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‘Reporter’ only works under perfect conditions


“The new reporter on the U.S. media scene takes no coffee breaks, churns out articles at lightning speed, and has no pension plan.”

The above paragraph, published recently in a trade publication, caught my attention. By reading further I learned the “reporter” is not a human, but a computer algorithm, programed to translate raw data, including corporate earnings reports and sports statistics, into readable stories.

It seems, the article added, algorithms are producing a growing number of articles for newspapers and websites. That’s a scary thought.

Decades ago when I began the practice of journalism, I quickly learned that computers could never replace a good reporter on the streets, asking tough questions and searching records at courthouses and city halls.

My understanding never changed in several decades working as a reporter or in the years my job title changed from “associate editor” to “managing editor” to “editor.”

During those decades I encountered eight – if I did not lose count – computer upgrades. I learned to dread those upgrades.

Computers cannot parse the subtleties of each story, taking large amounts of raw data and turn it into what passes for news, analysts say. Too many times the information reporters receives from a variety of sources is simply wrong or conflicting.

It is not basic and formulaic. Computer-generated writing is a not the logical next step in “content creation.” I have read several sports stories from raw feeds of play-by-play data from major sports events that were passable, but contained no emotion.

Two paragraphs from the trade publication story:

“For the 2012 Super Bowl, the article for New York Giants’ fans read like this: ‘Hakeem Nicks had a big night, paving the way to a victory for the Giants over the Patriots, 21-17 in Indianapolis. With the victory, New York is the champion of Super Bowl XLVI.’

“For New England fans, the story was different: ‘Behind an average day from Tom Brady, the Patriots lost to the Giants, 21-17 at home. With the loss, New England falls short of a Super Bowl ring.’ ”

That’s formula writing. Or, as one computer engineer working on the project explained, “about two-thirds engineering and one-third journalism.”

On June 11 a report of a traffic accident at the intersection of Sheridan Road and Heartwood Drive in White Hall was published in The Progress. Both drivers were quoted in the story about what each said had occurred.

However, the investigating officer’s report noted she went to a branch bank at the intersection and asked to view what the bank’s video surveillance cameras may have captured of the accident scene.

It was obvious to the officer – after viewing the video – that one of the driver’s versions was less than accurate. That information was included in The Progress story.

Computers don’t pick up on certain things, including weather conditions and alert police officers.

Computers also don’t catch lies told by some individuals as a matter of habit. Experienced human reporters learned that some people can’t be trusted and what they say must be verified. There are no exceptions to the latter rule.

That’s not data-driven, but applied common sense.

Algorithms only work if the data is structured. Humans are not that structured. There’s no way to automate everything.

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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.