What types of local news should be automated? The Toronto Star finds out

Automated news is often dived in when a publication first tests it. Automatically generated crime stories will then probably generate even more criticism.

“Let’s face it: the crime coverage is terrible.” Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli wrote in their Nieman Lab prediction for 2021. “It’s racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism.”

In April, the Toronto Star began using Toronto Police Service data to publish stories of burglaries across the city, using Toronto Police Service data. Since then, about six articles have been published weekly, summarizing the break-and-enter reports from each of Toronto’s six boroughs.

The stories all follow pretty much the same format. They do not contain any personal information such as names or specific addresses. The headlines report the number of burglaries in a given borough over the past week. The first paragraphs of the citywide burglary count for the week, followed by the year-to-date total. It is then recorded whether and by what percentage the break-and-entries have increased or decreased in the same period compared to the previous year. All burglary reports are then listed, categorized by district neighborhood in alphabetical order.

The last paragraph of each story indicates that it was automatically generated from open data collected and maintained by the Toronto Police Service. It is noted that “recent crime data is preliminary and subject to change as police investigations continue.”

The practice of automatically generating some reports is not new. The Los Angeles Times Quakebot, launched in 2014, generates stories about earthquakes. Reuters experimented with a tool that helps reporters find interesting anomalies in data. The Toronto Star itself has published other automated series on local freeway closures, election results, home prices and restaurant inspections.

But the automated reporting of break-and-enters drew additional attention. efforts to change how they cover crime. Over the summer, Jordan Heath Rawlingsthe host of the Big Story podcast in Canada, asked questions about the Star’s automated reports in a Twitter thread. “I’m not saying THIS particular series of articles (which appears to be writing an article based on reported burglaries for every Toronto neighborhood) is bad,” he wrote. “But I think streamlining the process that goes from police to media even further is … a decision.”

Cody Gault, content product manager at the Toronto Star, told me that the strategic use of automation on some articles has helped give reporters more time to dig deeper.

“The best example of automated content thoroughly ‘replacing’ editorial-produced content is our automated DineSafe series, where we report the results of health inspections for local restaurants, bars, cafes, bakeries and grocery stores,” said Gault . “Reporters have hand-produced stories like this because readers really want that information. But I don’t think any reporter or editor misses writing or editing this series before we automated it — and readership has only increased since.”

Another example: The Star had already reported on the rise in car thefts in the city, so automated weekly reports on the number of car thefts complemented these investigations. However, break-and-enter stories have not previously been manually handled by Star reporters.

Jean Hugues Roy, a journalism professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, likened The Star’s practice to when newspapers sent a reporter to a police station to report for police filing. Back then, he said, you had to trust that the reporter and the police chief would not omit information. Now you have to trust that all the data is there.

“I wonder what answers it takes,” Roy said. “The job of the local newspaper is to talk about relevant things. While everything is published here. So what is relevant? We lack the human being to understand this flood of data and articles.”

In the case of the break-and-enter stories, “everyone realized that poor execution of the idea would be a problem,” Gault told me in an email. The series was reviewed and approved before publication began by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, editor-in-chief news, editor-in-chief digital and public publisher, as well as editorial directors in other parts of the company, he told me.

Within the paper, initial concerns fell into different categories: what was the source of the data and how reliable was it? Would the star violate the privacy of victims or suspects? And would the series stigmatize some communities?

The Toronto Police Service is governed by the Ontario Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, which requires public entities to make public information available and also sets standards for the protection of personal information. The data comes from the Toronto Police Department’s open data portal, where Star reporters also pull other crime statistics.

The third concern required further discussion. “Some editors wondered if the series would reveal that break-and-centers are more common in neighborhoods that are less affluent and less white,” Gault told me. They “were concerned that extensive reporting of these incidents without additional context could contribute to the stigmatization of these communities.”

As it turned out, that wasn’t what the data showed. “The series gives the impression that between 35 and 55 burglaries are reported in Toronto every week [and that] It’s relatively uncommon for more than two burglaries to be reported in a given neighborhood in a given week,” Gault said. They tend to be reported more frequently in neighborhoods with a large population. And they are down in 2022 compared to the previous year.

“If instead we had discovered that there was a glaring discrepancy, it would have been up to the editors to decide whether or not to show the series – as is always the case,” Gault said. “But I hope we would have found a responsible way to report this because I share the Toronto Star’s commitment to social reform and because I don’t know how we can address inequality in our city other than by reporting it when.” we they find it.”


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