The Future of Journalism

As AI learns to write articles, journalism could be under threat.


Marjory Collins, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1942 – Journalists for the New York Times work and read the newspaper. Eighty years later, journalism has changed radically and, as new technologies continue to emerge, it is almost guaranteed journalism will continue to change.

Over the last decade, the usage of automated journalism has increased exponentially – so much so that you have probably read an article written by an ‘AI journalist’ before, maybe without even realizing – and you are almost certain to encounter one in the near future. 

The new technology has even found its way into media powerhouses like the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Forbes, and Reuters. Many media companies who are reluctant to use automated journalism to replace journalists have still incorporated some form of AI into their business structures, such as the BBC’s “Juicer” that automatically sorts articles by subject, relevance, and other factors, and the New York Times’ “Editor” that works to make information more accessible by automatically tagging key phrases.

While the rate of AI integration into the media sector grows, advancements and improvements in the technology increases as well. Soon, you might not be able to differentiate “real” and “robot” journalism.

The type of robot generated articles we produce are not stylistically advanced – but they sound as if a human has written them,” says Cecilia Campbell for United Robots, a leading company in automated editorial content. “Actually, we just ran some of our real estate texts through a tool, ‘GPTrue or False,’ which is supposed to detect whether they are written by a human or a robot. Interestingly, the result came out as: ‘there’s a 97.77% chance the selected text was written by a human.’”

Despite its efficiency and quality, automated language generation technology is currently limited to producing articles that focus on numbers or empirical data, which is why news outlets in the finance, weather, and healthcare sectors are heavy investors. Automated journalists cannot gather their own information to create an article and they cannot compute non-numerical data. As a result, automated journalism still hasn’t expanded into other media sectors, and likely won’t for a while. 

“A machine can generate news for you announcing the declines in the stock market around the world, but it will not be able to tell you why. A human knows that it is due to the conflict in Ukraine,” says Sofía González, head of PR and marketing for Narrativa – another leading company in language generation technology (with companies such as the Wall Street Journal using their AI). “I don’t have the slightest doubt [automated journalism will advance beyond finance and business]. As long as a media outlet has data, automated news can be created on various topics. For example, in Narrativa, we generate news with weather, seismic or even entertainment information (the 10 most watched movies on Netflix).”

AI technology will continue to grow and some journalists fear it will leave them behind. In 2020, Microsoft fired dozens of journalists, replacing them with algorithms that could do the same tasks faster, for less money, and with better accuracy. This raised concerns about whether AI algorithms could ever completely replace the older models: human journalists.

“Does it pose some threat to journalism? Yeah, I think it does, especially as budgets shrink in media and journalism,” adds Nina Alvarez, Assistant Professor of International Journalism at the Columbia Journalism School. “Especially on local levels, [automated journalism] is something newspapers or digital media [outlets] might feel compelled to go in the direction of.”

However, despite menial journalism – with the purpose of relaying numbers – and small media sectors being under threat by automated journalism, many still believe automated journalism will never fully replace journalism.

“For the kinds of stories I do, we absolutely have to talk to people,” elaborates Ms. Alvarez. “And that is not something that can be automated. I mean, ultimately everything you read and ingest today in journalism is storytelling. Can you imagine a New Yorker piece being written by a robot? I don’t think it would be the same.”

Whether or not one believes AI could replace journalism, both sides of the argument agree that there is something uniquely human about journalism that cannot be replicated by algorithms. Journalism is the sharing of personal human experience which cannot be quantified or reduced to a set of instructions. 

Journalism has always had a unique place in Western society, particularly in America. Historically, America has been a protector of freedoms and human rights – conditions where journalism flourishes. Now, journalism is one of the most influential aspects of America’s democracy, evidenced by its impact in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. To understand America’s current connection with journalism, you must also understand its historical significance. 

In America, journalism quickly became intertwined with the concepts of freedom and expression, becoming one of the best ways to prevent corruption and enforce the people’s ideals. For example, “muckraking” (a form of detailed journalism with the intent of exposing corruption or things hidden from the public) emerged in the 19th century to uphold American ideals. As a result, people did not see journalism only as a way to attain information, but as an imperative part of their democracy. Since then, journalism in America has risen to an even more elevated status, as illustrated by the shift from strict objectivity to deeply emotional and personal stories that can be seen in American journalism from the past half century.

“A lot of people think the modern era of journalism was sparked by Watergate, but it actually predated it,” says James Steele, a four-time Pulitzer award-winning journalist. “It actually started in the Vietnam War, when many assertions of the government were turning out to be untrue or misleading… That started the modern investigative movement. Watergate gave the movement a tremendous shot in the arm as well, and got the press to look more critically at governments.”

