journalists can exploit ai

Chatbots may reinvent the way we write news, but AI is also helping newsrooms connect with readers and reach new audiences

In May 2022, the Finnish public broadcaster Yle noticed an audience they weren’t reaching. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians displaced by the war had moved to Finland. Yle offered news in Finnish, Swedish, English, and Russian. Now, they wanted to offer it in Ukrainian. But it wasn’t easy finding Finnish journalists who could speak the language.

“When the war started, every media company was interested in those people,” says Jarkko Ryynänen, project manager for the Yle News Lab. Instead of having staff rewrite stories in a new language, Yle turned to software to translate. The team built a tool that ran stories through four different types of translation software and presented the results to staffers who knew both languages. It allowed Yle to publish stories in Ukrainian at a rate that would be impossible if the news were written and reported in the language from the beginning, the way many articles for Yle’s Russian and English services are. “With the computer, this couple of people are so much more powerful,” Ryynänen says.

Yle using AI to translate its articles is one of the more upbeat stories about artificial intelligence (AI) in newsrooms in a time that’s full of dire predictions for the technology’s impact on journalism.

The public launch of image generators such as DALL-E and Stable Diffusion and the chatbot ChatGPT had users flooding social media with machine-generated words and pictures that were crafted so well that the results seemed nearly authentically human. We’re used to seeing computers work with highly structured data like spreadsheets or lines of code, but these apps process words in a highly complex way. They offer a glimpse of how AI could both replace human writers and fill the internet with false words and pictures, thus making the role of a reporter simultaneously obsolete and more necessary than ever.

Early experiments stoked these fears. The tech news website CNET announced earlier this year that it was pausing its program to write stories using AI after the resulting articles were not only riddled with errors, but rife with plagiarism. Mathias Döpfner, CEO of German Publisher Axel Springer, which recently acquired Politico, wrote in a company email in February that “artificial intelligence has the potential to make independent journalism better than it ever was — or simply replace it.” In January, Buzzfeed announced internally that it would use technology from OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, to automate the writing of its signature quizzes. To assuage concerns, a spokesperson said the site “remains focused on human-generated journalism.” Two months later, Buzzfeed began publishing travel articles written with AI. Shortly after, it announced the end of its Pulitzer-winning news operation.

“Human-generated journalism” can be hard to define. Visit a newsroom today and you’re likely to find reporters uploading recordings of their interviews to transcription services like Otter or Trint, while social media editors track trending topics using algorithms from Crowdtangle. A study from the Reuters Institute found that two-thirds of surveyed newsrooms were using AI to customize readers’ experiences, for instance by recommending stories they might like to read. Before it tried translations, Yle began using AI to track lawmakers’ votes. Another example is The Associated Press, which has published machine-written financial stories since 2016 with a goal of giving reporters time to focus on in-depth reporting.

AI follows search and social media in promising further disruption to the news business —especially as social media networks struggle to maintain relevance and search engines increasingly add AI features and chatbot interactions to their services. Google announced a new service this spring that would respond to some search queries with an AI-generated response instead of the usual list of links.

Cleverly coded chatbots may threaten to reinvent the way we write news, but AI in other forms isn’t so much replacing journalists’ jobs as it is automating so many of the tasks that were heaped onto their workloads over the last 20 years. AI is helping newsrooms reach readers online in new languages and compete on a global scale. It’s studying publishers’ stories to find patterns in reader behavior and using those patterns to serve readers stories they’re more likely to click on. AI is even filling in boilerplate paragraphs and giving writers a head-start on their first drafts.

“If we think of AI as a support tool in a lot of these various arenas, we get a lot more mileage out of what AI can actually do,” says Dalia Hashim, AI and media integrity lead at the Partnership on AI, a nonprofit coalition of businesses, media, and academic organizations that recommends best practices for using AI.

But the difference between being helped by AI and being replaced by it lies in understanding how it works and reinforcing the value of the human side of journalism.

AI, Natural Language Processing, and Journalism

“Artificial intelligence” is something of a catch-all for advanced algorithms that power everything from web searches to the alerts you get on your phone encouraging you to look at old pictures to more advanced applications like DALL-E and ChatGPT. Both DALL-E and ChatGPT, which stands for Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, are made by the same company, OpenAI. Generative refers to the technology’s ability to generate data — words or pictures in these cases. Pre-trained refers to the process of feeding the app sets of data to inform it. Transformer is a type of machine learning that processes that data.

Essentially, it studies billions of examples — say a library of text — and then produces an output based on a prediction of what’s likely to come next.

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by Gabe Bullard, Nieman Reports

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

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