Jean-Paul R. Soucy is a doctoral candidate in epidemiology at the University of Toronto and a junior fellow at Massey College.
In the past, local newspapers served as the lifeblood of community news. Dedicated reporters attended municipal council meetings to keep tabs on local political developments. The decline of print journalism has since created a growing number of news deserts – communities devoid of credible outlets for local news. Since 2008, 470 local news operations in 335 communities across Canada have shuttered, according to the Local News Research Project. Scrappy online upstarts have only partially filled the gap. A 2018 report by the Manhattan Institute found there are many negative effects stemming from the loss of local news coverage, including increased corruption, reduced financial accountability, weakened civic engagement, and lower voter turnout.
As the number of local news publications continues to dwindle, we can no longer depend on a local beat reporter to sit in on the everyday proceedings of municipal politics – council meetings, committees, public consultations, and the like. Instead, we must ensure that recordings of these events are easily accessible to all interested parties. While crises rarely sow the seeds for increased transparency in decision-making, the rapid transition to live-streamed and recorded meetings in municipal politics following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is an exception.
However, there is currently no standard retention policy among municipalities for these videos, with procedures ranging from 30-day availability to indefinite retention, or no availability at all. Even where these recordings are available, the sheer quantity of footage poses a problem for overstretched journalists and busy citizens alike. To keep the coverage of local politics alive, we must embrace innovations in artificial intelligence to help sift through hours of video and uncover stories of public interest.
For example, free AI tools like Whisper can transcribe audio with astonishing accuracy. Translation tools from Google or open-source alternatives can also produce transcripts in a variety of languages. Finally, AI language models like ChatGPT can summarize the topics covered in the transcripts and can provide answers to questions about their contents. These AI tools are rapidly improving, and language models will soon be able to answer questions not just about one piece of text, but an entire collection.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because this type of resource already exists for federal and provincial government proceedings. The Hansard index provides a verbatim record of statements, questions, and motions made in the legislature and committees, and are searchable by either subject or speaker. These comprehensive records are legally mandated in Canada for higher-tier governments, but no equivalent exists for Canadian municipalities. However, there is an American example to be followed for using technology to bridge a transparency gap in municipal politics.
In 2021, Michigan Radio launched a project called Minutes, which is a digital database of aggregated and transcribed recordings of municipal meetings from dozens of cities. Reporters now use this searchable index to find stories and monitor local governments that may not have dedicated journalists of their own. This database isn’t publicly available, since transcripts aren’t checked for accuracy, but it should be noted that free or low-cost AI transcription tools have significantly improved since the project launched.
Municipal governments have raised valid concerns about making meeting recordings available indefinitely. Verbatim records offer more clarity than meeting minutes, but they also allow quotations to be cherry-picked or manipulated to embarrass or misrepresent politicians and civil servants. These videos could also provide raw material for deepfakes – AI-generated photos, audio, or video that are quickly dispelling the notion that “seeing is believing.” Some of these tools require only a few seconds of content to produce a convincing voice clone of a real person. The best defence against such threats is transparency: maintaining a permanent record of municipal meetings could provide a bulwark against the rising tide of disinformation.
AI won’t replace the sort of journalism that holds power accountable, but it could certainly enhance it. After all, you can teach a machine to spot patterns, but you can’t force it to care about your community.
Citizens are already using meeting recordings to score victories. B.C.’s Supreme Court recently overturned the decision of a local municipality to deny development permits to a resident, and the recorded video of the meeting where the issue was discussed was crucial for making the case that the council had acted in bad faith. Vague meeting minutes would not have sufficed in this case.
AI tools can empower citizens to engage with local politics and combat injustice while enabling a shrinking pool of journalists to focus on in-depth investigations. To successfully harness the power of AI for revitalizing local journalism and fostering civic engagement, we must first demand that local governments provide video recordings of municipal proceedings.