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Northwestern launches effort to develop best practices for news organizations using artificial intelligence

Project receives $1 million investment from Knight Foundation

EVANSTON, Ill. --- For decades the media industry has grappled with how to responsibly incorporate rapidly accelerating technology in the production of news. But since the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022, debate about balancing the promise with the threat of powerful AI tools has reached a fever pitch on complex questions relating to byline policies and plagiarism; legal issues, including terms of use and copyright; and societal implications like the impact generative AI could have on jobs and public trust in media.

To help journalists and news organizations understand potential use and misuse of generative artificial intelligence, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has granted Northwestern University $1 million from its aligned commitment through Press Forward.

“Individual journalists and small teams need the kind of powerful newsgathering tools that have traditionally been limited to larger news organizations,” said Marc Lavallee, Knight’s director of Technology Product and Strategy for Journalism. “Generative AI holds great potential for empowering all journalists, but proper adoption requires deep analysis. Northwestern's multidisciplinary approach, blending journalism, computer science, and product innovation, ensures these advancements will be adopted responsibly.”

With support from the grant, Northwestern faculty members Nick Diakopoulos of the School of Communication and Jeremy Gilbert of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications will address these issues and develop best practices for news organizations experimenting with and adopting generative artificial intelligence.

“The interdisciplinary approach that Northwestern takes to unspool AI is critical in staying a step ahead of its evolution,” said E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the School of Communication. “This partnership will unequivocally advance our efforts to engage with this technology and help strengthen journalism and democratic institutions at a moment when they are most in peril.”

Knight Foundation announced in September 2023 a $150 million investment over five years to support Press Forward, a new collaborative that aims to revitalize local news. That’s double their commitment to the field of journalism on top of the $632 million Knight has invested since 2005.  

“For more than a century, Medill has been committed to shaping the news industry's future, and exploring artificial intelligence is the next natural step for us to explore,” said Medill Dean Charles Whitaker. “Medill is grateful to Knight Foundation for its ongoing support through this program, the Knight Lab, the Knight Chair and many other initiatives.”

A Northwestern alum, Gilbert returned to Medill as a professor and Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy following a career at The Washington Post, where he directed a lab dedicated to experimental storytelling and built The Post’s first artificial intelligence storytelling system, Heliograf, which used machine-generated text to expand coverage of events, elections and the Olympics.

Diakopoulos, professor in communication studies and computer science, leads the Computational Journalism Lab in Northwestern’s School of Communication, where he conducts research focused on automation and algorithms in news production, algorithmic accountability and transparency, and social media in news contexts. He is the author of “Automating the News: How Algorithms are Rewriting the Media.”

What unites the two professors is the belief that with the right practices, technology will lead to better journalism, and in turn, a stronger democracy.

“Generative AI offers journalism an opportunity to rethink the products our audiences want, the methods we use to gather information and the ways we compile our stories,” Gilbert said. “Just like personal computers and smart phones, GenAI is a transformational technology. Universities like Northwestern have an opportunity and obligation to help the industry understand the potential and the challenges these technologies represent.”

Gilbert and Diakopoulos see generative AI as a crucial tool to help the diminished Fourth Estate by freeing journalists from routine tasks so they can spend more time on important stories and investigations. But smaller and mid-sized news organizations face barriers to adoption and have fallen behind, according to an Associated Press study, with Knight Lab collaboration, that was also funded by Knight Foundation to help local newsrooms expand the use of AI. 

The Northwestern project, titled “The Generative AI + Journalism Initiative: Developing Responsible Practices for Generative AI in News Production (GAIN),” will help close the gap in journalists’ understanding of the capabilities and limitations of generative AI technologies. Through prototyping and publishing, GAIN will focus on the needs of local news outlets by conducting research and small-scale pilots in working newsrooms.

“There are so many facets to how generative AI could be useful to or problematic for the news media ecosystem,” Diakopoulos said. “The need for university-driven research to sort out what works well and what’s over-hyped is more apparent than ever. I’m excited to work with Medill on advancing the research base for responsible practice with GenAI, and to blaze a path forward for how to leverage the tech to support better news media for society.”

How-to guides, results from prototype tools, and broader context on the ethical, legal and societal implications will be published on the Generative AI in the Newsroom project website. Diakopoulos created the site a year ago as a collaborative space for practitioners to discuss how the technology is and is not working. Through the grant, the site will be expanded to include a wealth and range of knowledge resources and create a channel where the latest in research on the topic will be translated for practitioners’ use.

The grant also includes funding for contributions from postdoctoral and Ph.D. researchers in the field of human-centered AI, as well as an editor position and writers to assist with reporting on the research findings or media. The funding will also support faculty, staff, professionals and students in designing and building tools in the Knight Lab and Computational Journalism Lab.