Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Time for journalists to take a big step back from tech

April 9, 2019

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If you really want to cover technology, you need to step away from the glamour and hype, work hard, and report what’s actually happening. (Image via Pixabay user Comfreak)

Oxford University and Reuters did a big study of how U.K. media covered artificial intelligence. Here are some of the major points:

  • About 60 percent of articles focused on new products, announcements, and developments. They also regularly covered conferences, deals, and promotional events.
  • A third of articles were based on industry sources—six times as many as those using government sources and about twice as many as those with academic input.
  • More than a tenth of all the articles mentioned Elon Musk.
  • The articles tended to position AI as a solution to various issues. Little time was spent on whether it made sense or even on potential problematic effects.
  • Depending on the political slant of the publication, different aspects of AI were emphasized.

Or as the Guardian put it, “the media are unwittingly selling us an AI fantasy.”

Journalist James Ball noted this last year, pointing out how those who cover tech still react to the industry as a bunch of plucky entrepreneur celebrities and not “as the corporate behemoth it is.”

These are just two examples of the tech press has a fanboy problem. Too many of the practitioners are overly enamored of the technology itself and the whole imaginary vibe the industry has created, in large part by experts in PR who want to tie writers close to them.

In 2008, a story came out about Apple’s terrible MobileMe rollout. When then-CEO Steve Jobs was done lambasting the people involved, he said a curious thing: “[Wall Street Journal writer Walt] Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us.”

Our friend? If you cover a company and they consider you a friend, you’re doing something really wrong.

The relationship between companies and reporters is frequently far too chummy. The reporters like the perks: parties, cool stuff to try out, and an inside track to “scoops”—the content of which often means next to nothing outside of the industry—that can help someone’s career goals.

Remember how long Theranos went on, being praised by all manners of publications, until John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal dug in and found the company had next to nothing? Its own equipment couldn’t perform the blood tests it was supposed to do?

Develop sources? Sure. But you really have two basic choices. You either keep at arm’s length from the companies and the image they project, or you become a publicity channel.

If you really want to cover technology, you need to step away from the glamour and hype, work hard, and report what’s actually happening, not the fevered dreams of a product manager who wants you to be a tout.

The job will be harder in one sense. You won’t find the open arms. But you can do some honest and strong work.

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