KINY’s “prize patrol” vehicle is parked outside the Local First Media Group Inc.’s building on Wednesday morning. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
KINY’s “prize patrol” vehicle is parked outside the Local First Media Group Inc.’s building on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, in Juneau. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

On Memorial Day in Juneau, when tributes to veterans took place throughout town, a news story by KINY radio headlined “Remembering the Strategic Significance of Juneau and Southeast Alaska: A Memorial Day Tribute” detailed historic events such as the Aleutian Islands Campaign during World War II and the Cold War’s missile-detection radar stations across the Arctic.

“From the Aleutian Islands Campaign to the radar stations of the Cold War, and the modern-day operations that continue to ensure our safety, Juneau and Southeast Alaska have been more than just scenic vistas,” the story declares. “They are living tributes to the enduring spirit of American resilience and vigilance.”

Referring specifically to the capital city, the story states “Juneau, while not directly in the line of conflict, served as a crucial logistical hub. The city’s harbors and airfields facilitated the movement of troops, supplies, and intelligence that were vital to the campaign.”

According to the website ZeroGPT, 98.75% of the text is generated by artificial intelligence (the only text not highlighted as such are two of the five subheadlines, which read “Operation Alaskan Road: Modern Military Relevance” and “A Living Tribute”). While AI is seeing increasing and often controversial use on media platforms — and some journalism industry veterans say the technology may have its uses, although perhaps not yet — it appears to be used little by most Alaska media organizations.

However, stories apparently generated entirely or mostly by AI are now regularly published at KINY’s website. Often they’re easily identifiable by vague subheadlines separating short passages of a few paragraphs each, with local names and other bits of data culled from the web dropped into sentences loaded with flowery adjectives and characterizations in something of a fill-in-the-blanks semblance.

A May 31 story previewing a state playoff game by the baseball team for Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé, for instance, includes this paragraph.

“The Juneau Douglas Crimson Bears have a storied history in Alaska high school baseball. Known for their tenacity and team spirit, the Crimson Bears have consistently been a formidable force in state tournaments. Over the years, their participation has highlighted their athletic prowess and brought the Juneau community together, fostering a sense of pride and unity.”

Similarly, a story published Sunday at the website headlined “The History of Father’s Day: Honoring Dads in Juneau and Beyond” where Juneau could be exchanged with virtually any other town, is 98.45% AI generated, according to ZeroGPT.

“Father’s Day, celebrated on the third Sunday of June, is a special occasion dedicated to recognizing and appreciating the contributions and sacrifices of dads everywhere. This day, observed in many countries worldwide, has a rich history that dates back over a century. In Juneau, as families gather to celebrate, understanding the origins of Father’s Day adds a little depth to the festivities.”

A majority of the news stories at KINY’s website are by media organizations such as the Associated Press and Alaska Beacon, or press releases from entities such as the City and Borough of Juneau. The station’s on-air news broadcasts are similar in content.

The increase in AI-generated content at the website appears to coincide with the station terminating its two veteran full-time news employees last month. One of the employees is Jasz Garrett, now a reporter for the Juneau Empire, who did not participate in the reporting of this story.

KINY is part of Local First Media Group, owned by the California-based BTC USA Holdings Management Inc., which purchased the station and five others in Juneau a year ago. Bryan Woodruff, Local First Media Group’s president and CEO, referred questions by the Empire to Cliff Dumas, the company’s co-founder and chief content officer, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The station has made other transitions since the purchase by Local First Media Group, including ending the “Problem Corner” call-in program that was the longest-running radio show in Alaska when the final episode aired in early February. Station management at the time said the intent was to give KINY “a stronger musical identity” by making music from the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s the station’s focal point, while “Problem Corner” was relaunched as a weekly podcast.

Can AI be a suitable news reporting tool?

With news organizations struggling with both their finances and reputations, AI is a proverbial two-edged sword that is making inroads regardless of the wishes of individual publications and stations.

