Trusted Journalism in the Age of Generative AI

Media strategist Lucy Küng regards generative AI as quite a challenge for media organizations, particularly since many of them haven’t even yet mastered digital transformation to the full extent. But she also has some advice in store: “The media industry gave away the keys to the kingdom once –  that shouldn’t happen again”, she said in an interview led for the upcoming EBU News Report “Trusted Journalism in the Age of Generative AI” that is to be published in June. Ezra Eeman, Director for Strategy and Innovation at the Netherland’s public broadcaster NPO, thinks that media organizations have a moral duty to be optimists around the technology. It will increase the opportunities for them to fulfill their public service mission better.  These are just two voices, many more are to come. 

The report that is based on close to 40 extensive interviews with international media leaders and experts will discuss the opportunities and risks of generative AI with a special focus on practical applications, management challenges, and ethical considerations. The team of authors includes Felix Simon (Oxford Internet Institute), Kati Bremme (France Television), and Olle Zachrison (Sveriges Radio), Alexandra is the lead author. In the run-up to publication, the EBU will publish some interviews in advance. They will be shared here:

Jane Barrett, Global Editor at Reuters: “We have to educate ourselves about AI and then report the hell out of it“, published on 16th May 2024. 

Ezra Eeman, Strategy and Innovation Director NPO, “We have a moral duty to be optimists“, published on 17th April 2024.  

Lucy Küng, independent Media Strategist: “The media industry gave away the keys to the kingdom once – that shouldn’t happen again“, published on 27th March 2024.

Why climate change should be at the heart of modern journalism

The best insurance against misinformation is strong journalism. Professor Alexandra Borchardt explains how climate journalism and the data and verification skills we need to do this properly can transform our newsrooms.

It is often said that an abundance of questionable information drowns out facts. In climate journalism, the strategy should be to do the opposite: make journalism about global warming, its causes, and its remedies, so pervasive, that everybody everywhere can tell facts and reality from greenwashing and wishful thinking; drown out the misinformation with factual journalism.

This requires rethinking climate journalism from it being a “beat” or “specialist subject” to something that frames all our storytelling, particularly business reporting. This is a tough call, of course. Many obstacles hold media organisations back from prioritising investment in climate journalism. Climate issues often lack a newsy angle. They may be complicated and difficult to understand Coverage may mean expensive travel, and stories can be depressing, politically polarising, and if the journalism is delivered in a less than spectacular way, may fail to attract big audiences. All of which makes the commitment even harder.

Nevertheless, climate journalism is not optional. Journalists have an ethical responsibility, even a mandate to inform the public of threats and help them to make better decisions for themselves, their children, and their communities. Media has the duty to hold power to account and investigate wrongdoing. And a lot has gone wrong. Far too often publishers and broadcasters have kept global warming in the silo of science journalism, rather than at the heart of wider business and news coverage, even though it has been known for decades that the core issues are primarily economic, with powerful interests at play.

The good news is it might help editors and media managers to know that an investment in climate journalism will generate all sorts of benefits for their organisation. Precisely because climate journalism is so complex, the lessons that newsrooms can learn from doing it well can also be applied to other fields. To put it differently: sustainability journalism can make media more sustainable. This is the major conclusion of a report recently published by the European Broadcasting Union: “Climate Journalism That Works – Between Knowledge and Impact”.

