Strictly as an experiment, I produced an AI-generated summary of a panel discussion that took place in September at the Radically Rural conference in Keene, New Hampshire. Titled “How’d They Do That? Groundbreaking Journalism,” the panel was moderated by Jack Rooney, managing editor for audience development at The Keene Sentinel, which co-sponsored the event along with the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship.
The hour-long panel featured Victoria Bouloubasis, a filmmaker who showed part of her Emmy-nominated documentary, “Rising Up in the Heartland: Latino Workers Fight for Pandemic Relief,” and discussed it; Samantha Hogan, an investigative reporter with The Maine Monitor, who talked about her reporting on the state’s public defense system for the indigent; and Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today, who described his news organization’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting into the Backchannel scandal, which encompassed figures ranging from former Gov. Phil Bryant to former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.
A note on methodology: I took some real chances with this. I captured the audio using Otter.ai, a transcription service that uses artificial intelligence. Then I fed each of the three parts of the panel discussion into ChatGPT and asked it to produce 400-word summaries. I left out the audience Q&A that followed the panel. Let me stipulate for the record that I did not watch the video except for a few brief clips, and I skimmed quickly through the Otter transcript, which was 7,000 words long. I don’t recommend this as sound journalistic practice, but, as I said, I was experimenting. What I did not try to do was ask ChatGPT to generate a news story; I’ll try that another time.
What appears below, produced entirely by ChatGPT, looks shockingly good. I just hope that it’s an accurate and useful summary.
Victoria Bouloubasis, an Emmy-nominated journalist and filmmaker, based in Durham, North Carolina, shared insights into her work and a specific project during a panel discussion. Here’s a summary of the key points:
- Journalist’s Background: Victoria Bouloubasis is an experienced journalist with a focus on dispelling myths about the global South. Her career, primarily in community journalism, spans 15 years, emphasizing labor rights, healthcare, and language access in North Carolina’s agricultural and food industries. Growing up in the South, she covers labor issues, especially concerning first-generation Americans and their families in Latin America.
- Coverage of Rural Communities: Bouloubasis delves into the complexities of covering rural communities, particularly in North Carolina, known for its prominence in pork and tobacco production. She highlights the evolving demographics, with a shift from primarily Mexican to more Central American and Indigenous communities. Language diversity adds complexity to her reporting, as many interviewed speak languages other than Spanish.
- Project Overview: The discussed project, an Emmy-nominated piece for Univision, originally focused on long COVID’s impact on poultry plant workers. However, Bouloubasis shifted the narrative after discovering a grassroots organizing story among immigrant workers in Iowa. The story aimed to empower and defy stereotypes surrounding immigrant communities, contrasting with typical narratives of victimization.
- Challenges Faced: The challenges in the project included last-minute changes to the story focus and navigating language barriers during interviews. Bouloubasis emphasizes the importance of terminology, noting the shifting dynamics of minority-majority populations in small towns. The story showcased the struggles of immigrant workers, demanding pandemic relief funds for essential workers who didn’t receive stimulus checks due to eligibility criteria.
- Community Perspectives: Bouloubasis highlights the discomfort and confusion of local officials who couldn’t understand Spanish, providing a unique perspective on the challenges faced by non-English speakers. The mayor’s lack of understanding of the struggles faced by undocumented immigrants, particularly in receiving stimulus checks, became a focal point in the story.
- Positive Outcomes: Despite the challenges, Bouloubasis expresses pride in the project’s recognition at the Emmys, emphasizing its hopeful and empowering narrative. The immigrant community in Iowa successfully distributed federal pandemic relief aid to meatpacking and farm workers, showcasing the impact of grassroots organizing.
- Inspiration from the Community: Bouloubasis commends the courage of immigrant workers who put themselves at risk by publicly acknowledging their undocumented status. The project seeks to elevate their voices and bring attention to social determinants of health, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and understanding in journalism.
This summary captures Victoria Bouloubasis’s insights into her journalism career, the challenges of covering immigrant communities, and the impact of her Emmy-nominated project, which sheds light on the struggles and resilience of rural immigrant workers.
Samantha Hogan, investigative reporter with The Maine Monitor, shared insights into her work, focusing on Maine’s indigent public defense system. Here’s a summary of the key points:
- Reporter’s Background: Samantha Hogan, an investigative reporter, joined The Maine Monitor in 2019, specializing in court system reporting. Her work, supported by Report for America, delves into Maine’s troubled indigent public defense system.
- Maine’s Demographics: Maine, with a predominantly white population, faces economic disparities rather than racial issues. The community includes both lifelong residents and seasonal “snowbirds.” Hogan decided to investigate how individuals unable to afford lawyers were represented in the state.
- Indigent Public Defense System Issues: Hogan discovered issues within Maine’s indigent public defense system, where private defense lawyers were contracted without proper oversight. Unlike most states, Maine lacked a statewide public defender system, relying on contracts with private lawyers. Some lawyers had criminal convictions and professional misconduct violations.
