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The Disruption of Journalism by Algorithmic News and J-Robots

The next speakers at ECREA 2016 are Marko Milosavljević and Igor Vobić, whose interest is in the emergence of automated journalism and 'j-robots'. Such technologies are gradually emerging into everyday journalistic practices, and the prospect in an industry under stress is that what can be automated will be automated; this creates new tensions for the news industry, however.

The challenge here is in part to journalistic professional ideology, including ideals of public service, objectivity, autonomy, temporality, and ethics: journalism sees itself as performing a public service for its audiences, but personalisation and customisation has also been seen as undermining this; objectivity describes a particular journalistic stance, and there are now new hopes for a kind of algorithmic objectivity in automated news content; autonomy rests on premises of rationalised (dis)connection from politics, and algorithmic and autonomous decision-making could help with this.

Temporality reflects the historical salience of time in the creation and distribution of news, and automated news production and dissemination holds up the promise of instant and even anticipatory coverage; finally, journalistic ethics have become codified in the last century, but still differ widely across organisations and countries, and algorithmic journalism shifts the challenge of such ethical considerations to the programmers of the algorithms.

This project has so far explored these questions through interviews with editors at the Financial Times, Guardian, and Reuters. These have shown that automated news production processes to date only augment rather than replace conventional journalism at these institutions (unlike, say, the situation at Bloomberg). Algorithms so far inform the journalistic process – for instance in story selection or placement, or the commitment of further journalistic resources to a poorly-performing story –, but final editorial decisions remain with human editors as autonomous decision-makers.

The biggest impact has been on the temporality of news reporting: algorithmic reporting – especially in analysing press releases and doing automated reporting on business results – is already prominent here. But editors are also well aware of ethical issues here, as well as more broadly of the potential for mistakes to be made; so far, except for the temporal dimension, this is still a 'humans in the loop' rather than 'humans out of the loop' model, but there is also a sarcastic anticipation of a further algorithmic takeover of the news: 'the robots are coming for us'.