Housty, could AI replace journalists?

Each month we pose a question to the brilliant Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. This month’s question comes from freelance writer and editor, Arusa Qureshi.

Housty, we have a problem

Could AI like ChatGPT really replace journalists and critics in the future?

Nope. Next question.

Seriously, though, I get why you’re asking it. There’s so much fear-mongering around AI replacing people and so many shysters ready to jump on the bandwagon. The media is also way too ready to push out a doom and gloom headline about job-stealing robots.

The truth about AI, at least right now, is that it’s not as intelligent as some people would have us believe, and it’s way more artificial than its developers think. And that’s why it won’t replace journalists or critics or anyone else in the media who is doing truly creative, clever, insightful work.

Data stories

AI like chatGPT is based on large language models that use machine learning to analyse huge amounts of text. For some, that means all the information on the internet. That’s impressive, no doubt, but what about the stuff that’s not on the internet? AI can’t knock on a door. AI can’t go to a gig.

My favourite AI case study comes from the work PA Media has done with its Radar AI project. It uses a robot to sift through huge amounts of public sector data – health statistics and local crime reports. It then writes stories based on that data for each of the relevant areas in the country, maybe 400 different articles.

Whether that work could be done by a person or not, local news organisations just don’t resource that kind of reporting. So the work the AI is doing is really important. But here’s the telling part.

Newspapers are taking those stories and sending reporters out into local areas to ask the community how they feel about the numbers. The AI can’t do that work and that’s what makes these reports truly local and interesting.

It’s got no soul

And AI just doesn’t do nuance. Have a listen to the music created for the Lost Tapes of the 27 Club. It’s an incredibly worthy project, supporting mental health in the music industry. The premise was to use AI to create music like Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain might have made had they had the mental health support they needed.

The four tracks are passable impressions of the originals, made by synthesising their back catalogues. But the music is clearly not theirs. Something is missing. Soul, humanity, emotion, whatever you call it, it is nowhere near as good as the original.

There is no doubt that AI poses a threat to media business models. Google’s AI-powered search could disintermediate publishers out of the picture by synthesing no-click answers to search queries. But I’ve spoken recently to SEO expert Barry Adams and he says the search giant simply can’t afford to kill the golden goose.

Also, in the work I’ve done recently around AI I have come to understand three things

• AI is not magic
• AI is a disparate collection of technologies
• AI cannot replace human creativity (yet)

All of those things lead me to believe that, while AI will undoubtedly take some jobs out of our economy, it won’t be real creatives that suffer. If anything, the tide of AI crap that is about to engulf us will push people to seek out top-quality content that could only have been made by a real live human being.

Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, freelance writer, and co-publisher of The Grub Street Journal, a magazine for people who make magazines.

Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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