A fascination for journalism and a belief in its importance has been a constant presence throughout my career. My first, direct experience of the power of journalism was felt at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, where I was able to secure media accreditation by simply having a website. I went to the Games mostly for scientific research, but found myself closely connected with the Olympic media. Back then, having a website was pretty rare, so I think it came across as pretty progressive to have one and so the registration team at the media centre took a look at what I’d been doing and gave me a pass.
This experience sparked a huge amount of activity for me, not least of which was my first book for MIT, but on a much deeper level, it spoke to me on the importance of societies supporting and enabling their citizens to assert their identities as media and for this to be a critical component of a democratic and free society.
By working within the Olympic Games media community and interviewing regularly for the world’s media, I’ve found a huge amount of common ground between what I try to do as a researcher and what journalists do as reporters of world events
Some of my favourite journalists perform the role of documentarist in their news coverage and, what’s needed to undertake such works is pretty similar to what we do as social scientists, accessing worlds and trying to make sense of them. And the very best examples of this often feel like academic research outputs.
For around 10 years now, my favourite podcast has been the design programme 99% Invisible, and the depth of research and insight that goes into each episode feels difficult to beat by any scholarly methods. It’s the sort of show that makes me stop and wonder whether what we are doing in academia is the right way to go about the discovery and communication of new knowledge about the world.
The same is true for another of my favourites, Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed, a BBC radio show driven by new findings from sociological research. Laurie was also previously a sociology lecturer from Liverpool and this foundation is deeply wedded to the credibility of the programme.
In this case, while it is clear that the show is discussing sociology, rather than doing sociology, there is a point when the discussion of theories leads to new forms of knowledge about the subject and this programme gets very close to this world.
And so, there is a common endeavour in the worlds of journalism and scholarship that I think is sometimes lost from our modern appreciation of their worth. Of course, there are major differences between much of what goes on beneath the journalism we see, but there’s also a great deal that each can learn from one another. In my own research, I have sought to bring these two approaches closer together and so the idea of where journalism is headed often preoccupies my mind.
This was true especially in the last week when I saw a news story break from South Korea, where a TV channel showcased the world’s first artificially intelligent news reporter. This wasn’t just an AI bot churning out news. This was a fully fledged digital avatar, speaking on screen, reporting the news, as if it was a person. And it was even more fascinating because it also emulated the appearance of their existing news anchor, looking every bit as realistic as a human being.
There’s so much to think about from this new technological achievement, not least of which is what we do about the growing realism of our digital world. It’s always been a major trajectory of screen-based content to more closely approximate the real world. We’ve seen it in special effects, sound engineering, and so it really shouldn’t surprise us that this is the end point of our efforts. As well, we already treat our technology as if it is part of our family.
We say good morning to our speaker systems to wake them up and much of what we do within these environments is create a link to actual people through technology. So, it’s no surprise that personification is a big part of what we want from technology.
It makes sense that the end point of this is the creation of emotional bonds with the operating systems that provide the scaffold for our lives. We know already that people can become attached to the objects, their mechanical companion species with which they share journeys, making memories, and developing attachments. While we might mock such feelings, they exist, we have such feelings, we can feel lost if we can’t locate our mobile phones, because they feel like our connection to our wider world.
And so, the world’s first digital journalist is another step in the direction of the collapse of the real. It’s tempting to become distracted by the idea that this may be the end of the journalist as we know it and I do wonder how this Korean news anchor feels about their digital equivalent.
I also wonder what kind of expectation a journalist may reasonably have to retain some sense of ownership over the design and realisation of their digital clone, or the intelligence that went into its creation and how closely it seeks to emulate the original version.
I also wonder whether the rights of the journalist to retain a living wage may be jeopardised by their digital clone and whether they might even secure two wages, as a result, earning royalties from image rights perhaps.
It’s hard not to look at this technological achievement and think, first of all, that the days of the news anchor are numbered. But there’s something deeper at the heart of this technology that we need to consider and it goes all the way back to the origins of journalism as a social phenomenon. While we often get caught up in the recent past, journalism dates back centuries and may even be tied all the way back to antiquity.
