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Can AI assist journalists?

HOW CAN Artificial Intelligence (AI) help journalists, asked November's LFB meeting. Our speakers were computer scientists who work with journalists.

Neil Maiden; Photo: Hazel Dunlop

Neil Maiden demonstrates the Inject tool

Neil Maiden, Professor of Digital Creativity at City University, London is co-instigator of Inject (www.injectproject.eu) - a free "discovery" engine. Inject trailed in local newsrooms in Scandinavia, where the journalists have to write six to ten stories a day. Neil claims Inject will "improve productivity so we can actually maintain the workforce" by helping journalists work "quicker and better".

More "information discovery" than information search, Inject is a plug-in or add-on that you can add to, for example, Google Docs. It appears as a side bar that helps you come up with new angles and ideas. Neil demonstrated by running search terms from a then-recent story - "Democrats" "House of Representatives" "majority" - through Inject. The software offers a selection from hundreds of thousands of recent news stories from 300 public news outlets, translated from six languages.

Inject's "creativity tool" gives prompts. For example, "Who is Richard Cordray?" He's a random Congressional candidate who may be a possible angle - a less obvious and more original one - for a story on the recent US mid-term elections. Another prompt brought up Pakistan PM Imran Khan and his less-than-obvious links to the mid-terms.

There are various "tools" with icons that you click on in the Inject sidebar -"backing and evidence", "causal", "individuals", even "quirky and satire". The sources that pop up on an Inject search are deliberately random: run it again and it gives different results. A "control" on the sidebar allows you to be more "strict" with your choice of sources, how far back the stories go and which original languages sources are in. Its users employ it for two or three minutes at a time, for those first moments of a story when you have only a topic and are finding an angle for it.

Toby Abel is co-founder of www.krzana.com - a proprietary newsgathering tool used by the BBC and Reach. He's noticed journalists are "really stretched" these days - with "way too much time" spent on keyword and trending searches in social media tools such as Tweetdeck.

Toby Abel; Photo: Hazel Dunlop

Toby Abel talks us through Krzana

According to Tony, AI is really good at those bits of the slog of newsgathering that we have to do but don't really regard as journalism. Keyword searches don't express your beat: they throw up mostly "noise". Results from searches for "spikes in activity" on social media are already too late, while there's the "more ideological issue... you're being told what to write by what people are already talking about".

While Google tells you what the top answer is, Krzana allows you to decide yourself what sort of sources you rely on. If you describe your beat with a search term such as, for example, "violence near polling stations in US", Krzana will bring up real-time results from blogs, police websites, Wikipedia edits and so on. This allows journalists "to take these simple tasks... automate those" so we have time to do the stuff we are actually trained to do.

  • Article updated 21 December: we are now spelling Toby Abel's name right