- Investigative Approach: A whistleblower alerted Hogan to problems in the indigent defense system. She initiated a data-driven investigation, utilizing public records requests and analyzing billing data. Hogan revealed instances of lawyers billing implausible hours and identified disciplinary issues among contracted lawyers.
- Scandalous Cases and Red Flags: Hogan uncovered cases where lawyers with serious criminal convictions or professional misconduct allegations were contracted for public defense. The investigation raised red flags, such as lawyers billing excessive hours and serious ethical violations within the system.
- Impact and Legal Consequences: The investigative report led to significant consequences, including a government watchdog verifying Hogan’s findings. The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services faced a civil lawsuit, acknowledging negligent misrepresentation of billing by an attorney. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state, citing an ineffective public defense system.
- Persistence and Impactful Journalism: Hogan’s relentless pursuit of public records, court filings, and data analysis turned anecdotal evidence into hard numbers. The investigative reporting became a pivotal factor in legal actions against the flawed public defense system. The ACLU lawsuit, citing Hogan’s work, puts the spotlight on the need for a functional public defense system in Maine. (1)
- Ongoing Legal Battles: Hogan highlighted ongoing legal battles, including the ACLU lawsuit, indicating that the impact of investigative journalism extends beyond immediate results. The story, a four-year project, continues to evolve, emphasizing the importance of persistent reporting and its contribution to systemic change.
Samantha Hogan’s work exemplifies the power of investigative journalism in exposing systemic flaws, holding institutions accountable, and driving legal actions to address critical issues within the indigent public defense system in Maine.
Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today, shared insights into the impactful investigative journalism that led to winning a Pulitzer Prize for the Backchannel investigation. Here’s a summary of the key points:
- Introduction: Adam expressed his gratitude to be on stage with fellow journalists and introduced Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of Mississippi Today. Ganucheau oversees Mississippi’s largest newsroom, focusing on stories relevant to everyday Mississippians.
- Mississippi’s Communities: Ganucheau highlighted the diversity of Mississippi’s communities, dispelling monolithic views. He emphasized the shared dreams and goals of Mississippians across different backgrounds, beliefs, and economic statuses. The challenge lies in providing equal access and opportunities for these dreams, especially in a state facing numerous problems.
- Mississippi Today’s Role: Mississippi Today, a nonprofit newsroom launched in 2016, positions itself between everyday Mississippians and decision-makers. With a team of about 15, mostly Mississippi natives deeply connected to their community, the newsroom aims to bridge the gap by listening to people’s struggles, reporting on their concerns, and holding decision-makers accountable.
- The Backchannel Investigation: The focus shifted to the Backchannel investigation, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2022. The investigation began with reporter Anna Wolfe’s exploration of poverty in Mississippi. She discovered that federal funds, intended for the state’s poorest residents, were being diverted to nonprofit programs with little accountability. (2)
- Welfare Spending Anomalies: Wolfe delved into the anomalies in welfare spending, revealing that Mississippi approved less than 1% of applications for cash assistance. The investigation exposed a shift in funds from direct cash assistance to nonprofit initiatives with questionable accounting. Wolfe’s collaboration with the state auditor ultimately led to six arrests, including the welfare agency director.
- Role of Former Governor: The investigation extended to the role of the former governor in redirecting federal funds and changing the philosophy behind poverty assistance programs. Wolfe spent years probing the governor’s involvement, culminating in a seven-part series titled “The Backchannel.”
- Impactful Visuals and Reporting: Mississippi Today used charts and visuals to illustrate the impact of welfare spending changes over time. They scrutinized the former governor’s philosophy shift and its effects on assistance programs. The investigation revealed instances like wealthy individuals, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre, receiving welfare funds. (3)
- Series Conclusion and Everyday Stories: The series aimed to provide accountability to state leaders while keeping the stories of everyday Mississippians at the forefront. Ganucheau highlighted the series’ conclusion in December 2022, where they circled back to the people who inspired the investigation. Everyday Mississippians, like Daniel Thomas, shared their experiences, expressing gratitude for the reporting but emphasizing the lack of tangible help.
- Journalistic Mission: Ganucheau underscored that Mississippi Today’s mission is not driven by awards or notoriety but by a commitment to helping everyday people better understand their situations and hold decision-makers accountable.
The Backchannel investigation exemplifies the impactful role of investigative journalism in bringing systemic issues to light, holding those in power accountable, and giving a voice to those affected by government decisions.
- Did someone say “lawsuit”? When I saw that word in the ChatGPT summary, I decided I’d better check it out. The verdict? It’s true.
Although I had already provided Otter, and thus ChatGPT, with the correct names of the panelists, ChatGPT was on its own with Anna Wolfe — and it spelled her name correctly.
ChatGPT got Brett Favre’s name right, too. I did not, and I had to scroll back to the introduction to fix it.