Here is the news


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Here is the news
In mid-May the EBU and SMPTE brought together many of the great and the good of the television industry – and me – to a forum on emerging media technologies. Held in Geneva, in a hotel expensive even by Swiss standards, it was supposed to set the agenda for the future, to share solutions so the future will be bright.
As is always the way with conferences like this we came away without any answers. If anything was achieved, it was the realisation that there are more questions than we thought there were, and they are really, really hard questions.
For a bit of light relief, for one session the organisers had called together a panel of Young People. This was probably a fundamentally good idea, even if it did not quite work out the way it was planned.
On stage were four beautifully presented, impeccably groomed and politely spoken 16 and 17 year olds. Already you can see that this was not a valid sample. The reason is that they were drawn from the Geneva International School, so were the sons and daughters of wealthy cosmopolitan businessmen. Not exactly typical of the youth of today.
The moderator of the panel questioned them, in a style rather closer to Lorraine Kelly than Jeremy Paxman. But he did manage to get some interesting comments out of them when he asked how they got their news.
One girl said that she never watched news programmes but was an avid fan of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. If they were lampooning something, she reasoned, it must be an important issue so she would then go and find out about it.
Another was clearly going through his rebellious phase and said all television news services were tools of global capitalism. Probably the same global capitalism that paid for his place at a very expensive school in Switzerland.
He thought that the established news media took days to acknowledge the Occupy Wall Street protest, when online sources were discussing it immediately. His recommendation was not to trust to a late night comedy programme but to reddit.com. His wish for the future was for “a more reliable and honest news service”.
So what would they make, I wonder, of a report in the Sunday Times on 20 May, on automated journalism? Yes, this is what it sounds like: clever computers writing news reports and radio scripts rather than employing cantankerous and expensive hacks to do it.
“Last year we automatically generated upwards of half a million sports stories for US readers and had over 300,000 followers to our Twitter accounts,” claimed Robbie Allen, CEO of Automated Insights.
From its base in North Carolina, AI started out by automatically generating financial news stories from company reports and earnings statements. Call me old-fashioned, but could you not accidentally do unpleasant things like start a run on a bank like that?
“It tends to be the dull stories that your typical journalist wouldn’t want to write anyway,” according to Allen. “We’ll look back years from now and think it’s funny that we have had people doing that stuff.”
Call me old fashioned again, but I like to think there is some sort of skill behind putting words together in the order of my preference, which I would not describe as “doing that stuff”.
But, I hear you say, this is just some bunch of Americans who have very strange news values anyway. Why should we care? Well we should probably care because AI is reported to be in negotiations with the BBC to produce computer-generated football reports. And where football leads, proper interesting things often follow.
The final paragraph of the Sunday Times article reads “Automated Insights has sold its robo-writing technology to American radio stations looking for sports reports to read out over the air. The BBC has yet to sign up for the service: if it does, readers and listeners will probably never know that some of its stories were written by computer.”
So there we have it. We have a generation growing up that gets its news from comedians or unverifiable bloggers, we have the BBC apparently in talks to automatically generate copy, and we have a newspaper that was once home to the best and most fearless journalism in Britain now uncritically parroting the “if it’s got a computer in it then it must be clever” line.
You have my personal warranty that every word of this column was hand-keyed into my Mac by me, in between sipping from a mug of tea and looking out the window at the squirrels in the woods. By the time you read it, though, I may have decided that writing is no longer a viable employment and retrained as a grape picker or a holiday rep.
Or maybe I will be learning to programme natural language computer systems.

Tags: iss066 | ebu | smpte | news | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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