Algorithms writing news stories? How unambitious

Are algorithms the future of news writing? Wired had an interesting article on that topic last week, focusing on a company called Narrative Science that is already doing it. Here’s the excerpt Wired provides from a Narrative Science story:

Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning … Friona piled up the steals, swiping eight bags in all …

I know as a writer I’m expected to either cower in fear or boast that no algorithm can ever spin prose like mine. But I had a totally different reaction. At the point where algorithms are handling the news, why are we still using news stories?

The news story is, from an informational perspective, pretty unsophisticated. It’s a block of text, a headline, some tags. There’s barely any structure or metadata.

But for an algorithm to be able to report the news it would seem that you pretty much have to impose this kind of structure on the information, and it’s clear from Wired that that’s what Narrative Science does:

Narrative Science’s writing engine requires several steps. First, it must amass high-quality data. That’s why finance and sports are such natural subjects…

…So Narrative Science’s engineers program a set of rules that govern each subject, be it corporate earnings or a sporting event. But how to turn that analysis into prose? The company has hired a team of “meta-writers,” trained journalists who have built a set of templates. They work with the engineers to coach the computers to identify various “angles” from the data…

…Then comes the structure. Most news stories, particularly about subjects like sports or finance, hew to a pretty predictable formula, and so it’s a relatively simple matter for the meta-writers to create a framework for the articles. To construct sentences, the algorithms use vocabulary compiled by the meta-writers.

My question is this: Why, when you’ve imposed all this structure on the information do you package it in such a “dumb” format? Yeah, I get that people are accustomed to reading news articles, and if you experiment with some new information format you risk users not understanding or embracing it.

But is there any reason to think that the news story is the ideal way to take in information? Yes, humans like narrative. But they’ll get that in magazine journalism. The basic news item – who won a game, what happened to a stock – doesn’t need to be digested as a story.

That’s why we have headlines, that’s why we use bullet points and bold stuff.

As Google’s Richard Gingras recently said:

“Do we not deserve to rethink the architecture of what a ‘story’ is, the form of presentation and narrative to meet the needs of people who are consuming, not just by articles?”

If you have an algorithm smart enough to parse events happening in the world and translate it into structured data you ought to be dreaming a little bigger about how to present it to your audience. The upside down pyramid format worked when turning news into data would have been another step. Now that’s already done as a necessity of algorithmic news.

Your memories are bought and paid for

I’ve been reading a lot about cognitive biases lately, for a post I recently finished (that hopefully will be published soon) and I wanted to share a fascinating post only slightly related to that topic, that didn’t make it into my post on the subject. Jonah Lehrer has a characteristically fascinating post at Wired on how ads implant false memories. You really should read it all. But here’s a bit that struck me, from the perspective of someone interested in media:

A new study, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, helps explain both the success of this marketing strategy and my flawed nostalgia for Coke. It turns out that vivid commercials are incredibly good at tricking the hippocampus (a center of long-term memory in the brain) into believing that the scene we just watched on television actually happened. And it happened to us.

The experiment went like this: 100 undergraduates were introduced to a new popcorn product called “Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh Microwave Popcorn.” (No such product exists, but that’s the point.) Then, the students were randomly assigned to various advertisement conditions. Some subjects viewed low-imagery text ads, which described the delicious taste of this new snack food. Others watched a high-imagery commercial, in which they watched all sorts of happy people enjoying this popcorn in their living room. After viewing the ads, the students were then assigned to one of two rooms. In one room, they were given an unrelated survey. In the other room, however, they were given a sample of this fictional new popcorn to taste. (A different Orville Redenbacher popcorn was actually used.)
One week later, all the subjects were quizzed about their memory of the product. Here’s where things get disturbing: While students who saw the low-imagery ad were extremely unlikely to report having tried the popcorn, those who watched the slick commercial were just as likely to have said they tried the popcorn as those who actually did. Furthermore, their ratings of the product were as favorable as those who sampled the salty, buttery treat. Most troubling, perhaps, is that these subjects were extremely confident in these made-up memories. The delusion felt true. They didn’t like the popcorn because they’d seen a good ad. They liked the popcorn because it was delicious.

Read the whole post to learn more about the science here. But isn’t that variable of text vs. video fascinating?