It identified seven such benefits:

  • First, climate journalism is about the future. Today’s journalism is too often stuck in the now. It needs to develop strategies to increase its legitimacy in the attention economy. This is especially true for public service media, which is under attack from various political camps. Who else should have a clearer mandate to contribute to the protection of humankind through better journalism? This way, public service media would also meet the needs of younger generations they are struggling to reach. Above all, it is their future.
  • Second, climate protection needs hope. People only act if they believe they can make a difference. In contrast, today’s journalism focuses on conflict, shortcomings, and wrongdoing. Constructive and solutions-oriented journalism offer a way forward. A project called Drive, in which 21 German regional publishers pool their data, recently proved that inspirational pieces were the most valuable digital content when it came to subscriptions.
  • Third, in climate change, it’s what’s done that counts. Today’s journalism still focuses too much on what has been said. The “he said, she said” type of journalism that dominates political reporting tends to be highly unpopular with users though. Modern journalism should be based more on data than on quotes. Fact-checking and verification come in right here: both need to become second nature for any journalist. Climate journalism is an excellent training ground.
  • Fourth, climate journalism that works approaches a variety of audiences with respect and in languages they understand. It explains. Today’s journalism often elevates itself above its audience in a know-it-all manner. Journalism must become more diverse and inclusive if it is to reach people, inspire them, and move them to action. This applies to formats and protagonists.
  • Fifth, climate journalism must be rooted in the local. In contrast, today’s journalism too often strives for reach, neglecting the specific needs of communities. To make itself indispensable, journalism should reclaim its importance as a community-building institution. Those who use or even subscribe to a media product often do so because it makes them feel they belong.
  • Sixth, climate journalism must have an impact, otherwise it is meaningless. It should therefore reflect on its own practices and use insights from research, especially from communication sciences and psychology. Today’s journalism does this far too rarely. Journalists tend to be curious but often surprisingly resistant to change. Media companies could gain a lot if their managers and employees developed more of a learning mindset and trained their strategic thinking.
  • Seventh, climate journalism benefits from collaboration. In today’s journalism, old-fashioned competitive thinking still dominates far too often. Yet so much potential could be leveraged through cooperation. This applies to networking within organizations among desks and regional bureaus, as well as to devoping links with external partners from within the industry and beyond. The journalism of the future is collaborative.

This blog post was published in March 2023 by the BBC’s Trusted News Initiative.

Getting climate journalism right means getting journalism right

Many newsroom look at expanding climate journalism as a duty, but not as an opportunity. This might be one reason why just a few media houses have a climate strategy. At the Constructive Journalism Day 2022 organized by NDR Info and Hamburg Media School, I talked about why climate journalism holds great potential for bringing journalism as a whole into the future. 

In November 2022, many people took in another big dose of climate journalism. For some, it may have felt like an overdose. The climate summit in Sharm-El-Sheik dominated the headlines for days. And we learned from the media: it was a disaster. “Less than nothing” had been achieved, was the title of a commentary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. In addition, there were the protests of young people who, in their rage, stuck themselves to streets or destroyed works of art. This, too, has been reported on in all its facets. Is that good?

It’s important, yes. But the debates about the protests, or even the big splash at events like COP27, obscure the fact that there are many reasons to be confident about the climate issue, too.

  • Researchers say the energy transition is no longer a technical problem, nor is it a price problem. It is a political problem – tricky enough.
  • New solutions are being invented practically every day, and a vibrant start-up scene has sprung up around green technologies, products, and services.
  • Most industries are intensely engaged in climate innovations, funds are shifting their portfolios, polluters are switching to climate-friendly technologies, even aircraft engine manufacturers have a climate strategy.

Only journalism does not. For the EBU News Report of the European Broadcasting Union – the world’s largest association of public service media organisations – we have been researching for months, interviewing editors-in-chief, researchers and other experts. We found that up to now, just a handful of newsrooms have strategically addressed the issue.

When you argue this way, you hear critics saying: What other industries are doing is often just greenwashing. That may be true in some cases. But if you want to be nasty, you could say that journalism often doesn’t even get greenwashing right.

When it comes to the climate, journalism lags other industries. Why is that?