The basis of the investigative movement transcended the 60’s and 70’s and was carried into Iraq and Afghanistan, where American journalists found a way to connect wars in the Middle East to their readers. The personal and story-based journalism written today emerged as a result. 

By observing journalism’s transformation over the past decades, it becomes evident that the way journalists present their information to their viewers completely changes the article’s meaning and impact. The relationship between a story and a reader, bridged together by a journalist, makes it clear that journalism could never be fully replaced by AI.

“Journalism is an inexact science,” continues Mr. Steele. “Many human factors make up a story. You could end up with [an article] that might look like it was written by a human, but the unknown factor is when you have a human interaction, there’s all kinds of things that are going to be picked up … that make a story impactful. I just don’t see even the best algorithms being able to absorb and retain that.”

Automated journalism likely will not replace journalism, but it will revolutionize it. AI will enhance the job of journalists – maybe even improving article’s writing, information, and accessibility, but will not become the sole tool creating articles. 

“The work of a journalist is essential and will not change. What will change is the way in which they practice their profession, using a model that combines technology and research to achieve better results,” adds Narrativa. “The journalist will be much more intelligent thanks to AI and will be able to use tools that already exist to analyze patterns and extract information. In this way, their work will have more impact.”

Although AI is not a direct threat to journalism, the change it could cause could be. As AI learns what type of articles generate the most interactions and creates articles for views instead of integrity, journalism could lose one of its most important aspects: objectivity. 

Before AI, online news – particularly social media – became the first threat to objective journalism. Facebook, for example, fed viewers information simply because they would react to it, even if it was inaccurate. Now, the problem is amplified with AI. As algorithms learn how to give people information they want to hear, rather than information they should hear, the very basis of journalism could be destroyed.

“I see among my students that they’re … being fed news,” says Ms. Alvarez. “Algorithms are funneling information, which is concerning … There is a habit formed where [my students] won’t watch a whole news cast or read a whole article. I hope we can somehow form a habit of consuming news in a much more meaningful way … and look outside of [our] normal feed. I really do think there’s still value in a newspaper because information isn’t being fed to you.”

Online journalism has not only changed the content of articles, but the structure as well. As the internet gave people access to mass information, the need for short, fast, and informational articles emerged. People are largely unwilling to read complex articles and, instead, prefer a short paragraph that makes sense of everything for them. A study published in the Washington Post stated six of ten Americans only read headlines, showing a public shift from favoring long, deeply informative articles to quick pieces of information.

“If you make a story interesting, people will read it,” argues Mr. Steele. “The responsibility is on the journalist, if they’re going to write something long, to make sure it’s interesting, to carry the reader along… Long form journalism is still vital in this country … But metropolitan newspapers have not managed the changes, and are a shell of what they used to be. ”

Journalism has and will continue to have an important role in society. Still, technologies continue to emerge which could revolutionize journalism. First, it was the internet, and now it is AI. With automated journalism constantly improving – and already being implemented in various media sectors – it will likely remain as well.

This means journalism in the future will likely be a blend of human journalists being aided by automated journalists. Although AI has been able to create articles with minimal human assistance, AI companies and journalists both agree articles’ human aspect remains important. While there are companies dedicated to creating automated articles, some companies are moving away from the term “automated journalists” because of the implications it causes. 

“The texts our robots generate are not really journalism, they are more just useful information, which work as a complement to the journalism trained journalists produce,” explains United Robots. “So, as the news publishing industry is getting more familiar with automated content, we’re moving away from the terminology ‘automated journalism’ and ‘robot journalism,’ instead talking simply about ‘automated editorial content.’ This is important because what we do is NOT about replacing journalists.”

It is undeniable that journalism will soon undergo a radical change as technology advances and public interests shift. However – as throughout history – “human” journalism will remain a key part of the free world, and it will adapt to overcome any obstacles. 

“Journalism in one form or another will survive,” says Mr. Steele. “There is a craving to know what is going on and there’s a special need for in-depth reporting that looks behind the headlines. What forms this will take in the years ahead is beyond the scope of my crystal ball.”

While uncertainty shrouds the future of journalism, humans’ desire to attain information and emotionally connect with stories remains constant. Despite a constantly changing world, journalism is here to stay.

“The work of a journalist is essential and will not change. What will change is the way in which they practice their profession, using a model that combines technology and research to achieve better results,” adds Narrativa. “The journalist will be much more intelligent thanks to AI and will be able to use tools that already exist to analyze patterns and extract information. In this way, their work will have more impact.”