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Could Sports Journalism Be Automated?

There are areas of sports writing that AI could handle

25Aug

With the development of AI accelerating, a number of professions will be looking over their shoulder for signs of imminent automation. Manufacturing, transport, admin - there are certain areas in which AI’s impact is already being felt, and before long it is estimated these industries could be almost entirely staffed by intelligent machines. To assume that more creative roles are safe, though, would be to underestimate just how far AI has come. And, with software becoming more intelligent at pace, journalism is one industry in which robotics are on the rise.

There are certain areas of journalism that lend themselves to automation more readily. Sports is one; its more formulaic reporting of scores, goalscorers, and substitutions, for example, lends itself to machine automation in a way that political analysis or investigative journalism don’t. Given the relative lack of creative license in the bread-and-butter reporting of a soccer game, a machine could probably put together a convincing report.

‘It will be more a case of offering an extra level when it comes to short market reports, election results and football reporting,’ Pete Clifton, editor-in-chief of the Press Association said. ‘They are more accurate than when somebody was trying to write too many stories on their own. Will it take over from proper journalists? Of course it won’t. We won’t have a robot going to a big fire or covering a crown court case.’

What’s important to remember in all of this is that AI is not, at present, being designed with the express purpose of putting human journalists out of a job. The lack of nuance and artistic flair currently possible in machine-written copy means that it’s unsuitable for important games or even reports that require contextualization. It’s important that humans aren’t pushed out of sports journalism, and it seems ridiculous to suggest they might, but there are plenty of more menial sports writing tasks that could be fulfilled by an intelligent machine.

At an event like the Olympics, for example, to cover each and every event takes a great deal of manpower and the level of creative freedom when documenting the results of a day’s javelin are limited. An intelligent machine could quite easily log the scores and arrange them into a familiar enough news piece, and otherwise these pieces may not get written at all. A machine will never write a 1500-word look into the delicate issues of homophobia and racism in soccer, for example, but it could fairly convincingly create a roundup of how each player in a game performed based on statistics.

‘These are not going to be stories that are going to be able to describe the pitcher’s facial expressions or the speeds of pitches or whether there was a bench-clearing brawl,’ Barry Bedlan, the AP’s deputy director of sports products, said regarding the minor league coverage, adding: ‘What we’re doing here is trying to leverage the technology to expand our coverage that our customers have never had or haven’t had in a long time.’

I’m not sure anyone wants to see journalists replaced by machines regardless of the financial benefits it offers publishers. Reading something that you know has been created by AI just doesn’t have the same appeal as a piece written by a qualified writer. There is every chance that audiences won’t be aware, but any publication known to be putting out automated content will see its reputation suffer, at least in the short term. Even so, expect to see AI generated content for more menial pieces popping up in the coming months. 

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