Authentic and Original Content Will Save Journalism
Written by Dr Robbie Smyth
Dr Robbie Smyth is Head of the Journalism & Media Communications Faculty at Griffith College.
Authentic and original content will save journalism and Artificial Intelligence could be the right partner to make this happen. This is going to be huge.
Journalism and media communications will be transformed by generative artificial intelligence. The challenges for the profession are massive, daunting. However, there is also an unprecedented opportunity to enhance and reimagine the discipline. Individual practitioners as well as owners large and small have an opening to build a new form of journalism. If they don't take it, journalistic practice could be swallowed whole by the growing potency of artificial intelligence.
For those working in the media today, they are in an industry that has come through more than three decades of rolling systemic disruptive change. This has impacted on every aspect of media practice. So, the coming round of AI-related disruption is just the latest phase in an ongoing process of technological change in the media industries.
30 years of technology disruption
First came the move from typewriters to PCs and laptops. This technology transformed the act of writing with the ability to cut and paste text. The individual journalist's editing and proofing skills became more important as the work sent to editors became more complete and the final draft of articles were much closer to what would eventually be published.
Here the first AI technologies began to impact the media workplace, though we might not have used this term. Writing software packages like Microsoft Office began to include spell checks, basic grammar suggestions and access to a thesaurus. You could also add words into the PC's library. In my own professional practice, we were comparing scores from text-proofing programmes in the early 1990s.
Modem technologies that could transfer files using phone lines had by the early 1990s entered most newsrooms. Journalists' articles and scripts didn't need to be retyped by copywriters. At the same time, the emergence of computerised digital layout packages like Quark Express and Corel Draw transformed the look and feel of papers and magazines, leaflets and posters. Detailed maps, illustrations and complex graphics became the norm throughout the print industry.
Other digital technologies that could record and edit sound, still and moving images rolled through our industry. Journalists now record through smartphones with a professional mic. Mobile journalism (MoJo) also uses the smartphone as the facilitator of visual content creation. For radio and TV broadcasters the system of storing and reusing content was revolutionised overnight. Not only was content more efficiently stored, but it was also now easily retrieved and curatable in a way not imaginable before. TV, radio and film archives across the world began the road to digital storage.
The emergence of the internet, and Web 2.0 apps like Google, YouTube and Yahoo had perhaps the greatest effect in this time period. Legacy news media whether in print, radio or television now had to have a web presence and think of how audiences would move between platforms.
Linear radio and TV began to offer content online, while still figuring how out how to earn revenue from it. Here was the first media folly of the digital period, giving away content for free online. In the print media this forever damaged the industry and newspaper circulation has been in a slow but steady decline. On the plus side, some newspapers like the New York Times, or the British Guardian have more daily readers and users than ever before. But for many organisations, it has been a round of cuts, service reductions and closure.
In 2023 the news media does seem to be turning a corner. There were and there are workable business models. Revenue, buyers, readers, viewers, and listenership are all growing across the sector.
The other significant change in media practice was the speed of content creation. Working journalists today create significantly more content than their pre-digital peers. The 24 TV news cycle has been replicated online. The quality though of this work can be questioned.
So where does generative AI fit into this pattern of disruptive change?
The AI challenge
The primary fear of AI is that it will create journalistic content across all formats making the writer/creator redundant. Yes, AI bots can write and sometimes write well. The technology can create images, and I assume video clips. They have access to billions of words, countless articles and books, scripts and other word-based artefacts stored across the internet. This includes everything from Shakespeare and Sappho to student essays. Perhaps it was folly to allow these last libraries of content to be freely accessible online. But that was part of the original utopian thinking that created the internet in the first place, a world repository of knowledge and creativity.
Add to this millions of images and unceasing hours of video footage and you have a world of content to scavenge and repurpose. Would you really know that particular footage of Joe Biden addressing a crowd or Donald Trump speaking was any different from their actual appearance? Often their speeches are remarkably similar and Trump always has a blue suit, white shirt and red tie. Why would Pope Francis not turn up in a Balenciaga jacket? How do we know what is real or not?
