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⚡️ Peeling Back the PR
A conversation on tech journalism and ethical careers with AI reporter Karen Hao
Today, we’re sharing a fantastic interview with Karen Hao on tech journalism, ethical career paths, and the search for values alignment across the board.
Karen is the senior AI editor at the MIT Technology Review. She’s also an MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow, wrote the newsletter The Algorithm, and co-produced the award-winning podcast In Machines We Trust. Prior to the Tech Review, she was a data scientist, an application engineer at the first startup to spin out of Alphabet’s X, and received her BS in Mechanical Engineering and minor in Energy Studies from MIT.
Karen’s commitment to rigor, empathy, and curiosity is reflected both in her approach to reporting as well as to her thinking on ethical tech careers. She also offers a peek behind the curtain at the impactful yet often controversial work of tech journalism, and includes advice for aspiring journalists and technologists alike.
🗞 Peeling Back the PR
This event was facilitated by Reboot community member Archana Ahlawat for Reboot’s private community. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Welcome Karen, and thank you for being here! To start with, how did you begin your career path in tech?
After college, I moved to San Francisco to work at startups. I was obsessed with how we could fight climate change, which is obviously a very long and laborious process, but I didn't see the venture capital model being the right vehicle for tackling longer term issues.
I was at a company called flux.io, the first startup to spin out of Google X. Flux was trying to use technology to incentivize more sustainable architecture and urban development, so I thought it was the perfect alignment of technology with a problem that I wanted to solve. But Flux failed spectacularly. If you go on Google X’s website, it's scrubbed from ever existing. When it failed, it made me take a step back and think, Is the tech industry the right place for me?
I had no idea what to do next. I thought, If I'm not going to be in the tech industry, what are spaces that are not as driven by a for-profit model? It came down to government, nonprofits, or journalism. But I didn't have a background in any of those worlds because I had been so focused on getting into the tech industry for so long.
How did you navigate your transition from engineering to journalism?
I first started exploring journalism because I love writing and it was something that I'd always been curious about.
In the Bay Area, there are two strong journalism schools, one at Stanford and one at UC Berkeley. I took day trips to each of them, sat in on classes, and talked with students there about what it means to be a journalist and how I could marry what I want to do with a career in this world.
And I just really fell in love with journalism. I loved the classes, I loved speaking with the students, I loved the way they were thinking about their role in society, and I was excited about being able to work for mission-driven organizations. In journalism, there is obviously a looming need to make money, but as a journalist, you're split from that. There's a strong divide between the business side and the editorial side.
I didn't know any other journalists, so I went to the MIT alumni database and searched for every person that had ever done journalism. There were around 50 people in a span of 70 years, so I reached out to all of them. Maybe 15 people responded, so I got on calls to ask how they made the transition from studying engineering.
Two paths emerged. You either go to grad school or you keep writing, publishing, and trying to get an internship until you make it. I was like, Great, I don't have money to go to grad school, so I'll just write until I make it. I learned to write an article in an edX class, shopped that one article around, landed an unpaid internship, went from there to a fellowship, went from there to a staff job, and that's how I made my transition.
“I’m not afraid of reading technical papers or talking to startup founders or engineers about how their technology works. So I started differentiating myself by digging into my technical background.”
How did you figure out the unique perspective you bring to writing about the tech industry?
I originally wanted to be an environmental reporter, so my first unpaid internship was at the Sierra Club magazine.
But people don't hire environmental reporters. In 2016, everyone wanted tech reporters. It was when the techlash was starting, and there was a lot of interest in the tech industry, its culture, and new technologies like AI. Because of my resume, whenever I applied for jobs, they would ask me, “Do you want to be on the tech desk?”
I took my first tech writing job pretty begrudgingly, but realized that I could make this into a strength. I’m not afraid of reading technical papers or talking to startup founders or engineers about how their technology works. So I started differentiating myself by digging into my technical background. Also, the reality of journalism is that you have to draw upon your network, and mine was in tech, so it was a lot faster for me to identify who I needed to talk to and get conversations.
But as I continued reporting, I realized that there was also a fundamental misunderstanding of the culture in the tech industry. Some of the smartest and kindest people I know work in tech. They have amazing intentions and then work for companies that do not benefit society in the ways that they espouse. I was fascinated by what was going wrong in this process. For people who haven’t been close to those who work in tech, there's a perception: What are these people doing? Why is this stuff always messed up? Maybe it's not about the people, it's about the systems that they're in.
I also started thinking, What do I need to tell my friends in the tech industry about the world outside? A lot of people in tech get really insular. You're living in San Francisco, interacting with other tech people, and don't think about other perspectives. I wanted to write stories that help people who might be drinking the Kool Aid realize that there's other things they should be considering when they're building technology. I wanted more bridge-building and conversations on both sides of the aisle.
It does seem like there are fewer such gaps in tech reporting now — many journalists have a more holistic grasp of the industry. Where do you see that there's still work to be done?
There are a lot of parallels with the tech industry. In tech, we're seeing younger technologists question whether technology is truly neutral, like there's bias that's embedded within these technologies.
In journalism, the same transition happened. Old school journalists considered themselves to be very objective. They would act like they don't have a position.
