Intelligent agents and new technology:

questioning the future of journalism

Even at a university like mine, which usually emphasizes it interest in developing new technology and likes to see itself in a pioneering role, there are many students that ask themselves critical questions about the dangers of new technology.

They question the benefits of these new products and processs and are afraid of the potential for bad or undesired effects in our society, especially with respect to their effect on children.

Of course, every technology has the same ambiguity. Tom Cooper said in Chile that fire is the oldest metaphor about the benefits and the risks of a new technology. But still there are some questions not answered, and they are present at different levels:

  • The individual point of view.
  • The impact on our society.
  • The impact on professions. For example, journalism.

I will not try to answer these questions, but only to present a Chilean approach to them, from the point of view of a Chilean journalist working presently at a University..

We are all familiar with the story from the Greek mythology of Pandora, the woman whose curiosity move her to open the forbidden box from which all evils and pains escape to afflict mankind.

The image of Pandora's box is useful as an illustration of how the unforeseen effects of something you don't know might influence a modern society. Today, we can study research on the social impacts of new technologies and cultural values in some remote islands in the Pacific or isolated tribes in Africa or the Amazon. But these were small groups and what happened to them was not truly important on a world scale. Things are different now. Think, for instance, on the Enlaces -Links- program, started some years ago in Chile. Its ambitious goal is to prepare students in the public school system, usually poor children, for the use of computers and networking.

This nationwide program, now with almost 3.000 basic and high schools, and 1.300.000 students was started in La Araucania, one of the poorest regions in Chile, inhabited mainly by mapuches. You can still see in the fields there, 800 kilometers south of Santiago, more oxen than tractors. Today, those poor children, from ignorant families, have the same possibility of getting in touch with the rest of the world that sons of rich people have in Santiago, the capital city. They almost never have the opportunity of reading the local newspaper, El Diario Austral, from Temuco, but they can follow, on the cable or the Internet, the news through Televisión Española, CNN, The Washington Post or El Mercurio and La Tercera, which are newspapers edited in Santiago.

But this is only part of the story.

Coming back to our mapuche friends. Today you don't need to have much money to get in touch with new technology. In an open market society, like mine, with a modern digital telephone system, students in every isolated area have the same opportunities on the Internet as those traditionally considered to be luckier. But getting the news, having access to museums, libraries and data is not enough, and that is the point. Having access to the Internet -and cable television- enables you to have the world on your computer screen. But then, what do you have? Of course, news. But also pornography, tragedies, misinformation, political, religious or philosophical ideas you may consider desirable or not.

Many people are worried by the impact of films and TV programs on their children. They mention sex and violence. But editors and media owners say that editorial freedom must be respected and reinforced.

For many the argument is that people -not only children- are not ready to see crimes, violence, et al...

That was exactly the reason behind the recent decision of the Taliban in Afghanistan to forbid TV. They can do that now. It is an irony that some years ago, the same technology, according to an Spanish academic, Dr. Juan Antonio Giner, permitted the Taliban to denounce worldwide the abuses committed by soviet occupation forces.

Lessons from research

During the past two years I have been the main researcher on a modest project at our university: The creation of software for an electronic newspaper.

We have have studied the technical, jornalistic, communicational and legal aspects of newspaper publishing. Ours is not an extraordinary accomplishment. But it has a very important characteristic, the joint work of computer engineers and journalists. IThrough this joint venture, but groups have learned a lot. Journalists have to recreate all the steps necessary to get information in print. This meant to look at the role of the reporter and his or her individual responsibility. But, at the same time, we rediscovered the importance of the organization the medium has to have: its editorial position, the way it defines its mission. We have to consider not only how to collect journalistic materials, but also the way we deliver them. This means that we have not only to think a new form of reporting, but also of organizing it, and more important, of writing it. And, of course, there is also a new way of reading.

In a review in the New York Times about Christopher Harper's new book -And that's the way it will be- both the author and the reviewer remember Pierre Salinger's fiasco about the TWA flight 800, due to an outdated and later discontinued information on the Internet.

This is a sour reminder to all journalists about a basic fact, often forgotten: You still have to use your journalistic skills to work with the Internet. You have to check and re-check. You have to ask yourself about the trust you deposit in the source. Credibility has always been the foundation of any durable journalistic reputation. And that has not changed.

Traditionally, journalists are (or, may I say: were?) in charge of setting the public agenda, that is, deciding what is and what is not news. That is and used to be its more important professional responsibility.

But, then, what happened?

We have now the Internet and, besides its many advantages for gathering information, we have a new competitor, the public itself: if you can get the news on your PC, directly from the source, journalists begin to be -or, at least, to look- superfluous.

For years many people -journalists included- have began to follow the same reasoning. Nicholas Negroponte upgraded the debate with the proposition of the Daily Me, the complete, personal electronic newspaper, delivered to your PC not every morning, but the moment there is a story of interest to you.

His apparent conclusion: you don1t need journalists any more.

Our research and the reflection we have been doing lead us to a different conclusion. We were bound to reach that conclusion, of course. But, on the way to that predictable goal, we discovered the many complexities this debate presents:

  • The role of journalists as researchers and writers does not disappear with the Daily Me type of newspaper. There is always the necessity for responsible people doing the gathering, processing and delivering of the news.
  • And then, journalists still have another important responsibility: selection of the news. (There is a calculus: only ten per cent of the news gathered by journalists is published in a daily; and the common reader only selects ten percent of that 10 percent). This selection can not be omitted. There are practical and historical reasons for this.

From the professional point of view, one always needs a certain level of preparedness. Including an ethical background, both to select and to determine the importance of news.

But there is more. Historically, journalism has been described not only as the Fourth State, but also as the society's watchdog.

The implications are many. It means an obligation to give all the news, the good ones and the bad ones; the positive and the negative. It is the only way to be sure a democratic system can work effectively. In Chile, my country. we know that very well: first-hand experience).

The automatic selection of news, according to personal preferences, for instance, could exclude very important aspects of daily life. Bad news could be excluded, but would that mean the end of crime, accidents, corruption and other negative news currently on our menu? Of course not.

And, if we make our pre-selection at a different level, according to our political or ideological convictions, the situation could be even worse. Democracy itself could be in danger. That is why I do not believe journalists are a species in danger of extinction. But we are very seriously threatened.

For this reason we have to work harder, taking advantage of a new technology and working with experts. They need to know we are not defending ourselves or pretending to maintain certain acquired positions. We are defending the concept of a well informed, democratic society. And that is the important thing.

Now, when we face the challenges presented by intelligent agents, the first temptation is to believe that, finally, we have seen the end of journalism. But the answer is still that you need certain skills and expertise, no only to set the agenda for readers or users, but to organize the overwhelming quantities of information you have; to point out its meaning, projections and implications. The trend was started by Time magazine in 1923 and that is exactly what more and more journalists are doing every day in a very busy world, full of various information and people trying to the understand facts...

Now we have intelligent agents and everybody -I mean everybody in a very restricted community for the moment- is wondering about their impact on our profession. As a journalist, I am sure we can find a way to survive professionally, but I know also that there are experts working in ways that will make us superfluous.

If that happens, I only want to be the first to deliver that final news...

Media Ethicts (The Magazine Serving Mass Communications Ethics), Volumen 10, Number 1, Otoño de 1998. Publicación del Departamento de Artes Visuales y Mediales del Emerson College, Boston, Estados Unidos. Originalmente esta ponencia fue presentada en el encuentro de la FIPA, Fundación para los Agentes Fisicos Inteligentes, celebrado en julio de 1998 en Dublín.