Robo-Journalism Will Shake You

Screen grab from Google search Robo Journalism

Screen grab from Google search Robo Journalism

News of a 4.7 earthquake in California was quickly typed by a robot and published at The L.A Times after proper review by journalist Ken Schwencke. The story was up and running in three minutes — amazingly fast and appropriate for breaking news. Schwencke created an algorithm called Quakebot that extracts the most important data and types it up for faster publication.

If that sounds faster than humanly possible, it probably is. While the post appeared under Schwencke’s byline, the real author was an algorithm called Quakebot that he developed a little over two years ago. Whenever an alert comes in from the U.S. Geological Survey about an earthquake above a certain size threshold, Quakebot is programmed to extract the relevant data from the USGS report and plug it into a pre-written template. The story goes into the LAT’s content management system, where it awaits review and publication by a human editor.

Quakebot isn’t the first bot of its kind at the LAT. Schwencke and his colleagues on the paper’s data team modeled it on a similar bot that generates automatic reports about homicides in the paper’s coverage area. Again, it’s up to the humans to decide which ones merit further reporting.

Robo-journalism is often hyped as a threat to journalists’ jobs. Schwencke doesn’t see it that way.  “The way we use it, it’s supplemental. It saves people a lot of time, and for certain types of stories, it gets the information out there in usually about as good a way as anybody else would. The way I see it is, it doesn’t eliminate anybody’s job as much as it makes everybody’s job more interesting.”

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