New Venture to School Community Journalists in Artificial Intelligence

  • By Andrea Stone
John Smock

At a time when artificial intelligence (AI) systems that use machine learning and algorithms are determining financial, health, and educational policy, the need to explain how these technologies impact real people has never been greater.

That is the impetus behind a new project led by Sandeep Junnarkar, director of interactive journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The venture will train community journalists to analyze how AI is impacting immigrants and low-income communities in New York City and around the nation.

The innovative project was one of seven selected in an open challenge grant to focus on the effects of AI on news and information. The $100,000 award to Newmark J-School was made by the Ethics and Governance in AI Initiative, a joint project of the MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. It provided a total of $750,000 for the programs.

More than 500 entries were submitted in the challenge, and 24 schools made the list of finalists. Newmark J-School was one of two academic institutions and the only journalism school selected.

The Community Media Training to Report on AI Systems will work with niche news organizations to help their journalists determine how AI affects everyday decisions. “This will help them produce stories that expose how this new technology affects immigrants, communities of color, and others who don’t even realize artificial intelligence is being used to make serious decisions that impact their life,” Junnarkar said.

The program will offer AI workshops for a wide variety of New York City publications, such as El Diario, the World Journal, Gotham Gazette, Norwood Press, the Amsterdam News, Korea Times, and India Panorama. It will also give scholarships to community journalists from other parts of the country so they can attend the sessions in New York.

For those unable to attend in person, the project will offer online primers in several languages, including Spanish, Korean, Hindi, and Mandarin. In addition, the grant will fund a help desk to assist with technical issues that may arise during reporting.

The project will collaborate with the Newmark J-School’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media, which already provides training and assistance to New York City’s neighborhood news providers. The school’s professional development arm, J+, will help run the AI training workshops.

The Newmark J-School team will also enlist computer science students and faculty at the Grove School of Engineering at CUNY’s City College of New York to tap their knowledge of how algorithms are written.

Junnarkar says it is critical for journalists to understand how governments and companies are using AI to make decisions that can have profound impacts on people’s lives. He noted a now-discontinued recruiting system used by Amazon that discriminated against female job applicants. The reason? It relied on data about existing employees who skewed almost entirely male.

The Newmark J-School already offers courses to its students in using algorithms in reporting. “In the near future, if not already,” says Junnarkar, “being able to treat an algorithm or AI system like a source — someone you have to interview — is going to become the norm.”