A newly-launched local news website has admitted creating fake journalist profiles and using robots to help write content while defending itself against criticisms of its operations.
HTFP revealed last week that the Bournemouth Observer had used photos from a stock picture archive to illustrate biographies of the 11 ‘journalists’ it claimed to have on staff, while some of its content raised questions about the use of AI after police failed to find any record of two incidents reported by the site.
Observer representative Paul Giles has now accepted the profiles were “pseudoynms”, rather than those of real journalists, while also admitting some of the Observer’s stories are “polished with the help of AI”.
When challenged by HTFP, the Observer had previously refused to confirm or deny whether the profiles were fake or that AI had been used in content creation.
In an editorial entitled ‘The Bournemouth Observer Fights Back Against Media Bias’ – which since appears to have been taken down – Paul denied posting fictional stories on the site, but said he had “employed examples and creative placeholders to breathe life into a webpage that would otherwise remain blank”.
He also hit back at criticisms of the site from journalists, claiming he had been the victim of “keyboard bullying from established industry insiders” following the publication of our findings.
Wrote Paul: “Despite the odd mistake – an inevitability in any publication, from the smallest blog to the largest media conglomerate – the content I’ve shared pertains to real events and issues. The accusations of ‘fake news’ ring hollow to me.
“It was not without surprise that I adopted a pseudonym for each of my writing segments. While it seemed an innocent creative choice, it was received with strong criticism, resulting in me choosing to let go of the aliases.
“But the storm didn’t abate there. When The Times – yes, The Times – took an interest in my humble website, I began to see through the smokescreen. The backlash wasn’t about pseudonyms, but a fear of AI.
“It seems that in the rush to condemn AI, the true essence of journalism – the pursuit of truth and the duty to report on community issues – has been forgotten.
“The stories I write, though polished with the help of AI, are fundamentally human. To dismiss these narratives as ‘fake’ because they’ve been aided by technology is not just inaccurate but unjust.
“Like all burgeoning platforms, we’ve employed examples and creative placeholders to breathe life into a webpage that would otherwise remain blank, thereby spurring our readers to engage further. This isn’t a groundbreaking practice.”
He also addressed the Observer’s coverage of an alleged “heist”, of which Dorset Police found no record, at a Tesco supermarket in the suburb of Southbourne, which quoted an eyewitness – his wife – as saying she and a friend “felt like we were in the midst of the infamous Los Angeles riots”.
He claimed his wife had called both Tesco head office and local daily newspaper the Bournemouth Echo about the incident, as well as leaving a voicemail message with Dorset Police.
HTFP has repeatedly asked Paul for a date, police case reference number or further evidence of the incident taking place. None has so far been forthcoming.
We have also approached both the Bournemouth Echo and Tesco for confirmation on whether they had been contacted about such an incident.
Meanwhile Paul has replaced the fake profile of “esteemed editor” David Roberts which accompanied the site’s launch with a new generic ‘Editor’ profile, illustrated by a cartoon.
It reads: “Renowned for an exacting eye for detail, the Editor of The Bournemouth Observer epitomises the very essence of journalistic credibility. With their remarkable knack for precision and discernment, they consistently set themselves apart, adeptly navigating through layers of information to uncover hidden realities.”
Our original story sparked an industry debate about the use of AI in local news, prompted the South-West branch of the National Union of Journalists to issue a warning on how fake sites could steal revenue from genuine regional titles, and led Public Interest News Foundation director Jonathan Heawood to question why the publishing industry is investing in AI at all.
HTFP has approached the Observer for further clarification regarding the Tesco incident and also its use of “creative placeholders” as referenced by Paul in his piece.