AP’s Tom Kent: The time has arrived for robotics journalism ethical checklist

New York – Mentioning the subject of robotics to journalists will produce anything from cries of ethical outrage to curiosity about possible benefits. The latter prospect is still undecided; meanwhile, a checklist prepared specifically for robot journalism provides ethical clarifications.

The man behind the checklist is Tom Kent, Associated Press standards editor. His organization  has favorably experienced using robotics for writing financial articles. Since introducing the robotics platform Wordsmith from Automated Insights of Durham, NC, AP has produced 3,000 stories per quarter. This is a tenfold increase over what AP reporters and editors created previously.

“News organizations are experimenting increasingly with robot journalism,” Kent said in a recent article posted by Reynolds Journalism Institute. Computer programs are being used “to transform data into news stories, or news stories into multimedia presentations.”

Checklist poses ten questions

Kent welcomes input for his initial ethical checklist draft, which proposes ten questions for editors to consider when addressing necessary issues of accuracy, quality and transparency:

  1. How accurate is the underlying data?
  2. Do you have rights to the data?
  3. Does the automation use the same phrasing for every story?
  4. Will you disclose what you’re doing?
  5. Does the style of the automated reports match your style?
  6. Can you defend how the story was “written?”
  7. Who’s watching the machine?
  8. Are you considering automation that creates multimedia presentations?
  9. Are you using software that reduces long articles to bullet points?
  10. Are you ready for the next frontier?

“The best protection when you move further into robot news writing,” advises Kent, “is a constant focus on testing, and on making sure editors understand how the software really works. Plus a recognition that many things are still best done by humans.”

Equally promising, ENU has found, is exploring the time saving-potential robotics offers, especially for handling usually heavy loads of departmental content such as product or personnel announcements. But such programs are not created overnight. Ethics News Updates recently queried Kent about possible complications.


ENU: How is data translated into articles? Apparently a publisher must first structure data so that it can be accepted by a software program.

Kent: Yes, a spreadsheet must be designed that a computer can read. For example, for financial announcements, a spreadsheet could include individual columns for profit, revenue, dividend per share and so forth.

ENU: How long did it take to finalize the structure for The Associated Press?

Kent: It took close to a year to fine tune the information. That includes input on preferred AP style.

ENU: An editorial category that occupies substantial space in many B2B magazines is new product announcements. What would a publisher of, say, product-oriented tabloids, need to provide during a robotics structuring phase?

Kent: The publisher would have to create a “structured work form” that provides data for each product that could be translated onto a spreadsheet. At Associated Press, we have a relationship with a service that puts data into a final form for processing by the vendor.


Greater efficiency realized

AP has achieved numerous quantitative benefits via robotics, according to a case history provided by Automated Insights. The document quotes AP Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson as follows:

  • Better for reporters. “Internally, the reaction has been positive from staff, largely because automation has freed up valuable reporting time and reduced the amount of data-processing type work they had been doing.”
  • Fewer errors. “Once you set up automation, and go through a rigorous testing process, you reduce the prospect of errors. In fact, we have far fewer errors than we did when we were writing earnings reports manually.”
  • Greater efficiency. “We estimate the automation of earnings reports has freed up about 20 percent of the time that we had spread throughout the staff in producing earnings reports each quarter.”



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