Thank God for news media in a storm

The brave little shrubs are doing their valiant best to stay intact as a plant pot skids across our balcony in Cyclone Gabrielle’s first caress. With much worse yet to come I need to know what, where, and when.

I need information and, if I have to cut my way through a jungle of official sources, I will still be in the rain forest when Gabby takes me in her crushing embrace.

This, I tell myself, is precisely why we need news media. They draw together an overwhelming range of sources and condense information into a readily absorbed format. Then they keep updating and adding to the picture.

As I write this commentary on Monday, that picture is already changing. An hour ago, the rain was a fine drizzle and there was little wind. Now the rain is heavier, and the wind is coming in strong gusts. In another couple of hours I expect the freight train that Northland residents heard as Gabrielle passed through, and the driveway will be a cascade. Then the triangle of soil (that has already subsided by about 30 centimetres) may slide from the edge of the adjacent bush reserve into the stream below.

Continue reading “Thank God for news media in a storm”

Text generators must not become killer robots

Disclosure: This commentary was written by me. It is not the product of a generative artificial intelligence programme. Any intelligence you may find here is from my own, admittedly limited, resources.

There is, however, the worrying prospect that it could have been produced by ChatGPT, a programme with alarmingly human-like text generating capabilities. In fact, some commentators have used it to produce parts of their columns to show how good it is at creating content virtually indistinguishable from their own words of wisdom.

Generative AI is good, but it isn’t that good. Last month the U.S. tech website CNET admitted that it had used it to create at least 75 stories, many of which were attributed to “CNET Money Staff”. Retrospective fact-checking found the stories riddled with errors that human reporters were unlikely to make.

That revelation has not halted media use of AI in its tracks. Sports Illustrated last week told the Wall Street Journal it was publishing AI-generated stories on men’s fitness tips, drawing on 17 years of archived stories in its own library. The caveat is that all of the stories are reviewed and fact-checked by flesh-and-blood journalists.

This sort of AI may not be perfect, although it is good enough to create alarm among university staff over student essay assignments. However, it is about to get better. Continue reading “Text generators must not become killer robots”

Sentencing the Christchurch mosque terrorist

In the latter part of last year the New Zealand Law Journal published a four-part paper on ground-breaking processes introduced for the sentencing of the Christchurch mosque gunman in 2020.

The paper, which I co-authored with Dr Denis Muller of Melbourne University, found that high levels of institutional trust between New Zealand media organisations and the justice system were instrumental in denying the terrorist any opportunity to use the proceedings as a soapbox for white supremacist beliefs.

The paper has been subject to a six-month copyright stand-down period required by the New Zealand Law Journal’s publisher. That restriction no longer applies to Part 1 and you can access it below. The remaining parts will be posted at the beginning of March, April and May.

Justice, the media, and the Christchurch mosque terrorist Part 1

Lessons from the great flood

It is unlikely that the Mayor of Auckland, Wayne Brown, took any lessons from the city’s devastating floods but the rest of us – and journalists in particular – could learn a thing or two.

Mr Brown’s demeanour will not be improved by a petition calling for his resignation or media columnists effectively seeking the same. He will certainly not be moved by New Zealand Herald columnist Simon Wilson, now a predictable and trenchant critic of the mayor, who correctly observed in the Herald on Sunday: “In a crisis, political leaders are supposed to soak up people’s fears…to help us believe that empathy and compassion and hope will continue to bind us together.”

Wilson’s lofty words may be wasted on the mayor, but they point to another factor that binds us together in times of crisis. It is communication, and it was as wanting as civic leadership on Friday night and into the weekend. Continue reading “Lessons from the great flood”