Robots: The sports journalists of the future?
Published: Thursday, October 29, 2009 - 6:45pm
You've probably heard the news by now: The future of journalism is changing. As the digital age progresses, Web sites, online feeds, and Twitter have become as commonplace as the local newsstand once was.
What, then, if the need to write stories altogether were to disappear entirely?
According to a blog in The New York Times, the need to write recaps of sporting events could become a thing of the past. At Northwestern University, a program generates recaps of baseball games based on their box scores. You provide the stats, the quotes, and the pictures, and the bot does the rest.
The program, called StatsMonkey, looks at the changes in a game's win probability (aka the big plays) and the players who did the best, matches the game to one from a vast library of story arcs, then "writes" the story based on what the system decides the main components of the story are.
And those stories aren't that bad. They're just boring. Fundamentally, there's very little wrong with the article that was featured on The Times' blog. If there was a comma missing here or there, it could always be programmed in later. If a transition seemed awkward, the program could always be ironed out. But there is a limit to how good such a story can be.
So what do we do with a program like this? Laugh it off as frivolous and a waste of time? Laud it as the next big thing in journalism? Keep perfecting it until there's never a need for a journalist anywhere?
Ultimately, StatsMonkey becomes another tool at the modern writer's disposal. This program won't be capable of genuinely producing the kind of epic prose you frame on your wall when your team wins the pennant. If used correctly, however, it can be used to save time and increase efficiency. A writer could consider a generated story a rough draft for his own, which he would then edit and supplement with his own information. The story could also be posted temporarily until the writer comes up with a better story of his own.
I don't think there will ever be a substitute for actual journalism. Short of having athletes answer some kind of bizarre questionnaire, people will always need to be there to get the quotes. Unless this program's concept is applied to pictures, people will always need to be there to take those, too. A robot can only provide the skeleton of an article. It will always take people to make the article come to life.