Wednesday, March 26, 2014

a robo-news future?

It's a bit too lawsy-lawsy for my taste, but an Infowars squib passed along today reports that "Professor of Computer Science Dr. Kristian Hammond predicts that by 2030, 90 per cent of all news stories will be written not by human reporters but by computer algorithms."
This speaks to the increasingly redundant role of mainstream news reporters. Journalists working for the corporate press have abandoned their role as adversarial checks against the state to such a degree that they are now being replaced by computers.
While there's nothing fershur in this speculation, still there is enough meat on the bone to make it worth considering... news reporting scrambling for dwindling profits but cutting down on the very product that attracts customers -- a wider view, a willingness to unearth the counterpoint, and an ability to tell the customer how s/he is likely to get screwed.

News gathering takes time/costs money/ruffles feathers. When was the last time anyone heard a serious -- as distinct from solemn -- question at a White House press briefing? These days it is conceivable that if Adolph Hitler announced the government's desire to rid the country of "undesirable" constituencies and had good reasons for it ... well, the press might report the announcement and count that as a "news" story.

In the pre-Internet days of paste-pots, scissors and typewriters, I too indulged in this sort of rote reporting: If the press conference was at 11:00 a.m. and the news deadline was 12:15, I learned pretty quickly that I needed a ready-made format when I dictated the story over the phone to someone in the office who did the typing. The ready-made format might look like, "Mayor Joe Jones said today..." followed by a recitation of the points Joe Jones made. With luck, I might have a little background context in my mind to bring focus to the story, but there was simply no time to call people who might hold views contrary to Jones'. It was a story premised on the need for speed, the need to be up-to-date with the latest news. It never was a very good story, but it was a story and proved that the newspaper was on top of things.

But instant news like this was never a very satisfying norm. It was an acknowledged compromise between a story with context and a story that needed immediate attention. Such stories were making the best of a constraining situation. No doubt Joe Jones was happy that there was no time to throw a questioning light on his assertions and that his torch, for the moment, shone bright. How much more flattering and politically useful to have unquestioning coverage. Joe Jones got his coverage, the newspaper got its news, and the reader got -- sort of -- informed.

The advantages of this sort of news gathering are obvious: Joe Jones gets the limelight; the news organization gets income/kudos for being there; and the customer gets to pay for what is easy and passes for news. How much less expensive to make this the norm.

And the norm is what it is becoming, though whether a computer with its ready-made formats will ever fill the bill entirely is unknown. People may wring their handkerchiefs and bemoan the need for an "informed electorate," but money and power are seldom interested in an informed electorate. The Fourth Estate is, let push come to shove, dispensable in a feudal society.

I knew the newspaper I last worked for was headed down the shitter when it made the American flag part of its page-one logo.

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