This article is part of our special section on the DealBook Summit that included business and policy leaders from around the world.
The future is here, and for many in the media business, it’s terrifying.
In an effort to understand threats facing the media during the upcoming presidential campaign, I asked a technology firm in California to create a “deep fake” video of President Biden, the kind of inauthentic footage that could flummox journalists on Election Day.
The results were sobering. Within seconds, the company — which requested anonymity because of the controversial nature of the assignment — transformed my likeness into President Biden’s, using artificial intelligence technology and a snippet of video I recorded.
Every presidential election cycle in recent memory has been shaped by the emergence of a new technology or the exploitation of an existing one. But 2024 will be more complicated. In addition to threats posed by “deep fakes,” journalists will have to fight a battle for the truth on multiple fronts, grappling with tricky coverage of the criminal proceedings against former President Donald J. Trump and sagging trust in the news media.
“This will affect every aspect of American journalism, from how we operate our businesses to the new competitors that rise, to the new sources of fake or manipulated media that sprout and spread,” said Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico and Axios. “Buckle up.”
Most election years, coverage of the grueling campaign trail dominates the airwaves, as candidates make the quadrennial pilgrimage to seemingly every fish fry, state fair and union hall between the coasts.
Things will be a little different this year, throwing a curveball to journalists and media executives making coverage decisions.
As Mr. Trump faces criminal charges in New York, Georgia, Washington, D.C., and Florida, one of the dominant stories of the 2024 campaign will most likely be the outcome of those criminal proceedings, said David Axelrod, the architect of former President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and a senior fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.
That poses a challenge for news organizations, Mr. Axelrod said. Mr. Trump has denied all wrongdoing and railed against prosecutors, signaling he would try to use the indictments for political advantage.
With Mr. Trump likely to run his campaign “from the courthouse steps,” journalists will be forced to separate the facts of the case from Mr. Trump’s partisan attacks in real time, Mr. Axelrod said. News directors will be tasked with covering the case without airing falsehoods or lavishing Mr. Trump with gratuitous airtime, as they have in Mr. Trump’s earlier campaigns.
“He knows the case he wants to make, and it has nothing to do with the law,” Mr. Axelrod said. “He’s going to be pushing a story of political persecution.”
Political persecution is exactly what many conservative legal experts think the charges against Mr. Trump amount to. Josh Hammer, a constitutional lawyer and syndicated columnist who has written extensively on the cases against Mr. Trump, said that the proceedings posed an entirely different challenge to mainstream news organizations: being fair to the former president.
Mr. Hammer said that the overwhelming majority of coverage of Mr. Trump’s legal travails, including cable news segments and newspaper editorials, had shown that the press had rendered its guilty verdict before the jury has had a chance to weigh in.
“The hardest thing, by far, is for the media to separate the objective, legal facts from what their obvious preferences are,” said Mr. Hammer, a conservative who is supporting the presidential bid of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
The artificial video of President Biden is just one example of the many types of inauthentic content journalists will grapple with in 2024.
Elections in Chicago and in Slovakia in Eastern Europe have already been disrupted by fake audio clips released before the election, spreading disinformation about candidates during a crucial period, said Sam Gregory, the executive director of Witness, a nonprofit that exposes human rights abuses posed by emerging technologies like deep fakes and generative A.I.
Deep fake technology has become so ubiquitous that it is now possible to create inauthentic photos, videos and audio faster than it takes to debunk them, Mr. Gregory said. In addition, most mainstream news organizations have not invested in the resources required to verify and cover misinformation on a tight deadline.
The fake videos and audio also pose another problem. They create an environment where everyone is skeptical of everything, including true information, Mr. Gregory said.
“Knowing that people don’t have the skills to do the detection, it’s really quite easy to say, ‘Oh, that was faked,’ and know that it’s going to be hard for people to prove that it’s actually real,” he said.
Still, there are some opportunities for attentive deep fake sleuths, Mr. Gregory said. While audio is more complicated, images and video have a range of context clues that can help prove whether a snippet of footage is genuine, and you can compare falsified images of an event against genuine to spot inconsistencies.
Any downsides posed by generative A.I. technology to the media must be weighed against its upsides, said Steve Amato, the founder and chief executive of Contend, a studio in Los Angeles that has used the technology to create marketing campaigns for companies including Amazon, Microsoft and Disney.
Mr. Amato cited medicine and education as fields in which the technology could be beneficial, bringing health care providers closer to patients virtually and providing students with immersive learning experiences.
“We’re in awe of all of these things on the positive side, too,” Mr. Amato said.
Decline of Trust
One of the biggest challenges facing the press next year has nothing to do with emerging technology or political attacks. Readers just don’t trust the press the way they used to, experts say, and that could have major consequences come election time.
About a quarter of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2019 said they don’t have much trust in information they get from the national news media. That number is even higher among Republicans, with roughly a third of those professing little trust in national news.
Deep fakes and accusations of bias from politicians are particularly damaging because they reach voters who are already distrustful of traditional media, said Frank Sesno, a professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University.
To combat sagging trust, news executives need to be more transparent with their readers and views about their journalism, showing them how stories get made and why, he said. That doesn’t mean news networks like CNN should play an “endless tape loop” of “journalism primer,” Mr. Sesno said, but it does mean explaining what makes certain topics newsworthy.
“People love being taken behind the scenes,” Mr. Sesno said. “People stood and applauded years ago when I was in a movie theater and they watched ‘Spotlight.’”
In addition to being more open with readers, news organizations should also push back against politicians like Mr. Trump who accuse the press of being dishonest or deliberately spouting misinformation, Mr. Sesno said.
If an airline were facing attacks from competitors who said its planes weren’t safe, the company would be orchestrating a huge public relations campaign to reassure passengers and win back their business, he said.
“When the media does that, it often sounds like self-congratulatory backslapping,” Mr. Sesno said. “But they need to respond.”