Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2021-22 Project Fellows. This essay recounts portions of a reporting trip Karen Hao took for a series of stories for MIT Technology Review on how the Artificial Intelligence industry is dispossessing communities around the globe. Read the series here.
Never run with a double mask, I cursed to myself as I hurtled through an empty airport, willing my arms and legs to keep pumping despite my chest tightening from a lack of oxygen. It was February 2022, and a flight delay and poor chain of communication had left me in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport with just 15 minutes to make a transfer to my Johannesburg flight. The attendant on my arriving flight had assured me and two other passengers in the same situation that it would be enough time — if we ran.
The only thing going in our favor was the airport’s desolation. It was midnight local time, and there were no other travelers in the corridors, nor — as we skidded around a corner and discovered — any lines at immigration. Just those pesky retractable belt barriers, I thought, before throwing myself onto the ground and army crawling under them to the totally unfazed immigration agent.
“You’re late,” the agent said.
“My flight was late,” I countered, between thin, spastic gulps of air.
I’d been given the option to book a hotel on the airline and take another flight out the following morning. It would’ve delayed my arrival by 11 hours and made me miss one meeting. Not exactly the end of the world.
Then again, the new flight would’ve added another layover, and I didn’t want to risk more complications.
After months of attempting to book this trip — fastidiously tracking covid protocols, making and changing plans, shuffling and reshuffling budgets, telling my editor it was off again then on again — I’d be damned if a flight delay was going to get the best of me.
As the agent waved me through, my muscles began to seize. I pressed my body to keep going.
It wasn’t just about making it to South Africa. I was working on four stories, each set in different locations, as part of a series about the global nature of artificial intelligence. I’d conceived of the idea two years prior, after feeling like my reporting, and AI reporting in general, focused too narrowly on Silicon Valley.
The original plan had been to travel for every story. When the pandemic hit, I didn’t want to compromise, so I decided to bide my time until it was over. But after two years of waiting and no end to travel uncertainty, I realized I needed to take the gamble.
It soon became clear that no matter how creative or reclusive I got, I wouldn’t be able to outwit the situation.
I wrote up three detailed documents: one listing the potential countries that I could visit for every story; one listing each country’s visa requirements, covid status and protocols, and border closures; and one that sketched out a travel timeline that would satisfy the constraints of visa processing times, border reopenings, and the deadlines I needed to hit to finish the series in six months.
The documents became my bible. I obsessively updated them, shifting plans at a moment’s notice to stay on the path of least resistance. The Philippines closed its borders to Americans. Maybe I could visit the same industry in Kenya? An ongoing crisis in Venezuela was making it dangerous for travel. Maybe I could meet Venezuelans in Colombia?
The more hope I hung on solving the puzzle, the more I — and by extension, my husband — retreated into our home. Either of us contracting covid would not only throw a huge wrench into my delicately balanced schedule, it could put many other people—potentially people with less vaccine and healthcare access—in danger. We double masked everywhere. We avoided people.
It soon became clear that no matter how creative or reclusive I got, I wouldn’t be able to outwit the situation. Too many countries were barring foreigners; some were specifically barring journalists.
I was also running out of time. I needed to decide on specific countries to focus my reporting, instead of constantly reacting to the virus and government policies. So I settled on a final set of locations, found collaborators who could help with on-the-ground reporting, and resigned myself to the possibility of not making it anywhere at all.
The thing is, I did make it: In December of 2021, after two years of no reporting trips or in-person interviews, I made it to Colombia. The experience was enthralling. I could tangibly feel how it changed the texture of my writing. With a deeper understanding of context and empathy for my sources, I didn’t have to reach so hard to find the right words for the story.
It made me hunger for more. But the omicron variant had other plans. Countries around the world reinstated bans on travel to and from South Africa, the one other country I still had hopes of visiting. Then at the final hour, the window of opportunity reopened, and I knew I’d have to do whatever it took to seize it.
Just why oh why did it have to involve running?
With every passing second, unable to know how much further I needed to go, I could feel myself losing resolve. Maybe taking the next-day flight wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe I could reschedule my meeting.
But when the gate finally came into view, my legs mustered up one final burst of energy, and I wearily jogged to the finish line. Airport staff greeted me with congratulatory smiles. “You can rest now. You’ve made it,” they said.
As I scanned my boarding pass and slipped through the turnstile, an agent assured me my checked bag had made it as well. I wasn’t so sure, still wary from another agent assuring me hours earlier that I’d have ample time to make my connection.
But the next morning I indeed found my suitcase waiting for me in Johannesburg.
“Miracle,” I texted my husband.
“Miracle!” he said.
Soon enough, my collaborator and I were zipping down the highway, rattling off our schedule. The meeting I almost missed would end up setting off a series of other meetings that’d be crucial for the story. But in that moment, none the wiser, I already knew the trip was worth it. I looked out the window and took the city in.
Karen Hao is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, covering tech and society in China. She was previously a senior editor at MIT Technology Review, where her coverage of artificial intelligence and its impacts on society won numerous awards, including an ASME Next for journalists under 30.