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3 Tips for Reporting on AI & Automation in Essential Work Industries

Providing context is one of the most important functions of journalism. This is especially true for journalism centered on technological developments and innovation, where a lack of expertise in the field means people might need additional contextualization to understand what a technology is – and, perhaps more importantly, what the impacts of a technology are.1

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital technologies across a variety of industries. The past year and a half has also demonstrated the precarious position of many essential service workers. Overworked and underpaid, they are often from already marginalized populations and are at the frontlines of harm due to perceptions of disposability.2 Our team of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin set out to discover how news publications were covering these changes in essential work sectors and to understand the kinds of news stories that have laid the foundation for public understanding in the years prior to the pandemic.

The study found that by excluding the experiences and voices of essential workers from news coverage, journalists are creating a space for designers and marketers to dictate a narrative that presents AI as a seamless solution to the pandemic’s problems. Yet, AI technologies typically exist in a system of labor that still requires the contributions of human workers. An accurate public understanding of the true capacities of automated technologies requires the perspective of workers who have an intimate understanding of technologies’ limits and faults.

To improve the quality of contextualization, journalists can begin to complicate the reporting on automation in essential work industries using three steps:

  1. Diversifying your sources
  2. Questioning the popular narratives
  3. Photographing what’s there

Diversify Your Sourcing

While it is important to include the perspective of industry leaders and experts, they cannot be the only voices featured in the story. Executives profit off of positive representations of their business and are thus invested in the portrayal of their industry in the media. Interviewing and quoting workers helps balance the narrative by including the actual material impacts and consequences of AI implementation.

When workers cannot be reached directly, journalists should consider talking to labor organizers or advocacy organizations. It is also important to be transparent about the exclusion of the workers’ perspective from the story.

Question the Popular Narratives

Our research showed that AI and automated machines were often portrayed as problem solvers or superhuman workers within the recycling sorting industry. These frameworks celebrated the possibilities of robots without accounting for their limits – overlooking the people who repair, correct and compensate for machines when they inevitably breakdown or encounter setbacks.

Including the voices of workers in a story can help create distance from these narratives. During the story process, journalists must actively question how they are portraying technological developments. Writing about robotics before and beyond their moment of introduction can create a pathway to challenging common representations and expanding audience understanding of their implications over time.

Photograph What’s There

We found that images accompanying news articles tended to mirror the same limits found in the article text. Photographs often captured the robotics working autonomously or focused on executives in the workplace. Sometimes, images came directly from the robotics companies themselves. When workers were featured, they were depicted as overwhelmed and outdated, rather than as playing an important role working alongside new AI machines.

Photojournalists reporting on technological innovations and AI in essential work industries need to include worker-machine interactions to create a more accurate representation of automation.

More on the Study

Our research was conducted with a focus on recycling sorting facilities. We found that the experiences of on-the-ground essential workers were mostly absent from news articles regarding automation and AI technologies in the industry over the last five years. In our data-set of nearly 50 articles, none featured on-the-ground workers as a quoted source. Instead, robotics companies, business executives, and other industry leaders dominated the reporting and set the agenda for how automation and AI technologies were portrayed. Without workers’ voices to discuss the reality of robotics in the workplace, the articles overhyped the actual capabilities of the automated machines and erased the additional responsibilities and labor placed on workers.

Although seemingly specific, our findings serve as a case study for broader problems that are generally present in the news coverage of AI technologies in essential work sectors – primarily, the erasure of workers from the story. This trend has broad implications for how journalism reinforces existing power dynamics and may mislead the general public when they exclude the voices of workers from reporting on technology.3

For more detailed recommendations, you can read the one-sheet guide we created for journalists and the executive summary of the report.

A detailed overview of these findings can be found on our project website: essentiallabor.tech

Acknowledgments 

These reporting tips are based on a news media analysis of English-language news articles published in local and national newspapers in the United States between 2015-2020. Analysis was conducted by Estefania Rodriguez and Dr. Samantha Shorey at the University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with Franchesca Spektor and Dr. Sarah E. Fox at Carnegie Mellon University. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

  1. McNealy, Jasmine. 2020. “A Call for Context.” Nieman Lab (blog). 2020. https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/12/a-call-for-context/.
  2. Robertson, Campbell, and Robert Gebeloff. 2020. “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America.” The New York Times, April 18, 2020, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/coronavirus-women-essential-workers.html.
  3. McNeil, Joanne. 2021. “Newsrooms Push Back against Ivy League Cronyism.” Nieman Lab (blog). 2021. https://www.niemanlab.org/2020/12/newsrooms-push-back-against-ivy-league-cronyism/.