What do you think about computer-generated news articles? Would you even know?

Recently, Google has tried to penalize 'content farms' - especially companies that look for keywords, terms and trends in searches and automatically generate articles that will show up in search results but are just copied and pasted.

A recent study investigated what readers thought if computers actually did the creative writing. If you read everything from TIME magazine to Fox News about a link between autism, malformed genital in males and environmental toxins, you were reading a press release. Most of the journalists never looked at the study. If press releases are news, should it matter if it's written by a computer or a communications intern when it is simply going to be rehashed as "churnalism"?

Software-generated content is all the rage. A paper in Journalism Practice investigates how readers perceive automatically produced news articles vs. articles which have been written by a journalist.

The analysis undertaken by Christer Clerwall of Karlstad University in Sweden was conducted by presenting readers with different articles written by either journalists or computers. The readers were then asked to answer questions about how they perceived each article – e.g. the overall quality, credibility, objectivity.

Respondents' assessment about the origin of the text (software or journalist). N = 45 (one answer missing).  DOI:10.1080/17512786.2014.883116

The results suggest that the journalist-authored content was observed to be coherent, well-written and pleasant to read. However, while the computer generated content was perceived as descriptive and boring, it was also considered to be objective and trustworthy. Overall readers found it difficult to tell which articles had been written by journalists, and which were software-generated.

Perhaps most significant  is the discovery that there were no substantial differences in how the different articles were perceived by readers. Does that mean that computer robots are capable of doing as good a job as journalists? Should journalists be considering a career change just yet?

There are certainly advantages to be had in the speed with which computer-generated content can be produced, but will a robot writer ever be able to match the creativity, flexibility and analysis of journalist authored articles? The technology in place may not be quite able to reach these levels of sophisticated reporting yet, but it certainly provides food for thought as to how automated content might influence journalism in the future.

Citation: Christer Clerwall, 'Users' perceptions of automated content', Journalism Practice Feb 25, 2014 DOI:10.1080/17512786.2014.883116