A total of 72% of U.S. residents surveyed said they are concerned about “what is real and what is fake on the internet when it comes to online news,” an 8% increase from a year earlier, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2024. The U.S. response is notably higher than the global average of 59%, but below South Africa at 81%.

“As publishers embrace the use of AI we find widespread suspicion about how it might be used, especially for ‘hard’ news stories such as politics or war,” the study notes. “There is more comfort with the use of AI in behind-the-scenes tasks such as transcription and translation; in supporting rather than replacing journalists.”

Readership of traditional news, and journalists working for such outlets, are in a steep and prolonged decline.

The website My Everett News reported Tuesday that Carpenter Media Group (which purchased the Juneau Empire and other newspapers in the Sound Publishing chain earlier this year) plans to lay off 62 people — or more than half the unionized news staff — at The Everett Herald. The website notes daily newspaper circulation in the U.S. has plummeted from more than 60 million during the early 1990s to barely more than 20 million in 2022.

“Now with AI repurposing web content without compensating the original authors, the entire news industry is in panic mode,” the news site reported.

As with most tools and technology, the use of AI for news purposes isn’t automatically a bad thing, according to journalism experts in Alaska and elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” said Larry Persily, publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel and a journalist for numerous Alaska outlets (including former managing editor of the Juneau Empire) for most of the past 50 years. “I think it’s discouraging and I don’t think it’s progress that I’d be proud of, but I can understand it if people have the impetus to do it to save money and produce copy. I think it just further weakens public confidence in news, which is already extremely low.”

Persily, who like other news outlets in Alaska has struggled to lure reporters to fill job openings, said he’s never considered using AI to generate any content for his newspaper.

“I guess my feeling is there are countless real people who are bad writers,” he said. “Why do we need to create a machine that’s also a bad writer?”

Rosemarie Alexander-Isett, an associate professor of communications at the University of Alaska Southeast, stated in an email the topic of AI seldom came up in classes she taught during the past year and “I told students in all my classes not to use AI.”

“AI does not have a place in journalism, as far as I’m concerned,” she wrote. “Journalism has already been co-opted by the number of news outlets that are blatantly biased. Public trust in news continues to decrease. Pew Research indicates a decline in traditional news media audiences, losing to social media, which is not surprising.”

To date the news headlines about AI — beyond the ones written by the programs themselves — are largely about problems and scandals that have arisen from its use.

Sports Illustrated and the technology website CNET are among national media entities recently found to be publishing extensive AI content, including bylines of authors and photos as well as stories, resulting in what David Bauder of the Associated Press called damage to reputations “by being less than forthcoming — if not outright dishonest — about who or what is writing its stories at the dawn of the artificial intelligence age.”

NPR, in a story broadcast last month, reported “AI-generated articles are permeating major news publications” — not always knowingly, as the publications are using content from third-party media contractors that use the technology without disclosing that fact.

An extensive — but not necessarily all-inclusive — examination of Alaska media websites by the Empire didn’t reveal any beyond KINY that appeared to be using AI to generate news stories. However, there also were relatively few commercial radio outlets in particular with news staff providing local reporting.

One small radio station providing local news with two full-time reporters is Kenai-based KSRM, which has tinkered with using AI to generate content — but not for news purposes, said Matt Wilson, president and CEO of KSRM Radio Group Inc.

“We have dabbled and we play with AI with some of our scriptwriting (for commercials) or maybe some of the other content that we’ve used at the radio station,” he said. “But for news specifically, no.”

Also, Wilson said, the results they’ve gotten from AI engines haven’t been overly impressive so far.

“More often than not the few times that we’ve used it we found ourselves going back in and making so many changes to it to fit what we wanted that it made more sense to do it ourselves,” he said.

Even if a media outlet in Alaska is tempted to use AI for news, there’s likely to be limitations compared to outlets in large markets in the Lower 48, Wilson said.

“My understanding of AI is that it’s pulling from content that already exists,” he said. “So if the content isn’t already there to create that content it would be difficult, at least from an Alaskan perspective.”

