and markets, content will always be an exercise of reading the proverbial room and shaping narratives to elicit response and drive action. Yes, AI will automate a number of content functions that don’t require thought or analysis, and that’s ok. Nobody wanted to do those tasks anyway. But for the true storytelling our clients need in order to reach their audiences, content creation goes far beyond what a computer will ever be able to write.
“Spinning a good yarn” is a part of our collective fabric as humans, and good content should retain its “humanity” as a bastion of hope for us all — at least for the foreseeable future until the invasion begins.
If you’re interested in real people telling real stories that matter for your brand, contact us.