Sky News has been testing the limits of Artificial Intelligence to see what effect it could have on the future of journalism.
Our experiment with having computers research, write and edit the news gave us mixed results – from pitching sensible stories about affordable housing to the bizarre claim that spilling milk can help the environment.
But that’s the limit of technology now – what about the future?
Professor Charlie Beckett runs JournalismAI, a London School of Economics initiative that helps newsrooms looking to leverage AI in a responsible way.
While it’s been running since 2019, its role has never been clearer than today, as editors and reporters alike get to grips with the power of generative AI.
He says “a lot of newsrooms are thinking through what they might do” with the tech, but all are conscious of the pitfalls. From a hoax AI-generated column in The Irish Times, to CNET finding errors in AI-written stories, it’s clear it’s not quite ready to replace real journalists.
“If you get a tiny thing wrong at Sky News, people are laughing at you, it’s all across social media – and the chances of AI doing that is very high,” says Prof Beckett.
“If we all get lazy and expect GPT to write our stories and scripts and so on, they may get worse.”
But just as mobile phones and Google search transformed journalistic labour, AI seems destined to have a similarly profound impact.
The result, Prof Beckett believes, will ultimately be a smaller newsroom – one where AI could replace the work of those who find interviews, write scripts for presenters, and some of those who write stories for online audiences.
“There will be new jobs, people who have to edit the algorithm, review the automation, go through the data set you’ve given it – hybrid jobs that are kind of techy but also editorial,” he says.
“And the savings you make in the efficiencies could be directed towards getting people to do better human journalism – getting reporters out to interview people more, doing stories that are more imaginative, more empathetic or perhaps more opinionated, the sort of things the machines don’t do so well.”
Lecturers grapple with how to prepare reporters for potentially AI-powered newsrooms
At the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism, lecturers are grappling with how to prepare the next generation of reporters for the potentially AI-powered newsrooms of the future.
Professor Ian Reeves says while there are “reasonable and ethical uses for it within a newsroom”, AI is also “perfectly capable of spitting out utter nonsense with a completely straight face”.
“We’ve noticed in some of the journalism assignments that we’re giving to our students that they’ve attempted to use this tech to deliver journalistic content – in some cases with rather hilarious results,” he says.
“In one piece about The Sun newspaper and its coverage of an event, the chatbot hadn’t been able to distinguish between the newspaper and the fiery star in the sky.
“[So] we’re also trying to demonstrate to them that the risks of relying on it to produce sensible content are pretty high.”
Usefulness of generative AI lies in basic groundwork of journalism
Like Prof Beckett, Prof Reeves believes the usefulness of generative AI to a reporter or editor lies in some of the more mundane, basic groundwork of journalism.
Google is often the first port of call for researching an unfamiliar topic – it could be that it’s usurped by ChatGPT.
What AI “can’t do and I don’t think ever will be able to do”, says Prof Reeves, are the “really fundamental journalistic tasks” of talking to real people about real events, of bearing witness and holding power to account.
It’s these skills that will become even more important if journalists are to survive in the era of AI.
“It comes down to trust and credibility,” he says. “The best journalists, the ones who make a difference, are the ones out there talking to people about how things are affecting their real lives, bearing witness to events. The ones who have the skills to find things out and reveal stuff that powerful people don’t want to be revealed.
“That’s not really something AI can do.
“The jobs that AI will come for are the content farm type jobs which don’t actually involve those skills and it’s arguable whether it was ever real journalism in the first place – churning out things you’ve seen elsewhere without interaction with anyone else in the process.
“AI will do that very well and publishers will see the business sense of getting a platform to do that rather than hiring people to do it.”
As for those who read, watch, and listen to what newsrooms produce: “Personalisation and reformatting content – young people want the news in the format, tone, style and size and on the platform that they want – they don’t want to watch your three-minute film if they’ve only got 20 seconds.
“The reformatting and that customisation of content, translating it into different languages for example, give me the simple version or the explainer version of that item please, that’s going to be a big area over time.
“My sort of sci-fi vision for this is a kind of Robocop journalist with all these tools to help them be more efficient and much more powerful and able to research much better, and then a content creation thing that takes their original piece and turns it into all sorts of iterations.
“And then your audience sitting at home having breakfast watching Sky News, they can get into the car, and it continues as audio with a selection of stories they’re interested in.
“Then they get home from work in the evening and just want a nice long read, and it all happens semi-automatically, where people have a kind of Spotify-like ability to shape what they get.”
Tune into our special programme tonight as we explore the impact of AI on the workforce in the UK and beyond with guests like former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
We will also find out if the West is falling behind China in the global race for AI supremacy. That’s AI Future: a Special Programme is on from 7pm tonight on Sky News.