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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: Will AI dupe local media?

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: September 16, 2023, 6:04am

As I have mentioned a time or two, journalism shop talk these days is all about artificial intelligence and what roles it could, and should, play in getting the news out.

There are some positives. For example, investigative reporters can use AI to search thousands of pages of public records to identify salient data points. AI can take a sports box score or corporate earnings report and write a simple story that otherwise wouldn’t get reported.

But it can also be malevolent. This week, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., had an interesting take on how it could affect local news operations like The Columbian.

She’s worried about how AI can be used to produce “deep fakes,” where, for example, a video can be made of a political figure appearing to say something they never said.

According to Cantwell’s staff, the senator plans to introduce legislation to combat deep fakes. She said this at a hearing this week:

“If you were creating information off of the historical database of all The Seattle Times’ ever-published stories — which is a very long time — that’s probably some of the most trusted journalistic information you could ever get, because they had to be in that business, right? But anybody who would then take that content, and then (do) who knows what with (it) is a very, very different equation.”

We’ll do our best to try to detect and report on deep fakes — next year’s congressional race seems like the biggest local danger — but I am concerned.

A place for opinions

While reading my email after vacation, I came across a couple of comments and questions about our editorial page. The first was a complaint that one of the syndicated columnists seemed to have a bias. Well, yes, I replied. In fact, that is the goal of the editorial columnist: To put forth an opinion, use relevant facts to argue that opinion, and then let the reader decide whether or not to agree with that opinion. Opinion pieces occasionally contain nuggets of news, but they shouldn’t be considered as news.

The second question/comment was about a letter to the editor. The reader who contacted me stated he had a lot of background on the issue discussed in the letter, and basically thought the author was all wet. Doesn’t The Columbian look at the letters and judge which opinions are worth sharing?

In a word, no. Letters are meant to be a place where members of the public generally are welcome to say what they want. (Obviously, with some exceptions.) It’s up to other readers to respond and correct what they see as misinformation. We encourage debate, but don’t control it.

Shaking off Gannett

Has journalism reached its low point? Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, is advertising to hire beat reporters to cover Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.

On one hand, give readers what they want. Celebrity news is a staple of journalism. And there’s no question that Swift, 33, is an entertainment icon, particularly to the millennial generation. Heck, I like Beyoncé’s music, too.

On the other hand, Gannett is known for its “ghost papers,” where too few reporters are employed to keep watch on local government, politics and civic affairs. I count exactly eight people on the staff directory at Gannett’s Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, Ore., and three of them cover sports. The Nashville Tennessean, which will employ the Taylor Swift reporter, lists a relatively robust 69 newsroom employees, but many have regional or odd-sounding assignments (A “Big 10/SEC trending editor” with at least six reporters? Why is that 10 percent of the news staff?)

I won’t be sending Gannett my resume. I am sure they don’t want it.

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