‘Journalists are feeding the AI hype machine’

AI reporters and experts discuss how well or otherwise the media covers the topic.
'Journalists are feeding the AI hype machine'
Melissa HeikkiläEeva Rinne

When Melissa Heikkilä looks back on her past four years writing about artificial intelligence (AI), two key things jump out to her, one good, one bad.

“It’s the best beat… AI is a story about power, and there are so many ways to cover it,” says the senior reporter for magazine MIT Technology Review. “And there are so many interesting, and eccentric people to write about.”

That’s the positive. The negative, she says, is that much of the wider media’s coverage of AI can leave a lot to be desired.

“There is more hype and obfuscation about what the technology can and cannot actually do,” says Ms Heikkilä. “This can lead to embarrassing mistakes, and for journalists to feed into the hype machine, by, for example, anthropomorphizing AI technologies, and mythologizing tech companies.”

Go back to early 2022, and AI was a little searched for term on Google. It had a so-called Google Trend score of just 11, with 0 being not searched for at all, and 100 indicating that something is the hottest of hot topics.

Last year, you wouldn’t be surprised to know, AI surged in Google Trends to 100. The BBC’s technology editor Zoe Kleinman says it is good to see AI now attracting so much attention, but that this puts a responsibility on the media to report on it accurately.

Zoe Kleinman

“AI is going to have an impact on all of our lives sooner rather than later, if not already, and so it deserves media scrutiny,” she says. “I think the media tends to use the term AI as an umbrella term for lots of different types of the tech.

“I also think generative AI is behind the majority of this latest buzz – that is, tools which create content, like text, images, video and audio. ChatGPT has a lot to answer for!

“I do think journalists have a tendency to focus on the negatives, and I’d like to see more headlines about the positive uses of AI – formatting new medicines, for example, and providing breakthroughs in the search for nuclear fusion – alongside the risks it poses.”

Banner around links to stories about AI

Banner around links to stories about AI

Reaktor is a Finnish tech firm that helps companies incorporate AI into their operations, be it an AI-powered chatbot, or using AI to help them design new products or services. Its clients include Adidas, Carlsberg, and Virgin Atlantic.

Mikael Kopteff, Reaktor’s chief technology officer, agrees with Zoe that too much AI coverage is hype about the perceived downsides.

“Journalists not only have the ability, but also the responsibility, to educate the general public on AI,” he says. “Currently with all the scaremongering and sensationalising they’re not doing that.”

He says that some journalists wrongly see AI as something “sci-fi-esque that can think and undertake a wide range of tasks like humans.

“In reality, AI programs are actually only capable of performing very specific tasks”.

Mr Kopteff adds that in the future media coverage of AI should become better, simply because AI will become an “everyday” thing. And therefore journalists will automatically become more knowledgeable about it.

In the meantime, he says that tech firms such as his need to help better inform the media world about new AI technologies.

Emily Bell is director of the Colombia Journalism Tow Center for Digital Journalism in New York. She says that reporting on AI today is more difficult than covering the rise of the internet in the early 2000s, or the growth of smart phones from 2007, because today’s news cycle moves far more quickly.

“What’s different today is that there are announcements about AI products, and then there is the noise of social media around it,” she says. “Executives like Sam Altman of OpenAI and Elon Musk are putting their opinions forward on a frequent basis, and there’s also the immediate critique of releases from experts that feeds into the news cycle, so everything is sped up.”

Ms Bell adds that there are “endless” AI stories to write.

Felix Simon is a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute, a part of Oxford University, where he is researching how news organisations both report on and use AI. He says that experienced tech journalists are doing a good job to demystify AI.

Felix Simon

Felix Simon

“Many reporters have a solid grasp of this field, and I’m happy to see that we’ve moved past the point of calling everything AI-related a killer technology, thanks to reporters being more critical of what they write on.”

Mr Simon adds that it is key for reporters to keep their guard up. “To report on technological progress while not succumbing to industry narratives always was, and remains, challenging.”

David Reid, professor of AI at Liverpool Hope University, is critical of most coverage of AI in the media, which he describes as “disappointing”.

“I would put media reporting at around two out of 10,” he says. “When the media talks about AI they think of it as a single entity. It is not.

“And when people ask me if AI is good or bad, I always say it is both. So what I would like to see is more nuanced reporting.”

Source: bbc.co.uk

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