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The Inevitability Of Augmented Journalism

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The Inevitability Of Augmented Journalism

By Caline Malek

As the Gulf prepares to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to bring a number of benefits to many industries, including the media sector. Indeed, robo-journalism – the automated creation of news article by an algorithm – is rapidly gaining ground around the world. Many prestigious media outlets have been capitalizing on the new technology.

“The underlying tool is the use of automation to help produce, schedule and publish content,” Damian Radcliffe, professor in journalism at the University of Oregon in the U.S., tells Communicate. “We are already seeing these tools being used by publishers, advertisers and content-creating companies around the world. The Middle East is, but will not remain an exception.”

In effect, discussions around AI in communications are already taking place in the region, according to Stephen King, lecturer in media at Middlesex University Dubai. “The first I became aware of AI in PR was about four years ago, when I met with the CEO of the Chartered Institute of PR,” he says. “We discussed using AI to develop press releases, especially for investor announcements. I then met someone at the Lynx Awards last year talking about the use of AI in crisis communications for a South Asian government.”

Improved efficiency

Automated content can benefit newsrooms in a variety of ways, starting with speed. Churning out 40,000 stories in just five minutes, like text-generating bot Tobi did to cover Switzerland’s 2018 elections, can soon be a reality in the region, with the widespread adoption of highly advanced programs that have the ability to skim through data at an extremely fast pace. 

 “The media industry, especially in the Middle East, will immensely benefit from robo-journalism because it will make news production more efficient,” says Ali Rafeeq, professor of journalism at the United Arab Emirates University. “Time is very important in journalism; to be able to break news immediately is a vital factor for news media outlets.”

Machines are able to complete within a few seconds what editors and reporters write after hours, if not days, of going through complex reports. And that’s only a start. 

“Most robo-journalism, at the moment, tends to follow quite formulaic reporting formats, including earnings [and sports] reports; but that will change and evolve over time as machines get smarter,” says Radcliffe. “As machine learning continues to evolve, potentially enabling journalists to sift through and manage large datasets will make their lives easier. At a time when we have access to more data than ever, anything that can help to improve and streamline what journalists do, is welcome.” 

For example, some algorithms are already able to predict a potentially interesting story based on a trend of data. Similarly, using AI programs to locate and analyze data for stories will also help improve the quality of articles. And ultimately, all these technologies may help make journalism and creative industries more cost-efficient. 

“[Automated content] gives better quality reporting in terms of data and, with time, there will be more improvements,” says Rafeeq. “With more machine learning and AI, stories will be better and production costs for media outlets will go down because there will be less people employed, thanks to an increasing number of machines […] Publishers, media companies and content creators in the Gulf will immensely benefit from it. We are talking about every aspect of life and this industry is one where AI can be used extremely efficiently.”

Beyond writing

Artificial intelligence can support departments other than editorial in a publishing and creative organization. 

King mentions an algorithm that tracks what is being typed and identifies appropriate images from the company’s database to help illustrate an article or speed the design process. Multimedia and creative software company Adobe is also developing a raft of services that take this even further, streamlining the advertising production process. “AI will possibly improve the quality of journalism by [giving] journalists access to more of the company’s archive resources, which will enhance digital storytelling,” says King. “Once images and videos are tagged and uploaded into corporate clouds, this will empower global networks with some really engaging and rich materials to strengthen their output.”

Eventually, according to King, “the major driver for AI in communications – whether it is journalism or otherwise – will be compliance […] Smart or tracking pixels are already being used to track the success of communications campaigns, and it is only a matter of time before content creators start using them to protect their rights.” Being able to protect their own reputations by confirming the ownership and origin of the images and videos used on their channels and/or for their clients, is what will drive large news firms and global advertising companies to employ AI to support journalists and their designers. This will also help reduce costs in terms of compliance and reputation damage. “News firms will be able to protect their content rights and inspire a future resurgence in long-form content and rich journalism,” says King. 

To be used wisely

Radcliffe says one crucial aspect to consider, however, is transparency. At a time when trust in journalists is seemingly at an all-time low, Radcliffe believes that news outlets need to clearly label how stories have been generated. “It’s important for readers to understand where a story has come from,” he says. “After all, computers, just like humans, can make mistakes.” 

Moreover, explaining to journalists in the newsroom how automated journalism is used, is another issue of equal importance. “Given the levels of lay-offs seen in many outlets, there’s a risk – just as there is in other industries – that this is perceived as ‘robots taking our jobs’,” Radcliffe explains. “Taking on elements of ‘grunt work’ that robo-journalism can help [with] to free up journalists to do more detailed reporting, engagement or writing, could – and should – be a good thing.” The same principle applies to those in the creative industries using automation and AI. Creative leaders will need to explain to their teams why these tools are being used and the implications for their work. 

“In terms of ethical concerns, I can probably imagine more than a few ways that this technology could be employed against the greater good of humanity,” concludes King. “But eventually, the reality will likely be less dramatic, and we will adapt.”

This article has been published in Communicate’s June print edition.

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