  • Journalism is afraid of being perceived as partisan, activist. A small, vocal minority of skeptics sets the tone. Editors underestimate their audience. The majority has long since moved on, as surveys show. Most people know the problem – at least intuitively – and would like to see something happen.
  • There is little pressure. Many publishers are medium-sized, broadcasters are structured under public law. Newsrooms are not listed on the stock exchange, pension funds cannot withdraw money if the media botches on sustainability. Other things take priority, and cost pressure adds to the problem.
  • Climate journalism is misunderstood as one topic among many. Yet the protection of our planet’s livelihoods must be the frame under which journalism operates – just as it is with democracy or human rights. The climate must not only be an object to be observed and described. It must be the backdrop against which life plays out. It should define all storytelling.

The topic of climate is an opportunity for journalism because it exposes its major shortcomings:

  • Climate is about the future. Journalism is stuck in the now. The focus is on the quick news, the daily business. Surveys show: Too much is reported, too little explained.
  • Climate protection needs hope. Today’s journalism focuses on drama, omissions, failures. This is also expressed in language. Journalism warns, threatens, scares.
  • In climate protection, what counts is what is done. Today’s journalism focuses on what is said. The overproduction in “he said, she said” journalism often leaves people confused, empty, bored.
  • Journalism that works approaches people at eye level in a language they understand. Today’s journalism often arrogates itself above them in a know-it-all manner – especially when it calls itself quality journalism.
  • Journalism that wants to be effective respects its counterpart and relies on diversity, also in addressing the audience. Most of today’s journalism is still grounded in the age of mass media, where one size had to fit all.
  • Journalism that wants to have an impact reflects on its own practices and makes use of research. Today, many newsrooms almost pride themselves on ignoring academic knowledge. Yet there is a lot of knowledge about how communication affects people.

But can journalism that doesn’t have an impact be strong journalism?

To have an impact, you need to engage with your audience. What’s interesting is that the formats that win journalism awards don’t necessarily resonate with audiences – and vice versa. The impactful formats don’t win awards.

So, what is effective climate journalism, what do we know from research?

  • Effective climate journalism focuses on the here and now rather than the distant future when describing the problem. It anchors the issue where people live.
  • Effective climate journalism paints the possibilities of a good future, shows: What will be gained, instead of always emphasizing what will be lost, what will have to be sacrificed. It’s about developing a sustainable economic system. Climate journalism expert Wolfgang Blau calls it the biggest transformation since World War II.
  • Climate journalism works when it is constructive and solutions-oriented, instead of always painting the apocalypse on the wall. If you want to engage people instead of making them run away, even humor works better than constant alarm. Scientists are already looking at the effects of comedy in climate communication.
  • Climate journalism can work if it gives people agency instead of making them victims, or at least “those affected”, as is almost universally done in the news.
  • Effective climate journalism serves different audiences in a way that makes them listen. It takes note that the messenger is often more important than the message itself. At best, the ambassador is a person with high trust and credibility ratings. It also takes into account that an abundance of facts does not replace empathy.
  • Effective climate journalism is powerful journalism. Editors should not be too preoccupied with incidental details. A corset of language is not needed. What is important: depth, research, factual accuracy, strong images – especially strong images of solutions. What never works: Images of “men in suits,” as one Norwegian editor-in-chief put it.
  • Effective climate journalism needs a credible foundation. Media organisations should do their homework, work on their carbon neutrality. And that is possibly the biggest challenge. But anyone who writes flaming commentaries but does not live climate protection in a credible way is quickly exposed as a hypocrite.

Mark Hertsgaard, co-founder of the Covering Climate Now platform at New York’s Columbia University, said, “If we don’t transform the media industry, no other industry will be transformed.” You might hear some hubris in that. But the truth is that only constant public pressure will spur everyone involved to finally tackle the issue.

Climate journalism has what it takes to push journalism into its best future. It is high time to seize this opportunity – for journalism and for the climate.

I gave this keynote on 29th November 2022 at the Constructive Journalism Day in Hamburg, organized by Hamburg Media School and NDR Info. The research for this project has been funded by the news committee of the European Broadcasting Union. 

Don’t mind the gap: Automated translation could revolutionize journalism – but how?

