So far, newsrooms have pursued two very different approaches to integrating the buzziest new AI tool, ChatGPT, into their work. Tech news site CNET secretly started using ChatGPT to write entire articles, only for the experiment to go up in flames. It ultimately had to issue corrections amid accusations of plagiarism. Buzzfeed, on the other hand, has taken a more careful, measured approach. Its leaders want to use ChatGPT to generate quiz answers, guided by journalists who create the topics and questions.
You can boil these stories down to a fundamental question many industries now face: How much control should we give to an AI system? CNET gave too much and ended up in an embarrassing mess, whereas Buzzfeed’s more cautious (and transparent) approach of using ChatGPT as a productivity tool has been generally well received, and led its stock price to surge.
But here’s the dirty secret of journalism: a surprisingly large amount of it could be automated, says Charlie Beckett, a professor at the London School of Economics who runs a program called JournalismAI. Journalists routinely reuse text from news agencies and steal ideas for stories and sources from competitors. It makes perfect sense for newsrooms to explore how new technologies could help them make these processes more efficient.
“The idea that journalism is this blossoming flower bed of originality and creativity is absolute rubbish,” Beckett says. (Ouch!)
It’s not necessarily a bad thing if we can outsource some of the boring and repetitive parts of journalism to AI. In fact, it could free journalists up to do more creative and important work.
One good example I’ve seen of this is using ChatGPT to repackage newswire text into the “smart brevity” format used by Axios. The chatbot seems to do a good enough job of it, and I can imagine that any journalist in charge of imposing that format will be happy to have time to do something more fun.
That’s just one example of how newsrooms might successfully use AI. AI can also help journalists summarize long pieces of text, comb through data sets, or come up with ideas for headlines. In the process of writing this newsletter, I’ve used several AI tools myself, such as autocomplete in word processing and transcribing audio interviews.
But there are some major concerns with using AI in newsrooms. A major one is privacy, especially around sensitive stories where it’s vital to protect your source’s identity. This is a problem journalists at MIT Technology Review have bumped into with audio transcription services, and sadly the only way around it is to transcribe sensitive interviews manually.