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”

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”

Vox pops give public opinion a bad name

The first commentary of the year could be devoted to predicting the media’s fortunes over the coming 12 months but that will have to wait. Instead I want to start a campaign to ban vox pops from television, radio, and their print equivalents.

When Jacinda Ardern announced last Thursday she would stand down from her prime ministerial role, reporters ran into the streets, microphone in hand, intent on waylaying hapless pedestrians.

I have no idea how reporters choose their targets in the great vox pop hunt. There is no discernible demographic pattern or attempt to collect representative views. Continue reading “Vox pops give public opinion a bad name”

By Dickens, what a year it has been

Every time I sit down to review the past year, I am drawn to the words of a former reporter on London’s Morning Chronicle.

No matter what the year, the opening lines to one of his better-known pieces of writing seems to resonate: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

And, by Dickens, that sums up the past 12 months.

The New Zealand media’s year has been, to put it far less eloquently than the author of A Tale of Two Cities, one of ups and downs. Of course, media cannot be held entirely responsible for those oscillations. In many respects they are simply mirroring or reacting to what is happening more widely in society and on the global stage. And that world is full of paradoxes – some of the best rises out of the worst. Continue reading “By Dickens, what a year it has been”