Is Big Brother watching? Not if journalists can help it

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Date: 23rd Jun 2020

Journalists are the best defence against new computer-generated threats to our democracy, according to a media academic at Bucks New University.Neil Roberts

A new study by Mac O’Clock, for users of Apple devices, revealed that artificial intelligence curates news feeds with much ‘softer’ stories than those commissioned by real-life editors.

Neil Roberts (pictured), course leader in Multimedia Journalism at Bucks New University, said: “If robots start doing the work of journalists, that’s a worrying sign for democracy.

"But one thing I do believe in is the resilience of journalism. The industry, and journalists themselves, are dynamic and find a way not just to survive but to thrive.”

Microsoft has announced it’s replacing dozens of its journalists with computer systems, which cost 27 jobs at the Press Association in England, affecting journalists contracted to work on the MSN website.

“The best way to confront journalism by artificial intelligence is to have more trained journalists in the future,” said Neil. “Journalism training is becoming more and more important. We need the next generation of journalists to be ready to challenge the system and help uphold our democracy."

Recalling a classic novel by George Orwell, Roberts added: “The move by Microsoft and the study by Mac O’Clock signal very worrying times for press freedom. It’s like 1984 has finally arrived, 36 years late.”

Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” explores propaganda and truth in a fictional future state called Oceania, whose ruling “Big Brother” controls news and thought.

“This is of course a rather dramatic analogy,” said Roberts. “But if computers control more of the news we consume, then are we handing control of our freedom to artificial intelligence?”

More than 125 million people use Apple News every month and Mac O’Clock spent two months of last year collecting stories on the site – 1,268 curated by editors and 3,144 trending stories picked by computer algorithms. The results of its survey have just been announced, showing that algorithms identified softer, celebrity-based items while editors chose harder news stories.

In the US, it also found that half the trending stories came from only four sources – CNN, Buzzfeed, People and Fox News. These were chosen less often by human editors, who preferred to curate stories from respected organisations like NBC, the New York Times and Washington Post.

  • If you are interested in becoming a journalist, Bucks has industry experts guiding you through your degree, supported by guest lecturers, and you will be hands on from the start - producing stories and gaining experience as soon as you walk through the door. For more information visit the course page or email advice@bucks.ac.uk

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