How recent articles have affected my thinking about the future of media
One of my favorite recent articles was a newsletter post by Dick Tofel, former general manager of the investigative news site ProPublica.
He asked the question, Time for local newspapers to go all-local? In other words, should local newspapers stop filling their web and print pages with national and international news that is available free everywhere else.
From an economic perspective, Tofel argues, there is an oversupply of news about wars and national politics. But there is a scarcity of local news and information available to people living in the cities, towns, and rural areas of many countries.
Tofel points to research showing that in the US “the hedge fund owners who have come to dominate local newspaper ownership disproportionately cut the local component of news in papers they buy.” They are worsening the shortage.
For journalists operating at the local level, this is a huge opportunity. By providing information that is available nowhere else, they can create value and loyalty that they can transform into financial support. You can see this trend operating globally.
I’ve written about robot-driven journalism several times (its limitations here and its possible advantages here). But the article that got me searching for updates about robot journalism was this one from the New York Times.
It sounded the alarm about how an artificial intelligence tool called GPT-3 “can now write original prose with mind-boggling fluency”. It harnesses deep learning to produce text that sounds human.
Use of GPT-3 could eliminate all kinds of customer service workers, computer programmers, and potentially even high-level professionals: “GPT-3 can already generate sophisticated legal documents, like licensing agreements or leases.” The author hinted that many journalists might be found superfluous as well.
The implications for journalists? Here are some related articles.
— The Washington Post asked GPT-3 to imitate the writing of journalist Gay Talese. Then they asked what he thought. Talese thought the writing was pretty good, but then he made a distinction that a true journalist would make. “We can’t make things up.”
— The Guardian in the UK opted for a provocative approach: A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?
A human editor’s note at the end explained the process used to produce the article and then added, “Editing GPT-3’s op-ed (opinion article) was no different to editing a human op-ed. We cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places. Overall, it took less time to edit than many human op-eds.”
How to fight disinformation
Maybe we can’t. For several years, I based my writing about how to fight misinformation on two potential tools: fact-checking programs and news literacy programs that train ordinary citizens in how to evaluate the trustworthiness of particular news items.
But I am less optimistic about the effectiveness of both after listening to a Freakonomics podcast with interviews of several scientists and researchers who specialize in how people establish beliefs and change opinions — “How to change your mind (Update)”.
The science tells us what we already know: we don’t easily change our own minds, and we rarely, if ever, change anyone else’s.
Host Stephen Dubner interviewed Steven Sloman, professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University. Sloman said:
“I think the mind is actually something that exists within a community and not within a skull. And so, when you’re changing your mind, you’re doing one of two things: you’re either dissociating yourself from your community — and that’s really hard and not necessarily good for you — or you have to change the mind of the entire community. And is that important? Well, the closer we are to truth, the more likely we are to succeed as individuals, as a species. But it’s hard.”
Facts don’t matter
Matthew Jackson, an economist at Stanford who studies social and economic networks, had this to say:
One thing I used to think was that people, if you gave them the same kinds of information, they would make decisions the same way. They might have different experiences in their past, different influences, but somehow the fundamental ways in which they think about things and process things is the same.
DUBNER: That, however, is not what the data say.
JACKSON: The more you look at data, and in particular, the more you look at experiments where people are faced with facts or information, you realize that some people are very single-minded. . . . One aspect of people seeing exactly the same information and coming away with different conclusions is how we interpret and store information in our brains. It’s very easy to sort of snippet things into small little pieces that we can remember. “Oh, this was for or against.”
SLOMAN: We don’t like breaking things down in detail. Most of us like to have a superficial understanding.
Just the facts, please
Dubner discussed our current polarized politics with Francis Fukuyama, author and political scientist at Stanford University.
In 1992, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama wrote the famous book The End of History and the Last Man. He argued that liberal democracy and capitalism had triumphed over authoritarianism.
However, Dubner asked him if he had changed his mind, in light of current trends toward authoritarianism and populist nationalism. Fukuyama replied:
“The way I have formulated my hypothesis right from the beginning was that you needed to show not just that there was unhappiness with liberal democracy, but you needed to posit some other form of social organization that was superior, or that was somehow going to displace liberal democracy in the way that communism asserted that it would displace liberal democracy ultimately. And if you look around the world right now, there are competing systems that are not liberal or democratic. So the Chinese have one, Saudi Arabia and Iran have their versions of it. But I actually don’t think that any of those alternative models are likely to become universal in the way that liberal democracy has become, in a fairly impressive way, the default form of government for very many countries around the world.
I tend to be an optimist about life and focus on the human tendencies toward kindness rather than our equally strong tendencies toward cruelty. So I tend to share Fukuyama’s view.
There are times, however, when authoritarianism looks appealing. When China prepared to host the Beijing Olympics in 2008, they demolished entire villages and neighborhoods to build highways, a subway system, airports, and train stations.
In the US and the West, any such massive public works project is doomed to decades of litigation because, in a liberal democracy, every individual has the right to say no.
In the end, I tend to come down on the side of Winston Churchill: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’ Nov. 11, 1947.