Sunday, 25 January 2009

News websites and the perils of automation

News websites rely on automation to create lists of stories. Usually, this is a benign and sometimes useful way of navigating readers around the wealth of content. But at other times it can wipe millions off share prices or cause unnecessary suffering. Sky News is, I think, guilty of the latter today.

Automated lists of new articles are cheaper and more efficient than getting a journalist to do it. Occasionally the automated lists are useful devices which throw up something interesting.

The BBC News 'most emailed' lists will usually be dominated by human interest stories:

And occasionally, 'most read' stories turns up something interesting, such as a story coming back to life, despite not changing for many months. Witness also the enduring interest in The Times' first hand account of incest.

However, automated lists still need moderation. When humans are cut out completely, the end result can be awful.

In September 2008, United Airlines lost 75 per cent of its share price value when a story which (accurately) reported that the airline had filed for bankruptcy was automatically republished with the latest date. Google News now carried the followig warning at the bottom of its search results - though I don't think that will be enough to completely eradicate a similar mistake happening again.

Today, the Sky News homepage reports the tragic news that a Brazilian model, Mariana Bridi da Costa, had her feet and hands amputated after her blood became infected. Sadly, Miss da Costa died on Saturday.

However, the Sky News story reporting the amputation still appears on its homepage:

This makes Sky News look crass and insensitive but also slightly incompetent. The report of her death also appears on the homepage:

News website owners would do well to remember that their major strength (and their competitive edge over blogs) lies in the skills and expertise of their journalists - not their computers.

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