At its heart is a conviction that there is information that many people need to receive in order to better constitute societies. Of course, the mechanisms by which this delivered have varied dramatically, from authoritarian systems, seeking to utilise journalism to advance propaganda to citizen journalists who seek to champion the voice of the people.
For the first of these, a free press jeopardises the capacity to govern. For the latter, a free press is a crucial component of a legitimate system of governance. But each still is based on the same principle, despite their vast ideological differences. Each values the capability of getting ideas out to a wider public.
It’s hard to imagine that this fundamental rationale is ever going to change within journalism and many of the journalists I have worked with talk about themselves simply as storytellers, people who bear witness to the world’s events and tell the stories of what happened. Some aspire to neutrality in the process, while others believe that neutrality is impossible and seek, instead, to guard against their biases by expressing them within their work and drawing attention to their impact on how they tell their stories.
And just to be clear, I don’t think that what’s produced by a state controlled press is journalism at all. It often masquerades as journalism and we often can’t easily tell when such work is or isn’t journalism. It also feels like that problem of detection is getting harder and harder, as left and right wing journalism blurs, and as the channels of distribution become hybrid feeds of content, mixing up genres and formats.
Who doesn’t look at every news story they see on Facebook and conclude, either, that none of it is true, or all of it is? This is a system that should breed a healthy mistrust in everything and, hopefully, a retreat to more rigorous ways of verifying information and healthier practices of sharing such information.
I noticed this week on Twitter that they’ll now warn users who try to share content they haven’t actually read. They don’t stop you, but they do say, effectively ‘hey, it’s a dumb idea to share something you’ve not actually read. How about you stop doing that!?’
It’s possible that artificially intelligent journalists will do many things better than humans, like write in a way that is more cognisant of the needs, interests and communication preferences of diverse audiences. AI could tailor content to different kinds of people far more effectively so you could, for instance, have a single written piece about a news story of the day being capable of translation or even re-writing into a number of different formats, responsive to different levels of literacy or reading preferences.
We see some efforts to do this on a really primitive level right now, but AI could make it far more effective. So, for instance, if you don’t have enough time in the day to read a newspaper, AI could re-skin that newspaper into a far briefer digest. Or, if you have a lot of time, it could add more detail transforming a 1,000 word story into a 10,000 word extended read. Responsive journalism, as I’d like to call it, may become the best way to ensure we all are able to engage with daily issues, regardless of our circumstances.
So, when I think about the future of journalism, I realise there’s a lot of work we need to do to actually ensure that it continues to exist. So many of the world’s printed press are struggling to find new economic alternatives with the erosion of the printed paper. When I ask my university students when they last bought a newspaper, nearly all of them can’t even remember, if, indeed, they ever have.
It’s clear that our habits of media consumption are working in a way that undermines the economic feasibility of investigative journalism, as it is currently organized. We need to treat the media as we treat a public health care system. We need to find new ways to fund journalism to ensure that it can continue to speak truth to power and act in the public interest, regardless of its economic viability.
I worry about a future in which the investigative work that underpins some of our most remarkable press organizations will be lost to the economics of social media, the kind of stuff that seems to occupy much of our news streams today. It’s such a huge risk for societies to lose sight of critical, deep journalism. And while many of those social media organizations are beginning to act as news media outlets, we can’t just leave it to algorithms to determine what we encounter.
We need curators, editors, guides, and people who are mindful of the need for things to reach us that we’d rather not see, or which challenge our own opinions or perspectives on the world. And the problem we have is that we can’t expect people to volunteer their cash for the creation of such content.
For this reason, we need a greater sense of the public good to underpin the creation of journalism or we risk losing sight of reality. And the consequence of this is not just widespread disorder and misinformation, but a complete collapse of our capacity to main history. Instead, we will construct a sense of our world based on falsehood and lunacy.
I think this is one of the major reasons for why there has been such widespread anxiety about the Trump administration over the last 4 years, because, politics aside, we need at least to ground our disagreements in sensible discourse, competing views about potential realities, as opposed to ideas that seek no relation to truth and, instead, draw on the power of polemic to drive people towards behaviours that will support their selfish ends.
It is the absence of reason that is the loss many of us have felt over this period and which leads the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to say ‘Welcome Back America’. Not just welcome back to the Paris Agreement, but welcome back to Planet Earth.