It never occurred, I think, to the early web pioneers that machine learning technology would lead to machines being instructed to mimic human creativity. But here we are. And going forward online content in all forms has a significant verification problem. Wired magazine has created an AI policy, on where they will and will not use AI technology. Expect all news media outlets to follow suit.
However, it might be practical for AI technology to take on some writing and content creation tasks, such as news updates of sports scores and the first draft of match reports, telling what the result was, who scored, what minute, who assisted, who was substituted or sent off. The journalist could add the other details in the longer report that usually follows, or more importantly conduct interviews with players, officials and other participants.
In some sense, mainstream journalism has created the tools for its own decline, with sometimes predictable repetitive voyeuristic reporting. As I write this article, a number of news stories are garnering coverage and comment in Ireland and Britain. One is the appearance of the British Prince Harry in a courtroom, the second involved the resignation of TV presenter Philip Schofield from a morning TV programme, and the third is the destruction of a dam in the Kherson region of Ukraine. All three stories have little new content to them. We know the events are happening, but each has been the subject of repetitive speculation across all news media platforms. And all of this content could have been created easily, I think, by an AI chatbot.
The most powerful addition to the Schofield story was two interviews. One was conducted by Amol Rajan, a BBC radio presenter for the Today programme and the second was conducted by the Sun newspaper. These elements added depth and background to the ongoing story. They were the key meaningful additions to the story arc in a week where there was a torrent of news comments about Schofield. The interviews couldn't have been conducted by an AI chatbot.
The journalism we really need
The key here is authenticity and originality. These are the key pillars that can allow journalism to adapt to AI. In the Kherson example, we need reporting from the site. We need interviews with residents, experts and government officials. We need to hear the voice of those impacted most by this crisis.
AI would not have broken the stories like the Panama Papers or the Wikileaks revelations regarding human rights abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Edward Snowden's disclosures about NSA surveillance of European governments. It could though in the case of the Panama Papers and some of the Wikileaks disclosures been a powerful resource to trawl through the core material.
Also, in Ireland, the revelations that led to the Beef, Moriarty and Flood Tribunals could not have been created by a chatbot, but again the AI technology could be used to trawl through depositions and the enormous scale of paperwork these tribunals involve. AI would not have aided the diligence and perseverance of Catherine Corless whose investigations into baby deaths in Tuam's so-called 'Mother and baby home', sparked a national investigation into the conditions of children in these institutions.
Similarly, the investigations of the BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith into the life of Philomena Lee, who was forced to surrender her child to a religious baby home, brought ingenuity and authenticity to Lee's story that AI could never achieve. His reporting led to a book and a film. This is where journalism comes into its own.
We could also consider the revelations that lead to the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the reporting that culminated in the Watergate scandal, the resignation, of a President, Vice President and many other senior officials in Richard Nixon's administration.
We can move back to any decade over the last 200 years and find great examples of authentic, original journalism.
Maybe AI is doing a service to the journalism profession, by highlighting the uselessness of the banal disposable torrent of content that the modern news media cycles can sometimes create. And how easy it is for machines to replicate this content brings into question its role in informing the public in the first place.
Journalism is a vital part of society, and in the modern world more important than ever. We need journalists and the organisations they work for to be able to call society and all its institutions to account. We need journalism that is innovative and creative, and that seeks to tell truths. In 1936 Henry Luce wrote in a memo the mission statement of a new publication, that would become Life magazine. He wrote that the purpose of the magazine would be to, "To see life; To see the world; to eyewitness great events … to see strange things … to see and be amazed". Luce was the founder of not just Life Magazine, but also Time and Sports Illustrated. Nearly ninety years later this should still be the mission of the contemporary journalist.
The New York Times mission states that "We seek the truth and help people understand the world". The Washington Post website proclaims that "Democracy dies in darkness". It might also be suffocating in the sea of nonsense news.
Authentic, original journalism that testifies to the truth and reality of an audience's lived experience will not be usurped by generative AI. The technology though, could be a vital partner.