Will journalists be replaced by AI?

18 May 2023

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Type: Text
Category: Industry insights, Innovation

This piece was written by Dr Kit Chapman, award-winning journalist and Course Leader and Senior Lecturer of Journalism MA (Online) and Creative Writing BA(Hons) (Online) 

There’s a lot of worried faces in journalism at the moment. AI has begun to creep into the newsrooms, with major outlets, such as the Daily Mirror and Daily Express, already using AI to write news stories. If a machine can create a well-written article that’s almost indistinguishable from humans, could that spell the end for journalists?  

Well, not so fast. It’s clear that AI has uses, but there are also several limitations as to what it can deliver – and that’s really where a journalist’s skill set lies.

Limitations of AI  

There’s no question, as anyone who has used AI chatbots in the past year can tell you, that AI tools like ChatGPT or Google Bard can produce a very good piece of writing. Although AI can be taught how to write in the style of anyone you want, there are telltale patterns that are easy to spot to the trained eye. News journalism typically follows a set pattern (called the news pyramid) for story structure, and this is relatively simple for an AI chatbot to mimic; combine this with stories that are ‘on-diary’ – stories that all newspapers and magazines have access to, such as a new report or financial information – and an AI can churn out a basic article almost instantaneously. 

The problem is that writing is only a fraction of a journalist’s skill. Journalism is really about getting to the heart of a story and reporting the truth. AI can’t, for example, interview someone over the phone and discover a hidden nugget of detail that alters the meaning of a story completely. AI doesn’t have the expertise and nous to identify that the brief mention of a new product at the bottom of a press release is the really important scoop. And it can’t relate the story into the wider context of journalism, give analysis and provide meaning for its audience. AI is a parrot: you can train it to repeat certain words, and nothing more. 

The best journalists use creativity to dig deeper – something that no AI tool has ever come close to achieving, and something unlikely to be seen for decades to come. 

The ethical boundaries of AI 

So, if journalists are safe, what about the flip-side – can AI be used to generate news? The consensus, both in the industry and the public, is a resounding ‘no’.  

A story where AI creates a newsworthy event that isn’t about information technology is almost certainly going to be an instance of fake news, something considered deliberate misinformation and propaganda. This is no more journalism than a reporter fabricating a story for clicks, and is considered highly unethical.  

We’ve already seen such cases emerge. Earlier this year, Anne Hoffmann, the editor of German magazine Die Aktuelle, was sacked after running an ‘interview’ with an AI bot trained to impersonate Formula One star Michael Schumacher, who has not been seen publicly in a decade since suffering a brain injury in 2013. Ignoring the incredibly poor taste of the interview, the article also breached basic guidelines in journalism ethics as to what constitutes a story, ran the risk of misleading the public as to the nature of the ‘interview’, and has resulted in legal action from Schumacher’s family.  

AI tools for journalists 

The door isn’t shut on AI completely, however, it’s still an incredibly useful tool for journalist to leverage. I use the transcription software Otter AI to type up my interview notes, for me – a process that used to take hours in the past, meticulously listening back and transcribing the words onto the page now happens while I go and get a cup of tea. Adobe Podcast uses AI to identify vocal patterns and clear up sounds in podcasts, giving clearer audio and an easier listening experience. And there are numerous AI tools that can help you with your writing – you probably used a spellchecking AI in your last email or social media post. 

Falmouth University is already pioneering the ethical use of AI in journalism. In his Journalism MA dissertation, student Michael Woods used generative AI to create images to illustrate his story, and write the JavaScript and HTML to create a game to go along with the project. Michael also used the program Descript to create an AI clone of his own voice, which he used as a podcast trailer. The work is all Michael’s – he did the interviews, the research and wrote all of his spectacular long-read piece about how political boundary changes affected Stockport. AI has merely been used to enhance his work. 

This is where AI fits with journalism: not as a replacement, but a useful assistant that can make life easier for journalists, and the story clearer and more engaging for the reader. The world of AI needs to be treated with care but if we embrace it in the right way, it could be a valuable new tool in making the news accessible to all.

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