News / 17.10.2011

Robots, politicians, the public and other problems: Journalism Day 2011

Linus Atarah

While the fear of journalists losing their jobs stems largely stems from the closure of newspapers, the thought of robots replacing journalists in newsrooms hardly figured as a distant possibility. No longer. Six news organisations in the US already use robots in their everyday news writing activities to report on division one baseball and basketball.

One of the main developers of the Stats Monkey software in North-Western University has predicted that in five years a robot would win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. The robot writes a story much faster than any human being is ever capable of in addition to the fact that it doesn’t make spelling or factual mistakes.

The developers of such software are quick to deny that their intention is to take work from journalists; rather they claim their invention is meant to free journalists so that they could engage in more meaningful work which requires more thought capacity.

-But when news organisations realise that they could actually produce stories more cheaply and quickly without human involvement, I am afraid that they would lay off a lot of journalist as opposed to freeing time to doing better journalism, said Johanna Vehkoo , author of a fresh book Stop the Press! Tales from the Era of New Journalism. in her keynote lecture in the Journalism Day  event, organised by the Union of Journalists foundation.

-Instead of repeating the work computers will soon do better than humans, journalists should concentrate in what professional human journalists will always do better than machines, she said.

-In order to avoid being replaced by robots, each and every journalist should start thinking about which part of their work could not easily be replaced and if they can’t think of any, they are in trouble, she said.

-Journalists must themselves take over the initiative, and not repeat the agendas of politicians’ and PR agencies. Stats Monkey does not write personal interviews for magazines, it does not taste or smell, and it does not know what it is to be a human being.

 

The Journalism Day event held in Helsinki October 14th brought a gathering of over 500 journalists, researchers and workers in the media sector to reflect on important questions of their everyday working life including keeping up the good professional standards in journalism in Finland.

Altogether the Journalism Day put together some 30 different panels and presentations on quality journalism simultaneously on four stages at the Helsinki Exhibition & Convention Centre. The Union has organised these events for more than 20 years on annual or bi-annual basis. This year the event also marked the 20 anniversary of the Union foundation to promote journalistic culture.

 

Perhaps the day’s most popular programme was Politicians’ Question time, a format which reverses the roles of journalists and politicians, allowing politicians to put journalists on the spot over their work rather than the usual pattern of journalists grilling politicians all the time.

Top politicians of all the political parties, including the Speaker of parliament and a former Prime Minister posed questions to political journalists across the media spectrum.

-It is a good way of extending a conversation between political journalists and politicians, commented Risto Uimonen, chairperson for the Council for Mass Media in Finland. -They may never agree, but it would be a very dangerous situation if they did agree on the way journalists do their work, he said.

The questions began on how to correct the mistakes that journalists make in their reports, but politicians were also concerned about journalistic ethics and questions like whether the journalists’ ethical code was sufficiently robust to prevent phone-hacking in Finland, similar to what happened in England recently.

Pia Elonen of the daily Helsingin Sanomat said apart from the journalists’ code of ethics Finnish journalists also work under existing laws which she said provided sufficient guarantee that journalists would not use underhanded methods to gather information.

-Anybody who wants to breach the ethical code can do that quite easily but we have tried to stress to journalists of good ethical rules and there is a broad consensus within the journalism profession that there is no need to change the current code of ethics, commented Uimonen.

 

One panel discussion also addressed the issue of hate speech – usually discussions over the internet which seek to whip up anti-immigrant and anti-sexual minority sentiments. Even while not trying to tamp down on freedom of speech, the recent mass killing in Norway has raised wide concerns over consequences of unbridled hate speech.

However, Jarkko Tontti President of PEN in Finland said the concept of hate speech is too broad and should be replaced with precise legal terms such as libel or slander.

-Hate speech is too vague and gives too much room for interpretation. We are in trouble if we don’t use more exact legal terms, said Tontti, who is also a lawyer.  He would also like to have online discussion pre-moderated and commentators should give their real names and not comment anonymously.

-People who would like to comment anonymously can join international groups which have no such restrictions but commentary in the Finnish media should be done in one’s own name. It allows for more decent discussion because people would think a little more about what they write, he said.


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