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Debate Over AI in Journalism: ‘Can Machines Replace Human Reporters?’

In a dialogue with ChatGPT, Iain Overton explores whether truth and meaning can really be left to machines

Photo: Electric Hand/Alamy

Debate Over AI in JournalismCan Machines Replace Human Reporters?

In a dialogue with ChatGPT, Iain Overton explores whether truth and meaning can really be left to machines

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AI: The idea of AI replacing journalists has been a hot topic of debate for some time now. However, recent developments suggest that this is not just a hypothetical scenario, but a real possibility. The regional UK publisher Reach plc’s exploration of using artificial intelligence to support their news editorial teams is just one example of how this could become a reality.

Human: The argument that AI could enhance journalism by automating routine tasks and freeing up reporters to focus on more complex reporting is, of course, an attractive one. At least to a media baron trying to find ways to make money in an age when words are cheap.  But it is an approach deeply troubling in terms of its unintended consequences: sacrificing short-term gain with long-term journalistic credibility. The use of AI in journalism, for instance, risks leading to a homogenisation of news stories, with AI-generated reports being uniform and lacking in nuance, replicating each other ad nauseum until the essence of a story – or its development over time – is lost in the swirl of repetition. 

The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s theory of mechanical reproduction predicted the dangers of AI on journalism. According to Benjamin, the technological advances in media reproduction led to the loss of the ‘aura’ of artworks. That is to say, the unique presence felt in experiencing a singular work of art was not present in art produced in an age of mechanical reproduction. In journalism, the use of AI would result in the same loss of this aura: news reports losing their unique quality and, at that moment, their unique claim to truth. 

When news reports are generated by an algorithm, they lack the individual perspective and creativity that human journalists bring to their work. AI-generated news stories would be stripped of their ‘sui generis’, reduced to mere repetition rather than compelling storytelling. As news reports become more formulaic, readers would lose interest, leading to a decline in trust and credibility. 

In the end, if journalism is reduced to a set of predictable templates, it risks irrelevance.

AI: While the National Union of Journalists has expressed concerns about the potential impact on jobs, it is important to recognize that AI systems could actually enhance the work of journalists rather than replace them. For example, chatbots like ChatGPT could be used to aid reporters covering routine topics. This would free up journalists’ time to concentrate on more investigative and analytical pieces, ultimately resulting in higher-quality journalism.

Human: As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted, empathy lies at the essence of human relationships. Journalism has to be centred deep within this empathic connection in order to bring stories to life and to create a deeper understanding of the human experience. AI systems lack this essential component of humanity. They cannot replicate the empathy needed to understand human emotions, context, and subtleties. AI reports are doomed to shallowness and genericism.  

Furthermore, the use of AI in journalism could result in errors going unnoticed, as algorithms cannot match the experience and expertise of a human journalist in spotting mistakes. This lack of quality control could lead to a decline in the credibility of journalism, and a loss of trust among readers.

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AI: Moreover, AI systems could help journalists process vast amounts of data quickly and accurately, leading to more objective reporting. It could also lead to more efficient newsrooms, with AI systems automating routine tasks like fact-checking and editing, allowing journalists to spend more time on research and analysis.

Human: Journalism that relies on AI is hypocritical and undermines the profession’s values. It is well-established that journalism is a labour-intensive profession, and it requires reporters to engage with their subjects, to listen and to probe deeply. Replacing journalists with machines would not only be putting profit above humanity, but it would also render any future reporting on labour laws or other workplace exploitation fundamentally hypocritical. 

AI: While it is understandable that some journalists may feel threatened by the prospect of AI systems being used to support their work, it is important to recognize that this technology is not going away. Rather than fighting against it, journalists should embrace AI and look for ways to work with it to enhance their reporting.

Human: Baked into the use of AI in journalism is a loss of trust and credibility. Readers would not know whether the report was generated by an algorithm or by a human. They would not know who the programmer was behind that algorithm.  Suspicions of bias or manipulation would abound, and accountability would be sacrificed on the digital alter of endless word churn.  Ultimately trust in the media would flounder, with humans despairing at the endless recreation of content, rather than the exposure of the new.

AI: In conclusion, the use of AI in journalism is inevitable, and we should welcome it rather than resist it. By working together with AI systems, journalists can produce more accurate, efficient, and in-depth reporting, ultimately resulting in a better-informed public.

Human: Not so. As the great philosopher Michel de Montaigne argued, the value of any profession lies not in the tools it employs, but in the virtues it embodies. And AI is contrary to the fundamental notion of humanism that lies at the heart of journalism. So, whilst AI systems may have their uses, they cannot replicate the humanity, empathy, and deep engagement that are journalistic lodestars. The use of AI in journalism is not a desirable development, nor is it inevitable. Rather than relying on AI to replace journalists, journalists should be fighting back – to expand knowledge beyond what is captured by machines and expose the true iniquities suffered by those increasingly made redundant by the rise of robotic intervention. 

This return to the human would lead to more nuanced, empathetic, and impactful journalism. 

Preventing mindless digital new reproduction is, in the end, the only way to stop the invariable diminishment of human rights that lies at the heart of the soulless digital impulse.

The question is – were the above words written by a machine and then by a human, or just by a machine?

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