The Washington Post will get some help from robot journalism technology to present its Election Day coverage next month.
The Post experimented with artificial intelligence coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics in a system developed in-house called Heliograf.
During the Olympics, the “automated storytelling” system would generate short, multi-sentence updates, including which countries had won medals. Heliograf also tweeted results and blogged on The Post’s website.
The Olympics provided a useful dry run for the November U.S. elections. In a release, The Post said that Heliograf will be used in the coverage of House, Senate and gubernatorial races in all 50 states.
Heliograf now is more than just a computerized system spewing out dry results, according to The Post. It has been tweaked to be more of a robot assistant to human reporters.
“We have transformed Heliograf into a hybrid content management system that relies on machines and humans, distinguishing it from other technologies currently in use,” said Jeremy Gilbert, The Post’s director of strategic initiatives. “This dual-touch capability allows The Post to create stories that are better than any automated system but more constantly updated than any human-written story could be.”
News organizations have been seeking ways to leverage artificial intelligence or computer algorithms for news coverage.
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Sports stories, which are long on statistics and have a temporal progession to report throughout a game or event, seem to be a natural. The Associated Press started using robots to cover minor league baseball games this past summer. The stories, machine-written within a template devised by a human journalist, provided recaps in games that the AP might not covered with a reporter.
Coverage of election results is similarly big on numbers and results.
Le Monde, the Paris-based French newspaper, relied heavily on robo-coverage in reporting the 2015 elections in France.
Robo-journalism coverage is fast – Le Monde produced 150,000 pages of web coverage in four hours. And a robot can write an article with results from the most distant rural corner of a country, a place that normally wouldn’t justify the expense of sending a human reporter.
The Election Day stories from The Post may start as machine-written prose, but human reporters will be able to overwrite the bot-text to give updates and color.
As a result, The Post promised, election coverage will be a tandem of machine and human. The artificial intelligence powering Heliograf will be the “connective tissue” that allows the system to “write highly personalized stories for the benefit of journalists and readers alike,” said Sam Han, director of data science at The Post.
“The future of automated storytelling is the seamless blend of human reporting and machine generated content,” Han said.
The Post’s approach does seem to be a step forward in the use of robo-journalism.
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One criticism of existing bot-written reporting is that it is so straightforward and fact-laden that the stories are just dry, numbing numbers. That’s because robots have reported financial results, sports scores and voting tallies.
All of that quickly obtained voting data can provide a solid bedrock for an election article. But it remains just the beginning. A really good election story needs a human journalist to do what robots can’t: hold a pen or a microphone to capture a live interview and reveal the drama and emotion when a candidate scores a surprise upset.
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