The current media coverage of artificial intelligence is obscuring several pressing problems with the technology and creating a false narrative that serves the tech industry, according to research from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

The researchers found the problem with AI coverage is not sensationalism —  which was lower than expected — but most articles are “pegged to industry concerns, products, and initiatives” resulting in largely favourable coverage with few concerns for AI’s functionality or suitability.

The study examined AI coverage in six mainstream UK media outlets over the first eight months of 2018, finding industry is dominating the conversation for its gain and journalists are increasingly ill equiped to cover the topic critically or in depth. 

Of the content analysed in the study over 60 per cent was framed around an industry products, announcements and initiatives.

Source: An Industry-Led Debate: How UK Media Cover Artificial Intelligence

Industry also dominated the sources for AI stories, mostly high ranking executives. 33 per cent of unique sources across the news outlets studied were industry related, almost twice the proportion of academic sources and six times more than government or political sources.

A one sided story

While much of AI’s development occurs in the commercial sector, its dominance of the coverage comes at the cost of academics, activists, politicians, civilians, and civil servants, amongst others, and stymies the public debate, according to the study.

The study found Elon Musk appeared in 12 per cent of all AI stories analysed, including 88 articles with his “extreme” views that AI is taking over the world. While Musk should not be discounted, the authors argue the over reliance is a missed opportunity to bring new voices into the debate.

“By amplifying industry’s self-interested claims about AI, media coverage presents AI as a solution to a range of problems that will disrupt nearly all areas of our lives, often without acknowledging ongoing debates concerning AI’s potential effects,” said the report’s lead author, J. Scott Brennen. 

“In this way, coverage also positions AI mostly as a private commercial concern and undercuts the role and potential of public action in addressing this emerging public issue.”

Dr J. Scott Brennen. Source: reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk

With industry dominating AI coverage the technology is unsurprisingly presented as a preferable solution to a range of ongoing problems.

“Taken together, the implication becomes that all these different types of problems are best approached not only through a technological solution but through an AI-driven technological solution,” the authors write.

“Rarely do journalists or commentators question if (AI-containing) new technologies are the best solutions to these myriad problems.”

The research also suggests much of the coverage is overhyping AI by focusing on its potential and ignoring its current functionality, thereby obscuring “the distinction between what is actually possible and what is aspirational”.

While the media was fond of examining the “creepy” side of AI, suggesting it is not always a positive story, only a small fraction examined the ability or competence of AI-containing products.

Discussions on the ethics of AI also remain immature despite significant coverage, according to the study, which found few articles actually discussing AI ethics, instead just calls for ethics discussions.

Newsrooms continue to be stretched and journalist can not afford the time to critically examine industry’s claims, according to the study. It notes specialists and investigative reporters are often some of the first casualties in media organisations, leaving outlets overly reliant on press releases for science and technology reporting.

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