It should come as no surprise that journalism in the age of information and technology is changing rapidly day by day; social media in particular has had a massive impact on the ways in which we gather and share our news. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 67 per cent of Americans use social media to get the news. And this isn’t just limited to millennials; the study reports that 55 per cent of Americans over age 50 use social media to gather the news.
The challenge of media organizations, then, is finding new ways to adapt to these changes to how we stay up to date with what’s happening in the world. Various others have discussed the ways in which news agencies are evolving in the digital age, and why many are choosing to go paperless. For instance, prioritizing online content allows for the use of engaging new tools such as embedded videos and maps. Shifting online also opens news agencies to wider, even international audiences; it allows more people across the world to access stories, which ultimately helps news organizations that are looking to expand their readership.
This also explains why this week, the Fulcrum is publishing online-only and finding innovative ways to engage with our readers. We recognize that it’s often easier to read an article on your phone on your way to class or work than to pick up a physical copy of the paper, especially if you’re in a rush or simply aren’t on campus some days. We also recognize that our readers want news that is fun, and of course, visually appealing. Photos and videos enrich the quality of an article, and seeing what other people are tweeting about a subject makes the story feel more relevant to you.
All of this is well and good; like any other industry, news organizations have to stay relevant with the times, or they’ll fall behind and lose their following. But, these changes come with some prices—prices that, unless you’re the ones producing the news, you may not see so easily.
In the digital age, artificial intelligence (AI) is commonplace in the media industry. News-writing bots, such as those used by the Washington Post, can produce large amounts of news reports quickly and with clarity. Wired.com shares that in Nov. 2016, Heliograf, a bot used by the Post, created over 500 articles, and these stories received more than 500,000 clicks.
The premise behind these bots is simple, according to Wired: using key words and phrases, editors create templates for articles, factoring in several outcomes for these articles, such as in the case of an election. They then hook bots such as Heliograf to data sources, the bot will scan for relevant information, feed it into the templates, and produce a story. It’s brilliant, really, and it allows news organizations to save time, human resources, and money. Companies such as Automated Insights are offering news-writing software available free of charge, so that media outlets can test out this software with their story templates. Using AI to produce news content also means that fewer human journalists are needed to write articles, thus fewer need to be paid by news organizations. Speed, ease, and cheapness are no wonder that bots are becoming more attractive in the media industry, and are being used by major publications such as the Associated Press, FOX, and Yahoo.
The sad reality, however, is that while more news outlets turn to AI to educate the public, this puts journalists out of work. It’s a cost-benefit situation: why spend time and money on human journalists when a computer can do the job? And yet, what happens to these journalists who aren’t employed? Like so many other industries that are becoming automated, the future of the humans who once did these jobs seems bleak.
In December, the Fulcrum reported on the closing of numerous Ottawa-area local newspapers, and this left us questioning the future of small-time journalism. When these cost-reducing strategies are used on local publications, it could be not long before many large organizations turn to downsizing en masse, in favour of computers that can do the work for a lower cost.
As we consider these possibilities, it’s necessary to consider why we need human journalists in the first place, to fulfill a duty that no computer achieve: answer the question of why in journalism.
We need dedicated, curious, and creative journalists to dig deep and find answers to the questions that no computer could think of in the first place. At a time when our news feeds are more turbulent than ever before, and we are bombarded by stories discussing threats to fundamental freedoms around the world, we need real people to search for answers to the most pressing questions—questions on issues like human rights abuses and the order of our own democracies.
Sure, computers are fast and easy, and relatively inexpensive. But they can’t do the job of searching for the truth at a time when “truth” seems to be a grey area that is tough to decipher. Technology is indeed important, and adapting to it is even more important. Doing so improves the quality of our coverage, and often aids in better delivering the truth. But if there’s one thing technology can’t do, is replace the fundamental need for passion and curiosity in this field.