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Journalists Face an Identity Crisis With AI

Will ChatGPT and other AI tools make reporters obsolete?

Back Web Only Aug 29, 2023 By Dakota Morlan

Will generative AI replace journalists? Many of those in the business think so, if preventative measures are not taken. Others say it’s a tool for brainstorming and increased productivity. In June, Insider listed media roles (including journalism) as one of the top 10 fields that may soon be replaced by AI, emphasizing that mid-career, mid-ability workers will be the first on the chopping block. 

There’s no question that large language model-based chatbots like ChatGPT, while notoriously imperfect in their fact-checking, can write more quickly than a journalist with a beating heart. Humans have limitations in the form of attention bandwidth, processing speed and fingers. In the time it has taken to formulate and type the previous sentence, a well-worded prompt to ChatGPT could have generated a less biased article with an infinitely broader frame of references, if the software’s training data were up to date (it’s currently limited to September 2021). Once updated, chatbots can mine data from this very article to generate an arguably better one, using this exact writing style if prompted. 

But perhaps the most startling revelation is that citations are not required. Copyright law currently allows the scraping of massive amounts of data from publication websites under the umbrella of “fair use,” allowing readers to bypass paywalls and diverting traffic away from websites that rely on clicks for advertising revenue. 

“There’s obviously no law that makes anyone cite their sources. But readers usually won’t trust information that doesn’t have adequate attribution,” says Phillip Reese, data specialist at The Sacramento Bee and associate professor of journalism at Sacramento State University. “It’s well known by now that chatbots hallucinate. I don’t think anyone would or should trust LLM (large language model) generated news articles at this moment. But AI will get better, likely as AI companies pay news publishers to scan reported, sourced content.”

Publishers are pivoting

Some media mammoths including IAC and News Corp, the Rupert Murdoch-owned company that owns the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, are seeking to change copyright law “if necessary” and litigate against those who recycle their content without permission. Others are striking deals. Last month, the Associated Press, the world’s largest news gathering organization, reached an agreement with ChatGPT developer OpenAI to “share access to select news content and technology as they examine potential use cases for generative AI in news products and services.” An AP article describes the collaboration as part of nearly a decade-long effort to “use automation to make its journalism more effective, as well as help local news outlets integrate the technology into their operations.” 

The agreement demonstrates that publishers do have leverage. Chatbots rely on data from reputable sources like news outlets to improve their own accuracy, Reese says. “I don’t think news publishers will stand by as chatbots crawl their sites and take the spoils of their original reporting. I expect publishers will push for agreements with technology companies that will share revenue from stories generated by AI,” he adds. 

But will this really “save” the journalist if AI is the one writing the article, or will the print media landscape become a barren rehashing of bot-generated content? The AP says it does not use generative AI in its stories, but as data accuracy improves through collaboration, it isn’t hard to imagine a world where most news articles do. In fact, we’re almost there. We’ve all seen the “slightly off” social media post or read the Buzzfeed listicle that may or may not have been written by a robot. With this kind of click-baity content, the reader is often none the wiser — it’s the would-be human writer who pays the price. (Buzzfeed laid off 12% of its workforce in 2022.) At higher levels of professional writing, editors are dealing with opportunist hacks clogging their inboxes with poorly written computer-generated content. 

But as chatbots continue to learn and to write better, the talent gap between human and bot will inevitably narrow and perhaps one day close. Journalists not only face a crisis of utility but also a tsunami of seemingly infinite content through which they must distinguish themselves. It begs the most existential questions: What does a journalist do, and how can a human do that better than a robot?

Back to basics

Before generative AI, the rise of the internet rocked journalism. Not only from a business perspective — forcing print publications to find new ways to monetize — but also expanding the breadth of online “content” writers could produce. Ironically, these newer roles will be the first to go. 

Traditional, boots-on-the-ground journalists are far more difficult to replace. Chatbots can’t wear boots, at least not yet. A good reporter exists in the field and on the phone, piecing together stories long before they’re written and coaxing reluctant sources to go on the record, then asking the right questions, the right way. 

According to the oracle itself, ChatGPT, “Jobs that are least likely to be replaced by AI are those that involve complex human interactions, creativity, emotional intelligence, physical dexterity, and high-level decision-making. These types of jobs require a level of human intuition, empathy, and adaptability that AI and automation currently struggle to replicate.”

In journalism, there is also the element of human drive. Most journalists are motivated by their curiosity, a perceived injustice, a moral imperative to report the facts or even a competitive spirit. Robots can’t know the feelings that arise while interviewing the mother of a murder victim or a player on the winning team, and that matters. 

Good journalism is defined by famed Watergate scandal investigative reporter Carl Bernstein as a medium that “should challenge people, not just mindlessly amuse them,” and by TV news pioneer John Chancellor as “to take information and add value to it.” It is difficult to challenge and to add value without tasting the multiplex organic salad of sensory input and human behavior.

“AI can’t go into the field and do reporting, which is how great journalism happens. So I hope this puts renewed focus on news gathering,” says Reese. “I do think the days of human journalists sitting at a computer and writing eight stories a day based on aggregation of other people’s original reporting are nearing an end. AI will do that work soon. I hope those journalists are given the chance to use their skills to go out into the world and do original reporting.”

It may also be wise for journalists to incorporate AI tools into their work to boost efficiency and become more competitive. And they should probably lean into their editing skills, too. 

But for now, Reese wouldn’t trust chatbots with anything more than cleaning up grammar. 

“I’m sure it will get more reliable,” he adds. “It’s not hard to imagine a reporter recording interviews, feeding them into AI and getting a decent story template that they can build upon, but we aren’t there yet. If and when we get there, we need to hold to basic journalism practices; namely, citing our sources and making it clear when and how AI is used.”

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