Researcher Chris van der Lee hopes that journalists will lose their fear of the robot journalist. As the executive behind the robot project PASS, he has a close look at what automation can do for the profession, but journalism is still restrained.

PASS (Personalized Automated Soccer texts System) is a robotic system that automatically writes sports reports. The development of the system is the result of research by the Tilburg University and Fontys University of Applied Science into the automation of the newsroom. Van der Lee is involved in the development of PASS as a PhD student at the Communication Department of the University of Twente. The robot works with a set of blueprints (templates) that are automatically filled in with the results, the researcher explains. “There are two thousand interesting football matches in the Netherlands every week. We can’t control that many journalists, so we can use PASS for that.” This way, sports journalists can pay more attention to the big matches, while PASS is mainly concerned with the smaller ones, Van der Lee says.

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Misconception

The technique is currently being tested by the AD newspaper. Local sports editors in The Hague and Utrecht are also showing interest. “But the resistance is still great”, says Van der Lee. The PhD student thinks that this is because of the fear of the robot replacing journalists. Where does that image come from? “A few years ago, a couple of companies said they would be able to replace journalists within a few years”, explains Van der Lee. But that was based on a misconception. According to the researcher, it’s all about complementing the work of the traditional journalist. “Robots will never write as well as people, and that’s just fine.”

“Robots will never write as well as people, and that’s just fine.”

Opportunities

In the case of PASS, the intention is, therefore, to provide a kind of rough version, on which the journalist can build their stories. The technique is particularly suitable for articles that require less creativity and that rely heavily on data, explains van der Lee. “Think, for example, of messages about rising stocks or weather forecasts.”

Mentality change

Van der Lee hopes for ‘a change in mentality’ among journalists, so that robot journalism can be seen as a tool rather than a threat. “You can now also see the NOS experimenting with automated articles, for example. I hope that these kinds of experiments contribute to a better picture of robot journalism.”

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