CNN, Washington Post Journalists Talk A.I. Threats in 2024 Election

CNN Corespondent Donie O'Sullivan
CNN correspondent Donie O’Sullivan spoke about A.I.’s threat to journalism at SXSW 2024. Niall Carson – Pool/Getty Images

A SXSW panel on Tuesday (Mar. 14) featuring journalists and executives from CNN and The Washington Post brought together two key topics of the conference this week: A.I. and the 2024 presidential election

“In the age of A.I., a lot of my team members and I, as much as we’re paying attention to what is happening on the news of the day, we are also keeping an eye on things that may be false, that may just enter or impact or penetrate the newsroom by bad actors,” said panelist Bernadette Tuazon, CNN’s director of photography. 

The discussion, moderated by CNN’s editorial director of features David Allen, also featured Donie O’Sullivan, a CNN correspondent covering politics and technology, and Sandra Stevenson, The Washington Post’s deputy director of photography. The group discussed challenges A.I. presents for the journalism industry and how reporters will likely have to combat A.I.-fueled misinformation and disinformation during the election season. 

O’Sullivan said he was less concerned about A.I.-generated photos of what the presidential candidates were doing on the campaign trail, as those could be easily fact-checked by journalists who will be following candidates in person. Instead, he worried about fake images that could support conspiracy theories surrounding the election. “There [have been] images of ballots being burned or ballots being put into dumpsters, all created using A.I.,” O’Sullivan said. “And when I think back to 2020, that was the basis of the Big Election Lie. They’re the seeds to it.” 

The panelists also touched on the issue of candidates being able to claim that true reports about them are fabricated with A.I. Recently, former President Donald Trump falsely claimed that the Democrats used A.I.-generated videos of him as testimony during an investigation against him. “If you think about the Access Hollywood tape in 2016, that was probably one of the first times that Trump apologized or came close to an apology,” O’Sullivan said. “Because this technology didn’t exist in a way that we all knew about it and we’re talking about it, he could have just easily said at that point, ‘that’s fake.’” 

A.I. puts more pressure on human journalists

The journalists spoke about how any mistakes news organizations make when verifying the authenticity of images, audio and video could pose a risk to the entire institution. Though most reputable organizations would agree that it’s more important to publish accurate information than it is to be the first to publish, the standard is constantly challenged by a news cycle that requires fast, round-the-clock reporting, especially on beats like national politics.

“Credibility is everything. We already have a global audience that’s skittish about the truth that these organizations are publishing,” The Washington Post’s Stevenson said. “One small thing can take the whole thing down.” 

Some news organizations are embracing A.I. Axel Springer, the publisher of Business Insider and Politico, announced last year that it was going to experiment with A.I. in reporting. Semafor has partnered with Microsoft (MSFT) on producing news content “assisted” by A.I. O’Sullivan’s boss, CEO Mark Thompson, has suggested that CNN will need to engage with generative A.I. But O’Sullivan had a more critical view of the new tech.

“I think we’ve let the social media platforms eat our lunch for many years and we were chasing them for monetization and everything else,” he said. “And you’re kind of seeing that now with our industry when it comes to chasing the next check from OpenAI or whoever else is.”

“I don’t have great faith in our industry in leveraging this technology in any really meaningful constructive way other than maybe helping audio levels and helping video editing, stuff like that,” he added.

Journalists Warn of A.I.’s Side Effects on Newsrooms in 2024 Presidential Election

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