Last week, in my Writing Across the Media course, I showed a video, produced by The Washington Post, about how sports articles are being written by computer programs. Perhaps you’ve heard of this. The thinking is that many sports news stories are rather formulaic, and so, given the right data, a computer program can pump out stories that overburdened sports writers can’t get to. For now, this means mostly local stories about high school teams.

I asked my students, all Communications majors, to consider what this means for their futures. Some felt that this kind of thing is inevitable, and they would just need to adapt. Others lamented this move, but didn’t see it as a serious threat to journalism. Still others thought that the computers must be stopped before they take over the world, Terminator-style.

As a person who long ago developed the mantra that I don’t want to do any work that a machine can do for me — probably this is a result of being raised on the optimistic science fiction of Star Trek — I too feel torn about this development. I mean, I’m a writer, and I don’t want to lose my job to a computer, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to write formulaic news stories either. In fact, as I teach those same students the inverted pyramid model, as I drill into their heads the word-length requirements for an effective lead, and as I mark down their assignments for deviating from these rigid requirements, I sometimes feel like I’m squelching their creativity. I remedy this by insisting that you must learn the rules before you can break them.

And I really believe this. It is important for aspiring journalists to learn the tried and true methods for covering the news, but I jump for joy whenever I see them move beyond the formula into new territory. This is a tension that has long existed in journalism. It is a service, after all, and the reader needs to be able to get the news in a way that is quick and efficient. And yet, it is also an art. Writing is a creative craft.

When I take these two things together, the fact that computers can now spit out formulaic journalism, and my desire to see my students move from service to craft, I end up feeling less worried about so-called auto-journalism and more optimistic about journalism’s future. Perhaps if computers are writing the basic news stories for us, journalists are freed up to write the kind of stories that computers will never be able to produce — news analysis, feature stories, profiles, and longer narratives.

It seems this is already where journalism is heading. If you look at the proliferation of #Longreads (thanks in part to the tireless work of our own David Sessions), and the investment by billionaires into struggling news agencies as well as the very recent news that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is sinking $250 million into a news agency dedicated to investigative journalism, it appears that long-form, dare I say more “literary” journalism is on the rise. In other encouraging news, more directly related to the interests of this site, the recent appointment of my friend and editor Patton Dodd — who holds a PhD in Literature and Religion and studied, among other things, New Journalism — to head the new “On Faith” site as it spins off from The Washington Post, means that we’ll likely see more of this kind of writing around religion. Of course, the new “On Faith” will be joining others like “Religion Dispatches” and “Religion and Politics,” which have already opened up space for this kind of writing.

So I have no reason to fear that we’ll be subject to computer overlords in the near future.  Rather, I’m excited to see new opportunities open for those of us who want to consider religion beyond the inverted pyramid. This is a much needed shift because such a complex topic has never fit well into the limited hard news story anyway.

Here’s hoping that Patrol will play its own little part in this potentially monumental shift.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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3 Responses to Robo-Journalism and the Future of Religion Writing

  1. Jim says:

    Reminds me of what happened to obituary writing. At one time, obits were a joy to read but now they could be (and may already be) written by computers. Fill in the blanks…spit it out.

    Incidentally, I recommend Marilyn Johnson’s “The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries” along these lines. Your students would enjoy it too.

  2. Gary Horsman says:

    I don’t think writers have anything to fear from what The Washington Post is citing in terms of automated sports stories. The reference is likely to those stories focused on game recaps where play stats are wrapped inside a set of standard sentence structures.

    So, for example, Player X grounds out to advance Player Y from second base to third base and place him in scoring position. Just plug in the names and it seems like natural writing when it’s just glorified game statistics.

    But for the rest of human events, there are no pre-ordained set of game actions that follow in a logical sequence to a conclusion or quantifiable score.

    That this kind of wild extrapolation can still be conjured shows some naiveté about technology and what it can and cannot do. It is at times seemingly magic, but there is an underlying logic to what computers are capable of that should help people understand that they are still incapable of the most human of abilities vital to journalism: original thought.

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