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HTFP probe sparks fears over AI-based fake local news

Journalists have shared fears about the prospect of fake local news titles launching around the country after HTFP exposed the practice.

An industry-wide debate about the use of AI tools has been sparked by our probe into the Bournemouth Observer, which was launched last month using fake journalist profiles.

The site, which plans to launch in print, used images from a stock picture archive to illustrate a series of bizarrely-written profiles of its ‘journalists’ including ‘esteemed editor’ David Roberts and ‘middle-aged journalist’ Simon Foster.

Representatives of the site were unable to confirm that they were real people, or whether AI had been used in compiling the stories on the site.

The profile of the Observer's "middle-aged journalist" Simon Foster

The profile of the Observer’s “middle-aged journalist” Simon Foster


Senior industry figures including National World’s Sam Shedden responded to our story by warning about the potential of further such titles being created elsewhere.

Sam, who is head of customer loyalty and National World, posted on Twitter: “Great report from HTFP here. This new local news site was riddled with inconsistencies and HTFP checked them out.

“With the rise of AI I’d expect to see more of this.”

Adam Higgins, digital editor at independent publisher Quest Media, added: “This is so bizarre and well done to HTFP for looking into it. There is likely to be more of this as AI develops.”

Our investigation found that stock pictures – many of them originating from the same source – were used to illustrate a series of profiles of journalists on a ‘Meet the Team’ page on the Observer’s website, which was deleted after HTFP enquired about the images’ origins.

Further questions were raised when Dorset Police confirmed to HTFP it had no record of two incidents covered by the Observer.

Paul Giles, a representative of the Observer, refused to say whether AI had been used in the production of content and also declined to confirm whether the journalists profiled on the site were real people.

He claimed in an email that the Observer boasted a “powerhouse editorial team” with a “wealth of experience” – but HTFP readers familiar with its Dorset patch said they had never heard of any of them.

Former Bournemouth Echo journalist Katie Clark tweeted: “Worked in journalism in Bournemouth for 17 years, never heard of any of these people.”

And Iliffe Media editorial director Ian Carter commented: “This is a fascinating read from HTFP – I’ve been in this industry a long time and am yet to meet, or hear of, esteemed editor David Roberts.”

Chris Brown, programme leader on the University of the West of England’s MA journalism course, wrote: “Fake journalists producing fake newspaper ‘committed to unearthing the core narratives of Bournemouth and its surrounding locales’. Thankfully HTFP has a human being doing some basic checks.”

And Dorset Live senior reporter Mike Taylor agreed, saying: “You just look at the site and you know something’s not right. A lot of it reads like AI-generated content and using stock images to pose as real journalists is really misleading.”

Our story also prompted a series of light-hearted comments from real journalists across the country.

Birmingham Live search engine optimisation writer Christopher Harper wrote: “It’s funny because when you actually look on the website, every story looks and reads like an AI has tried (and failed terribly) to write what it thinks is local news. Scary but also hilarious.”

University of Gloucestershire senior lecturer in journalism Sophie Flowers said: “This is so bizarre. Whoever did this has clearly never met a journalist.

“And don’t even get me started on the grey-haired male editor with glasses, the male reporters for news, business and motors, and female reporters for entertainment, health and gardening.”

Scotsman political editor Alastair Grant tweeted:  “There’s obviously a serious point here, and it’s great stuff from @journalism_news, but I can’t stop laughing at it.

“Think the description of “middle-aged journalist” Simon Foster is my favourite.”

Liverpool Echo political editor Liam Thorp added: “Well this is frankly bizarre – good work from HTFP to expose this nonsense.”

And Manchester Evening News local democracy reporter Charlotte Green posted the below tongue-in-cheek picture and caption combination after reading our story, using a stock image of a group of angry office workers.

HTFP publisher Paul Linford said: “We’re pleased to have highlighted a growing problem with the use of AI while simultaneously giving everyone a good laugh with this important but utterly bonkers story.

“Great credit is due to reporter Dave Sharman for his tenacious work on it, amply demonstrating why good journalism will always need real human beings.”