Monday, February 15, 2010

When Reporters Don’t Want to Hear It

From an interview with robotics expert Noel Sharkey:

Isaac Asimov said that when he started writing about robots, the idea that robots were going to take over the world was the only story in town. Nobody wants to hear otherwise. I used to find when newspaper reporters called me and I said I didn’t believe AI or robots would take over the world, they would say thank you very much, hang up and never report my comments.

This brought back a memory from my SRI days, when I was regularly interviewed by reporters. I remember a reporter called me on the day of some big news (I forget what it was), wanting my take.

The normal routine would be for me to provide a pithy quote, which the reporter would use as the voice of an independent expert. However, half-way through my commentary, his keyboard stopped clickety-clacking. “That doesn’t get me where I need to go,” he sulked, more to himself than me.

Reporters usually like contrarian views, but apparently the expert slot in this story was already tailored for a concurring opinion. He was on deadline, as most reporters are when they call. It was easier to find another expert than redo the story.

I’m not naming the reporter because this run-in was the exception, not the norm, with him. He was a quality reporter who later became the technology bureau chief for one of the biggest U.S. papers—which makes the point stronger: Even quality reporters can succumb to finding only the facts and opinions for the story they want to tell.

The good news is, in my experience with a wide range of reporters, this situation was rare. But then again, I wasn’t daring to question whether robots would take over the world.

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