In a speech interwoven with professional career highlights and contemporary journalism observations, Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor delivered the 2023 Brian Johns memorial lecture at the NSW State Library this evening.
The annual lecture for Macquarie University’s Centre for Media History commemorates the former Managing Director of the ABC, Brian Johns, who is credited with beginning the national broadcaster’s transition to digital.
Recalling the first job after her journalism cadetship, reporting from Parliament House Canberra, she highlighted a time when there was enough time to research and form a story and an era where media was the main gatekeeper of information. But everything has changed for media journalists in this fast moving digital era.
“How do we hold on to the truth in the face of a firehose of disinformation?” she asked, setting out her views on the changes to journalism brought by competition, new technology and disinformation.
“Obtaining the best version of the truth is getting harder… There are now big chunks of the population that can’t tell fact from fiction,” said Taylor.
She urged journalists to stick to the professional traditions of journalistic credibility:
“Getting too close to sources is a danger… Follow the facts, by all means be passionate about the story, but keep to the facts and make an assessment of claims…
“If we lose the ability to understand other viewpoints we will erode our trust.”
Taylor believes obtaining the best version of the truth is getting harder in this saturated, competitive media market.
In her time leading Guardian Australia, she has been at the forefront of digital change in journalism.
“I was attracted to a digital only offering where the news cycle changed by the minute.
“At the time we were really optimistic about digital journalism. We were really hopeful about the new digital town square [but] over time the social platforms have become addictive traps.
“Nuance doesn’t go viral… Civilised disagreement has been swamped by anger and some politicians have capitalised on the mess.”
Taylor says the audience is rejecting current media reporting styles. “People have given up finding the truth, or they turn off altogether, or they take a side with a tribe.”
Competition from the digital giants and decline in trust in journalism has led to declining revenue, disinformation, and shrinking public trust.
With backing from the Guardian Trust and money from Australia’s Media Bargaining Code, Guardian Australia has grown from its original staff number of 20 to now over 120.
Reasons for the success of The Guardian, according to Taylor, include: taking a different editorial approach from other media, data driven analysis, explainer stories and podcasts. The publication now attracts 2 million Tiktok views per month.
“There is room for hope that we can hold onto factual discourse,” she said, but she is also worried about the role Chat GPT could play in spreading further disinformation if it is used carelessly by journalists. The Guardian is currently experimenting with the new Generative AI technology and developing policies for how it will be used within the company.
Generative AI produces plausible answers “at incredible speed,” producing many potential uses and also “obvious dangers.”
GPT stories are “written in incredible prose but have no commitment to the truth. ChatGPT doesn’t know what the truth is.”
Artificial intelligence is “excellent at producing each next word in a sentence, but doesn’t know what that sentence means.”
The Guardian is developing its own policies on using Generative AI and will publish how it intends to use GPT so that the audience will know if a human or machine wrote the story they are reading. The Guardian’s testing of Generative AI has also found that Chat GPT is also prone to fabrication of content.
“The flood of non-information and non-news makes our work more important…
“Our work is open to correction and debate. Unlike an algorithm we care where the truth lies,” she said.