Wilson said he was among the people weighing in on a bill during this year’s legislative session regulating AI, although that focused largely on the issue of “deepfake” photos and videos falsely portraying people for purposes such as political campaigns. However, the increasing publication of such faked content — deliberately or not — is among the growing concerns expressed by media industry officials.

The temptation for a small media outlet to use AI for news because of struggles to hire — or afford — staff is understandable, Wilson said. And it’s possible, now or at some point, it may indeed be a practical option.

“I think there is a good use for it,” he said. “But I don’t think anybody truly yet has found the right formula or the right recipe to make it work.”

AI checker: This article contains 2.44% AI/GPT content

As a benchmark to test the accuracy of ZeroGPT, five consecutive news stories published by the Juneau Empire on June 13 and 14 — plus this article — were checked at the website. The results were imperfect, sometimes differing when rechecking the same article.

Three articles headlined “Bill Thomas drops out of District 3 House race, says there isn’t time for fishing and campaigning,” “Medical company sues Goldbelt for at least $30M in contract dispute involving COVID-19 vaccine needles,” and “Bearing witness: Young bears get the boot from mom” returned results that stated the text was human written with 0% AI content.

The other two stories initially returned messages stating “Your Text is Likely Human written, may include parts generated by AI/GPT,” with percentages ranging from 11.25% to 18.05%. The highest percentage was for a story headlined “Peltola among few Democrats to vote for annual defense bill loaded with GOP ‘culture war’ amendments,” — and a recheck returned the more ominous assessment “Your Text contains mixed signals, with some parts generated by AI/GPT” with 27.55% flagged as possible AI.

Highlighted as possible AI were nearly the entire first two paragraphs of the story (indicated below in italics):

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, was among only six of the 213 Democrats in the U.S. House to vote in favor of the $883.7 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Friday after House Republicans who control the chamber filled it with various ‘culture war’ provisions including banning drag shows on military bases, and restricting access to abortion and transgender medical care.

The 217-199 vote largely along party lines on the bill — which also eliminates all positions and offices of diversity, equity and inclusion at the Pentagon — turned a normally bipartisan bill into a blatantly political one ahead of the 2024 elections. Three Republicans voted against the bill.”

The paragraphs, aside from the reference to Peltola, are similar to widespread coverage by U.S. publications about the NDAA’s passage.

The other passage highlighted by ZeroGPT during the second scan of the story is two paragraphs that read:

“Peltola is facing two major Republican challengers this fall: Nick Begich III, who lost to Peltola in a three-way race in 2022; and Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom.

In a June 6 interview with the Alaska Watchman, Begich said he opposes the use of military funds to transport soldiers to obtain an abortion and supports former President Donald Trump’s ban on individuals identifying as transgender from serving in the military.”

Not highlighted by ZeroGPT was a subsequent quote by Begich to the Watchman, or prepared statements by Peltola and Dahlstrom included in the Empire article — which if posted on officials’ online sites would presumably be easy material for a content generator like Chat GPT to locate.

The other Empire story flagged by ZeroGPT, headlined “Eaglecrest Ski Area gondola may not open until 2027 due to CBJ delays, Goldbelt CEO says” returned a slightly lower 11.14% possible AI/GPT content following the initial scan results of 11.25%. Among the content flagged by the program were remarks Pierre made to the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the gondola’s status in a speech covered by the Empire.

A check of this article flagged 2.44% as AI/GPT. Highlighted were three paragraphs excerpted from KINY stories detected by ZeroGPT as AI/GPT.

However, while those results are inexact, there is an obvious contrast compared to stories such as one headlined “Celebrating 89 Years: The Storied History of KINY in Juneau,” which returns a “Your Text is AI/GPT Generated” message with 97.56% of the text flagged (only the subheadlines and one unremarkable sentence of the story are not highlighted).

In the final section, with the subheadline “looking ahead,” the story proclaims “the station’s journey from a small, low-powered broadcaster to a modern media hub is a remarkable story of adaptation and growth.”

“As Juneau looks to the future, KINY is poised to continue its mission, bridging the past and the present while embracing the possibilities of tomorrow,” the story notes.