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AI Chatbot 'Murrow' Teaches Journalism and Critical Thinking

A free AI-powered tool from the Journalistic Learning Initiative and Playlab Education Inc. is designed to instill in middle and high school students high standards for interviewing, fact-checking and reporting.

Illustration of two white robotic arms typing on a laptop. Light blue background.
Public school students usually get minimal training in nonfiction writing, and it tends to take the form of book reports or persuasive essays on assigned topics. But is that enough to develop their curiosity, character and confidence?

Ed Madison, an associate professor in the communications department at University of Oregon, doesn’t think so. One of his role models, the late broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, advocated for truth during the McCarthy era and underscored the need to preserve journalism. That’s especially important now, when American society is so politically polarized and young people can’t tell the difference between fact-based articles and random online propaganda disguised as news, Madison said.

“Understanding validity is a great place to start,” he said.

Madison and his nonprofit partners have modernized the broadcast journalism legend’s relevance in the form of an AI-powered chatbot, “Murrow.” The free tool, developed by Playlab Education Inc. and accessible on Journalistic Learning Initiative’s website, can teach middle and high school students most aspects of journalism, from developing ideas for articles, to proper interviewing techniques, to ethics, to effective fact-checking, writing and storytelling, Madison said.

Playlab’s open source platform interfaces with ChatGPT-4, Madison explained, “but we’ve given it specific instructions" where the tool stops short of providing answers or essays on command, and instead encourages students to use and strengthen their critical-thinking skills, abide by journalistic ethics and credit sources.

Playlab co-founder Yusuf Ahmad said both journalists and educators played a key role in designing this tool.

“Our vision with Playlab is to make it easy for educators like Madison to combine their expertise with the power of generative AI,” Ahmad said in a Nov. 1 public statement.

Journalistic Learning Initiative (JLI) was formed in 2015 for the purpose of helping journalism students to hone their voice as writers, excel academically and practice self-directed learning to become better writers and critical thinkers. Madison, the founder and executive director of JLI, is a broadcast journalist by trade who worked for CNN before becoming a college professor. With the gradual decline of journalistic writing instruction in schools, coupled with the distractions of the pandemic, he said, there has never been a greater need to re-emphasize the importance of strong verbal and written communication skills.

“To get people to talk on the phone who are under the age of 20 is not easy,” Madison said. “As a journalist, you have to learn how to talk to strangers, engage in a more direct way and advocate an idea. You’ve got to be able to stand on two feet and speak up.”

Madison is not necessarily steering students into the media or communications industries. He said journalistic skills are compatible with sales, fundraising, law and other vocations where employees must be confident speaking publicly in front of a group.

The functionality of the Murrow chatbot is threefold, Madison explained. First, it helps users find topics to write about and organize strategies for identifying sources and gathering facts. Next, it helps identify ways to create a story using those facts and sources in a unique fashion — one that "hasn’t already been done 100 times before." Lastly, it reviews the story written by the user and provides feedback on how to improve it.

After responding to a series of prompts seeking guidance on writing a news story about a school district spending plan, Murrow was then asked what information from a proposed school budget should be noted. The chatbot responded: "overall budget size, major changes from the prior budget, impact on stakeholders, and reasons for changes."

“Why have those changes happened? Is it due to changes in state funding, local property taxes or school district priorities?” Murrow typed in its live response. “Remember, in a news story, the most important information goes at the beginning, the 'inverted pyramid' model. So you’ll want to include these significant details in your article. Now, how about trying to write the first few sentences of your article? I can give you feedback on your work.”

In the classroom, Murrow is not there to replace educators but to free them up to teach nonfiction writing and journalism in contexts that students can relate to before working on projects independently. In newsrooms, Madison said, AI might be perceived as a threat because it can make journalism better, but for the time being it cannot give stories the unique voices readers want and expect.

“Writing is very labor intensive,” Madison said. "AI reminds people about the basics of grammar and sentence structure, but in telling the story the right way, only humans can do that.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.