The perils of automation: Inadvertently asking readers if they want to buy a graphic on a sex offenders story

Ah, the joys of automation. Those who boldly predicted the future years ago said everything would be done by robots by now.

Luckily, we’re not there yet, although when it comes to journalism, some companies are giving it a jolly good try. As as the example on the link shows, it will have a place within journalism in the years ahead.

But there’s no denying that automation of process is often heralded as a good thing. And it can be. And I’m sure when the Leamington Observer decided it was important to promote its buy a photo service under every picture online, it did so with the best of intentions … driving picture sales revenue.

But automation also runs the risk of this:


Buying a photo of a graphic?


Or underneath the pick up family photo of a man who’d recently been killed?

murder picture

Digitally, it’s easy to automate things. These images perhaps prove that automation isn’t always a good thing, and it’s essential that journalists have the ability to manage every aspect of their stories online to ensure that things don’t look odd, and more importantly, offence isn’t inadvertently caused.

Just because we can pull in tweets automatically based on a search term doesn’t mean we should – where’s the value in that to the user? And in a world where programmatic advertising is so often contextual to a story, we need to make sure we have the ability to remove things which inadvertently cause offence.

Those stories about funeral director adverts appearing alongside print coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997? It’s exactly the same now. Same problem, different platform – and with the lure of automation thrown in for good measure.

In a world where anyone can be a publisher, the presentation of content to a certain standard has never been so important. The idea of automation appeals to anyone who is pressed for time, but the very real danger is that it alienates readers. We might know why Google ads for self esteem classes appear next to a story about a man threatening to commit suicide the reader, rightly, doesn’t expect it, and won’t understand it.

The argument ‘It’s automatic’ doesn’t cut much ice with readers, I suspect.


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