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Don’t Be Shocked at Robot Journalism in Local News

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You may think your local newspaper would be free from AI-generated journalism. You’d be wrong.

Journalism still an old-school image. Think local newsrooms, and you think of black-and-white screwball comedies involving hard-drinking but dogged reporters, tough-but-fair editors, and independent-minded owners.

But things have moved on.

This is an ad for a machine that writes sports articles. It’s not a spoof.

There really is a company called ‘united robots’. They really do have a ‘news automation’ products. And it’s really true that ‘automated reporting can build business’. Robot-written articles are already commonplace.

When we write about ‘robot-written articles’ in The See Through Newspaper Review Project, many readers are under the impression we’re exaggerating for effect. Surely we’re overstating the real situation, aren’t we? Robots can’t write proper articles, after all. We’d all be able to tell, right?  Right?…

Fortunately/unfortunately, such attitudes are ill-informed/complacent.

Robot-written journalism – more technically, ‘algorithm-generated content’ – is already far more prevalent than most of us realise. 

We’ve written elsewhere about the threat posed by autoregressive language model AI like GPT-3

San Francisco-based OpenAI is already working on the 4th version of their Generative Pre-trained Transformer. In case you’re interested, it’s another neural network machine learning model trained on the internet, but using even more parameters.

Basically, these robots are now so good, the other robots we use to police the internet for spam can no longer tell whether or not they were written by humans. 

This kind of AI has the capacity to generate humongous volumes of human-like articles in a split second. If it falls into the wrong hands, this technology is genuinely capable of ‘breaking the internet’.

Let’s just hope the AI Good Guys can keep these tools out of the hands of the Bad Guys. They’re motivated by intellectual property and profit. Government regulation and enforcement would be nice. In the meantime, fingers crossed.

Also in the meantime, we need to understand, assess and address the consequences of this AI when used ‘legitimately’. We use quote marks, because it’s not so much a case of robot journalism being legal, as the law being so far behind the tech as to be meaningless.

That’s why See Through News is doing what we can to alert and inform the public:

We demonstrate that unscrupulous corporates like Salisbury Journal owner Newsquest are happy to slap a reporter photo and byline on a robot-written article. It makes it look like they’re still practising journalism rather than advertising. To hell with ethics.

Even ‘scrupulous’ publishers don’t credit algorithm-generated articles ‘By Our Big Robot Journalist’. Little wonder we’re so unaware of just how much of what we already read is not actually written by humans.

Sports and Finance are particularly suitable for robot writing, because they:

  • are full of numbers
  • operate within particularly stable and predictable parameters
  • even when written by veteran human reporters, feature a regular grab-bag of cliches. 

Recently, Covid-stats have proved themselves equally amenable to automated reporting. 

Robots happily mine national databases, and tease out stats related to a local newspaper’s coverage area. They then spit out reports on local Covid stats. They’re grammatically accurate, and bland as blancmange, but they ‘do the job’. The job that no longer belongs to a human.

Newsquest’s owner, the US media giant Gannett, pioneered the use of robot-written articles.  All their conglomerate rivals, if they haven’t already invested in robot writers, now have to follow suit just to stay in the game.  

When your competitor can churn out a million articles at the same cost as one article, you need to raise your technical game. Even if that means lowering your ethical standards.

Consider the efficiency. Robots don’t unionise, sleep or take public holidays.

They’re getting better all the time. Not only are they increasingly hard to spot, but it’s getting harder to compete with them when all you have are grunting, sweating, belching, sleeping, fallible human journalists.

This has all happened so fast, the consequences are already upon us before we’ve had time to understand the problem in the first place. 

The See Through Newspaper Review Project is trying to inform the public about what’s really happened to their local paper, but the tech is complicated, and the issues complex.

Any solution is way beyond the capacity of any individual, newspaper, or even any one corporation. It requires government regulation.

Just like climate action.