AI isn’t taking journalists’ jobs. It is making them smarter and more efficient

Utopian or dystopian? When it comes to artificial intelligence and machine learning, how journalists view the technology, and how willing they are to delve into the many layers it can empower, is the secret sauce in creating a better workplace.

Five journalists from The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, WIRED, Dogtown Media and Graphika visited with more than 1,000 students across the Missouri School of Journalism, the Trulaske College of Business, the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Science, March 18-19, as part of the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Innovation Series.

The message they delivered? Artificial intelligence and machine learning are already transforming news operations in ways unimaginable even several months ago, much of it transformative and positive. Among the changes AI is helping implement: Customized content, improved reader/viewer/listener/user relationships, moderating and policing comment sections, and creating more efficient workflows.

Here are five takeaways from the event you need to know about AI in journalism:

  1. AI can rebuild trust with users. Washington Post Director of Strategic Initiatives Jeremy Gilbert has seen the Post integrate AI across several projects, most notably Heliograph, AI software that automates certain reporting functions for sporting events or political elections. Gilbert notes, artificial intelligence is a tool to allow journalists to better understand readers. “Can we make a story more personally relevant to a user, to the reader, watcher or listener?,” he asks. “If we can do that, that’s what makes people establish trust. Not just that the information is believable, but the information is believable AND it matters to ME.” 
  2. If you want AI to work for you (and not vice versa), you have to know what AI can and cannot do. Artificial intelligence is an imperfect tool, according to WIRED’s head of content operations, Jahna Berry. But, Berry says, it has allowed Conde Naste publications to better place ad spends, based upon a deep understanding of its users, leveraging AI technology. “It’s a really good way to look at the signals within the data,” she says. “It allows us to take that machine learning technology and hopefully form a deeper relationship with our readers.”
  3. AI is not akin to mind-bending judo, it creates room for journalists to reimagine their skillset. Graphika disinformation analyst Nick Monaco likens unlocking the code to AI to many other actions journalists routinely perform. Monaco, who uses AI to root out “deep fakes” on social media, says AI is a tool, once understood, that journalists can leverage to do better reporting. “This is actually a problem journalists have been dealing with ever since they’ve been practicing the trade,” Monaco says. “ There’s always been more data than (journalists) can sift through, You just have to know how to ask the right questions (of) the data, the records, to get (to the) relevant story.”
  4. Journalists need to hold algorithms (and their creators) accountable. That starts with knowing who wrote the algorithm, with what intent and also, what possible bias, according to The Wall Street Journal’s enterprise technology editor Steve Rosenbush. The Journal has just launched a dedicated landing page for AI. Rosenbush says, determining the motivation behind the original algorithm’s creationis a good place to start. “We can ask the same questions of an algorithm (that) we can in a more conventional reporting environment,” Rosenbush notes. “Hold the algorithm accountable…we can talk about what the technology is going to do or what it’s going to bring, but did it work?”
  5. Use artificial intelligence to create time to improve your own thinking. Dogtown Media CEO and co-founder Marc Fischer is using artificial intelligence across several health care applications, among other areas. Fischer says, if journalists will make AI work for them, the results will allows journalists to work smarter, faster and more efficiently. “It will free up more time for knowledge workers to think creatively on solving problems and (allow them to) do what they do best.”

So, utopian or dystopian? For journalists, the key is in embracing change and using a generalist’s approach to understanding a rapidly and vastly changing ecosystem that has already begun transforming newsrooms across the globe.