Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Jesuit Relations and Robot Reporting: An Argument for Printing Those Documents Out!

Interesting juxtaposition in Le Devoir today: a story about the increasing use of non-human tools to gather news, and one about the new Jesuit archives in Montreal.

The first begins by detailing Stats Monkey, a program developed at the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University. It purports to be able to write an account of a baseball game, for example, using on-line information about box score and play by play that "captures the overall dynamic of the game and highlights the key plays and key players."

The second story is a visit to the center for Jesuit documentation, opened last fall. It includes "more than 300 items from New France in the 1600s, 18,000 books, 1,500 rare books" plus memoirs and official records. Jesuit missionaries were supposed to write annual letters back to their headquarters, and these Relations are some of the most detailed windows of the world where European explorers and conquerors were followed by priests. That they exist today in printed and manuscript form shows the importance of recording current life in something more permanent than electronic media.

Of course, notes the first story, using robot reporters to produce ordinary news stories could free flesh and blood journalists to do more in depth reporting. And it's true that some good stories have recently come to light by reporters who were given the time to do some digging, including some bombshells about questionable connections between the construction industry and the Quebec government.

But is anybody printing out these stories and making sure they're archived? It's not even clear whether newspapers are keeping hardcopies, and certainly radio and television aren't. If we don't there will be no documents like those in the Jesuit archives which will bear witness too our times.

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