It’s no secret that journalism is one of the most fragile industries in the world right now. After years where many publishers faced bankruptcy, layoffs, and downsizing, then came the coronavirus crisis — for many newsrooms, this was the final nail in the coffin.
Alas even more problems are on the way for publishers.
Late last month, Microsoft fired around 50 journalists in the US and another 27 in the UK who were previously employed to curate content from outlets to spotlight on the MSN homepage. Their jobs were replaced by automated systems that can find interesting news, change headlines, and select pictures without human intervention.
“Like all companies, we evaluate our business on a regular basis. This can result in increased investment in some places and, from time to time, redeployment in others. These decisions are not the result of the current pandemic,” an MSN spokesperson said in a statement.
While it can be demoralizing for anyone to feel obsolete, we shouldn’t call the coroner on journalism just yet.
Some of the sacked journalists warned that artificial intelligence may not be fully familiar with strict editorial guidelines. What’s more, it could end up letting through stories that might not be appropriate.
Lo and behold, this is exactly what happened with an MSN story this week, after the AI mixed up the photos of two mixed-race members of the British pop group Little Mix.
The story was about Little Mix singer Jade Thirlwall’s experience with racism. However, the AI used a picture of Thirlwall’s bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock to illustrate it. It didn’t take long for Thirlwall to notice, posting on Instagram where she wrote:
“@MSN If you’re going to copy and paste articles from other accurate media outlets, you might want to make sure you’re using an image of the correct mixed race member of the group.”
She added: “This shit happens to @leighannepinnock and I ALL THE TIME that it’s become a running joke … It offends me that you couldn’t differentiate the two women of colour out of four members of a group … DO BETTER!”
By the looks of it, Thirlwall seems unaware that confusion is owed to a mistake made by an automated system. It’s possible the error was due to mislabelled pictures provided by wire services, although there’s no way to tell for sure because not much detail has been offered by MSN, apart from a formal apology.
“As soon as we became aware of this issue, we immediately took action to resolve it and have replaced the incorrect image,” Microsoft told The Guardian.
Are we entering the age of robot journalism?
My fellow (human) colleagues might rejoice at this news, but really this happens all the time in newsrooms — even the best of them. For instance, the BBC had to make a formal apology after one of its editors used photos of LeBron James to illustrate the death of his teammate Kobe Bryant.
And while some might believe that curating content is an entirely different matter from crafting content from scratch, think again. The Washington Post has invested considerably in AI content generation, producing a bot called Heliograf that writes stories about local news that the staff didn’t have the resources to cover.
The Associated Press has a similar AI that does the same. Such robots are based on Natural Language Generation software that processes information and transforms it into news copy by scanning data from selected sources, selecting an article template from a range of preprogrammed options, and then adding specific details such as location, date, and people involved.
For instance, the following short news story that appeared in the Wolverhampton paper the Express and Star is written by AP’s robot.
The latest figures reveal that 56.5 per cent of the 3,476 babies born across the area in 2016 have parents who were not married or in a civil partnership when the birth was registered. That’s a slight increase on the previous year.
Marriage or a same-sex civil partnership is the family setting for 43.5 per cent of children.
The figures mean that parents in Wolverhampton are less likely to be get married before having children than the average UK couple. Nationwide, 52.3 per cent of babies have parents in a legally recognised relationship.
The figures on births, released by the Office for National Statistics, show that in 2016, 34 per cent of babies were registered by parents who are listed as living together but not married or in a civil partnership.
Unlike a human, robots never tire and can produce thousands of such stories per day. There’s a silver lining though for us journalists — we may have a future yet.
While robots shine when reporting on simple linear stories such as football scores, medal tallies, company profits, and just about anything where the numbers alone tell the story, they are very poor with language and analysis. Can you imagine reading an opinion piece written by a robot? Would you ever trust a robot to write my essay, for that matter? Not really? I thought so, too.
A similar argument can be made for the educational industry. Customized learning is one of the main fields of education where AI is set to have a significant impact. It used to be unthinkable to imagine one-on-one tutoring for each and every student out there, for any subject but now artificial intelligence promises to deliver. For instance, one US-based company called Content Technologies Inc. is leveraging deep learning to ‘publish’ customized books — decades-old books that are automatically revamped into smart and relevant learning guides, like advice on writing a research paper about AI.
But, that doesn’t mean that human teachers can be scrapped entirely. For instance, teachers will have to help students develop non-cognitive skills such as confidence and creativity that are difficult if not impossible to transfer from a machine. Simply put, there’s no substitute for good mentors and guides.
Humans are still much better than AIs at reasoning and storytelling — which are arguably the most important journalistic qualities.
Personally, I hope that ZME readers appreciate the fact that there are real humans who care and put great thought into crafting our stories. We’re not done just yet, so until our robot overlords are ready to take over, perhaps you can stand us a while longer.