Newsrooms can fight “fake news” by identifying it, warning about it and correcting it. But they can also fight it with so much trustworthy, factual and well researched journalism that it drowns out the lies. For most of them it’s not an either/or decision, of course; they try to do both. The European Broadcasting Union has recently unveiled a project that caters to the latter: It wants to deliver class en masse and will do so by scaling content across countries and languages using automated translation.

The project promises quite a bit: starting in July, ten public broadcasters from Europe will feed in particularly good pieces on globally important topics such as Covid-19, climate change and migration, which will then be translated by artificial intelligence and made available across Europe. In an eight-month pilot phase, 14 institutions had shared more than 120,000 articles this way. This worked so well that the EU is now helping with a grant. So in the future, citizens could benefit not only from more reliable information, but also from more diversity, if things go well.

In fact, automated translations could revolutionize journalism. If you haven’t struggled with texts translated by software into other languages for a while because you found the results rather unsatisfactory, you might want to try it again. Artificial intelligence, which works on the principle of deep learning, now translates texts like this one into English within seconds. With a little editing, they read – this needs to be said – much better than what one used to get back from translators who knew a foreign language but not necessarily the journalistic form. The AI products are, in the truest sense of the word, frighteningly good.

Admittedly, robots work reliably in a few languages only, but they are learning as we read. And the result will shape journalism – but in different directions. On the one hand, the tools open up new possibilities for publishers. Whereas until now only newsrooms from English-speaking countries were able to offer their journalism worldwide, in the future everyone will be able to do so for whom it makes sense commercially or qua mission. Not every media company will be able to turn itself into a New York Times or a Guardian, but the options for Europe-wide news portals are growing rapidly. At the start-up Forum.eu, for example, AI now handles 60 percent of the total translation work, according to co-founder Paul Ostwald’s estimate. The platfom makes quality journalism from different countries accessible all over Europe. 

Editors could also reach people with other native languages more easily in their own countries via automated translation, for example hard to connect with migrant communities. And international research should become much easier if reporters have better access to original documents this way. The whole thing does not only work for written but also for spoken material (which stillmakes for funny subtitles on TV).

However, newsrooms have already realized that there is not only a huge potential for expansion, but also for savings. Reuters news agency has long been redeploying resources, for example from its German-language service to parts of the world where citizens are in greater need for journalistic scrutiny. And of course this makes sense: Instead of sending a German- and an English-speaking colleague to the same press conference in Berlin, an additional colleague in, for example, the Philippines can create real added value.

However, it is precisely at this point that things become critical. After all, language is only ever a packaging for content that arises in the context of a culture. The exact same fact can read completely differently depending on who is describing it. When, for example, star conductor Simon Rattle recently announced that he would be joining the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as chief conductor in 2023, German culture reporters were thrilled. Reading the British Guardian on the same day, one learned that Rattle had extended his contract with the London Symphony Orchestra until 2022, oh, and at some point he would go to Munich. One event, two reporters, two worlds, a translation would not have helped in this case.

A translation tool will not replace a foreign correspondent – but it will make his or her work easier. This is bad news for all those fixers and local journalists around the globe who make sure that journalists get the right information, contacts and access without which they would often be lost on foreign territory. If they are not needed as translators any longer, they might soon be out of their jobs. Already, only a few newsrooms can afford a network of reporters far from home. Easier access to all the world’s languages is likely to accelerate this development – but it has not caused it. 

As with many things that new technology offers, there is one temptation, and it has to be resisted: That you have to do what you can do. Translating content via AI just because it works is not a strategy. What audience do you want to reach with what content, and what do you want it to achieve? Do you have a mission, a business model, or just fun with it? There they are again, these questions that no AI can answer. Meanwhile, beware: AI is increasingly used to translate “fake news” as well. 

This column was published on 4th February 2021 with Hamburg Media School in German, then translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and edited.