Will machines also replace journalists?, By Azu Ishiekwene
The advent of any significant technological change has often raised concerns about the fate of journalism. Even in the infancy of social media, TIME covered one of its February 5, 2009 editions, with concern about the impending death of journalism. To drive the point home, the graphic was illustrated with a copy of the New York Times pack a tilapia.
The profession went through similar episodes of self-doubt and anxiety, after the introduction of movable type and the printing press. The same thing happened after the introduction of the telephone, radio and television. In hindsight, it would seem that the death of journalism has been slightly exaggerated.
But can the survival of journalism as we know it today be taken for granted amid the extraordinary changes in technology and ICT? In 5, 10 or 20 years, will there be dots to connect between technology and journalism or will the profession be plunged into a profound change?
In Artificial intelligence: a modern approach, Stuart J Russell and Peter Norvig’s groundbreaking and in-depth study of AI, first published in 1995 and published in its fourth edition in 2020, computer scientists and academics offer a sharp and comprehensive introduction to the foundations of artificial intelligence . The book covers a wide range of fields from philosophy to mathematics, neuroscience and psychology, and linguistics.
In a particularly memorable passage, the authors state, “We don’t want intelligent machines in the sense of pursuing their goals; we want them to pursue our goals.
The extent to which this goal is attainable, and whether it should be desirable in the first place, has of course been the subject of vigorous and prolonged debate.
There are those who rightly fear that coming waves of automation will exacerbate existing inequalities between workers whose backgrounds have given them education and other social privileges that place them at the upper ends of high-paying tech jobs and those who depend on jobs that would most likely be eliminated by automated systems.
The statistics may not magnify these fears, but they don’t alleviate them either. A report by Mckinsey studying skills transfers in the workforce in Europe and the United States indicates that between 2016 and 2030, the demand for technological skills would increase considerably compared to the demand for basic manual and cognitive skills . Prospects may be slower in Africa, but they are improving.
Mass media have long since ceased to be the exclusive domain of professional journalists. In other words, not only have established assumptions about the journalist’s authority to testify, record and disseminate information been severely undermined, but established assumptions about public expectations of journalists have also been challenged.
When I joined PUNCH in 1989, the dominant means of gathering news from offices outside Lagos, the headquarters, was radio. We did have a few phone lines, but they were congested and unreliable. Reporters filed a few copies of the States by telex, but the bulk was done by radio. Computer machines, kitchens, and cow gum did the rest of the prepress work. That was over three decades ago.
We deployed reporters to Sheraton hotels in Lagos, where they told war stories from Baghdad while watching TV in reception over a bottle of coke taken for hours. Somehow, through improvisation and compelling designs, the journal became a success.
What happened to PUNCH was emblematic of the crises the industry faced after the prosperous 70s and 80s.
There have been significant changes in the operating environment, partly due to ownership and politics, but fundamentally due to a poor economy and the industry’s inability to predict where the changes technologies could drive and take advantage of.
However, as production costs rose and infrastructure deteriorated, the response of the press, in particular, was not necessarily to find smarter and more efficient ways to distribute content. Instead, media owners went on a buying spree of multiple-edition distribution and production van fleets with very little return on inventory.
This massive investment in a black hole has worsened their already precarious financial situation after General Ibrahim Babangida’s controversial “structural adjustment programme”.
With the advertising naira dwindling, advertisers began to insist on data, forcing the opaque newspaper industry to start facing its own demon. Adopting new practices, improving internal methods to make them more efficient and customer-centric – including deploying new technologies – has become not a matter of choice, but of survival for the industry. .
Today, a number of media (print and broadcast) have strong social media platforms and even web-focused news policies, while strictly online brands such as Sahara Reporters, Premium Times, The Cable and People’s Gazette, to name a few, have become big players, using a high degree of new technologies to collect, process and share content and generate revenue.
However, of all these developments, the arrival of citizen journalists on the one hand and AI-powered robots on the other, are perhaps the most significant events in journalism.
It seemed OK when technology led to mechanized agriculture, brought changes in the mode and speed of transportation, and even transformed the textile and culinary industries. Journalists were happy to report these changes.
However, as soon as technological changes came to the doorstep of the profession, with the distinct possibilities that non-journalists could use and deploy in everyday life, alarm bells rang, sounding like a tribal call against alien invasion: AI was the Beast!
Yet by focusing on more routine and menial tasks, automation is believed to free up journalists for more comprehensive and in-depth reporting, dramatically improving the quality of journalistic work.
Sharing examples of how journalism and robots connect and finding common ground elsewhere begs the natural question: where does that leave the Nigerian journalist?
The inroads of bloggers, influencers and businesses using non-traditional information channels to share valuable content have challenged the mainstream media. Furthermore, the increased entry into the profession of people with non-formal media training has improved the profession both in its diversity and deepened its rate of adoption of new technologies.
Through hackathons, the collaboration of media and non-media people, for example, robotics have been deployed to seek out data that sheds light on community issues of access to health care, education and creative jobs.
Media organizations working collaboratively or independently are also deploying drones into previously inaccessible communities to harvest content, especially in conflict situations. Although this practice is not yet widespread enough due to cost, inertia – and even sometimes regulatory gray areas – an increasing level of training and collaboration could see improvements in the years to come.
It is true that the role of the journalist is changing, and I believe that future developments in the field will give journalists more power and responsibility, not less.
Once, we suffered from not knowing enough. Now, we may be entering an era where we know too much. Even if we could ensure responsible use of AI and similar technologies – which we cannot – we would still carry the heavy burden of knowledge in a world that has become more predictable but no less dangerous.
But what is also true is that there are more of us today than ever before, citizens and career journalists, with significant resources at our disposal to decide not only what is the news, but also what it should mean and what responsible actions it should stimulate.
A number of media houses in Nigeria are currently struggling with a range of problems ranging from low and irregular pay to poor training, infrastructure and trust rating due to poor ethics. My anecdotal experience does not suggest that displacement by bots is a serious concern in the face of these current existential crises.
The media is still far from the point where AI can be seen as a clear and present danger to employment. Yet globalization, which has tightened borders, made travel cheaper and increased connections, has also exposed consumers of media content in Nigeria and across the continent to higher standards.
With greater penetration of smartphones and other home devices (integrated with robots such as Siri, Bixby, Alexa) at lower cost and the expansion of internet services, I suspect the demand for more AI services among consumers of Nigerian media would also increase.
And hopefully journalists who are in this business for the long haul would have little or no choice but to raise their game. The question isn’t whether the dots connect, but how speed, responsibly and efficiently journalists can connect them to the service of the art of storytelling.
The future belongs to man and machines.
Azu Ishiekwene is editor-in-chief of LEADERSHIP.
This is an abridged version of an article on “Cybernetics, Robotics and Journalism: Connecting the Dots”, by Ishiekwene presented at a seminar at the Department of Mass Communication, Bingham University, Abuja on July 14.
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