I’d consider myself as part of a younger generation of journalists throwing that out the window. There's an argument behind the things that I write — I'm always very clear about what my position is. I don't think that I'm neutral, and I don't think that I should pretend that I am. But I strive to be fair and honor a multiplicity of perspectives.
“I try very much to respect the people I talk to, even if I'm critiquing the systems or the company that they're part of.”
There's a lot of PR and narrative-building coming from the tech industry, yet you also seem to have a strong sense of what's going on within the academic sphere. How do you manage that?
It's really just a race to keep on top of all the AI research that comes out.
When I started covering AI, I would read five or ten papers a week, then get on calls with researchers at the forefront of their fields. Once I was able to build a core understanding of AI’s limitations and capabilities, it was easy to see a startup saying “We're going to solve AGI in two years” and think, That's an interesting claim that most of the research community does not agree with.
Over the years, I’ve developed a lot of good friendships with AI researchers, so I'm always checking in to ask: What's new? What do I need to know about? How are things shifting? All the best tech reporters do that. They stay close to the research and have their own understanding of it before they start talking with companies or PR people that have the financial incentive to aggrandize what they're working on.
It can be exhausting. There were times when I would go on vacation for a week and feel like I missed an entire shift of the industry.
How do you maintain relationships with the tech industry despite some of their skepticism of the media?
When I write something that brings PR jargon down to reality, I've never had someone get upset. They respect that my articles are technically grounded. Sometimes, in a call with a company representative, I'll ask about the technical details and it’ll catch them off guard — I understand more than they thought I did. Then, they’ll tell me a bit more about the honest capabilities of their system, and that's how I gain respect and trust with those individuals.
In cases where I've had a more contentious story-writing process, most recently with Facebook, I try very much to respect the people, even if I'm critiquing the systems or the company that they're part of. It's a hard balance to strike. I don't know that I always do it correctly, but at the end of the day, I still feel comfortable calling up the individual that I spoke to and feeling like I honored them as a person. Even if I am very harsh on the things they did, I try to be clear that their actions don't necessarily make them evil or bad.
How do you research questions that require access to corporate data?
I try to be realistic about what I have access to at the start of a story. I wrote a piece about how Facebook Instant Articles is funding misinformation in the Global South, and that was based on open source data and the CrowdTangle API. I scoped the story based on exactly what I knew was in CrowdTangle.
So one limitation of reporting on companies from the outside is that you have to work with what you're given.
How do you sift through everything going on in the tech industry to choose what to focus on?
Something that really surprised me when I came into journalism was how subjective everything is. It’s just based on what I'm interested in. I spend a lot of my time absorbing information, having calls, reading papers, looking at the news, and just keeping a pulse on conversations. When things grab my attention, I’ll start to chase.
I always try to think back to my ultimate goal. I gravitate towards stories that reveal how tech culture shapes technology and how technology impacts people. I also consider: If I didn't write the story, would someone else be able to? Is there a particular thing I have that would help me write the story in a way I think is valuable, whether that's access to particular people or the technical ability to explain a complicated concept?
“There's an argument behind the things that I write — I'm always very clear about what my position is. I don't think that I'm neutral, and I don't think that I should pretend that I am. But I strive to be fair.”
How do you think the training of engineers impacts the culture of the tech industry?
One of the most obvious things in my undergrad was that I never had to take a single ethics class. At MIT, we had a humanities and social sciences requirement, but the culture within the student body was that these classes were a joke. That directly feeds into some of the challenges we see in the tech industry where people don't value certain types of expertise that are core to building technologies that are better for humanity.
The other thing that bothered me when I was at MIT was the career fairs. It was this huge thing with hundreds of companies. You're trying to figure out how to make a career after four grueling years of education: what's going to pay you, what other people see as exciting and prestigious. When you walk into the fair, tech companies like Snapchat have the largest crowds. There were never any social impact companies or opportunities, so you just assume that they don't exist.
If I knew then that you could be a tech-interested person not directly in the Silicon Valley startup industry, I might have tried a whole assortment of other things. But they don't show up in these signaling venues, so students don't think about those opportunities.
Do you think if you had graduated at this time, you would find more values alignment in the tech industry?
No, I don’t think so. I have friends who are excited about using data science for social impact, but also really want to do technically challenging work. There's only so many companies that you can do that at, so they move from like Facebook to Twitter to whatever, and ultimately, those aren't companies I think I would want to stay at.
Instead of journalism, I probably would have ended up at a research institute or think tank at the intersection of tech and policy — things I didn't know existed in college. Maybe I would have stayed, or who knows, maybe I would have become a journalist anyway.
For more perspectives on the social impact of journalism (and people who read more than I ever will), listen to Ezra Klein’s conversation with the 80,000 Hours podcast.
Worried about catching Omicron? Read this very scientific and factual list of symptoms, from aspirational Zillow shopping to “longing for the idea, if not the reality, of fondue.”
What happens when scientific consensus collides with political pluralism? Here’s Hannah Arendt’s take on why truth and objectivity are much more complicated than they seem."just do [passion] as your side thing" unfortunately i have many passions, all of which would lose me money, and my distant dream is to spend my entire day working on all of them
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Aligning our values,