The way the media portrays different issues shapes public opinion, and public opinion, in turn, has an impact on policy. Therefore, the tone of the media can have important implications for how policymakers ultimately approach different issues. In a new report, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) explores how the media has portrayed technology over the past 30 years and finds that there has been a notable shift in the tone of coverage towards a more pessimistic view of technology.
ITIF hosted a panel discussion to release the report and discuss trends in tech journalism. Daniel Castro, vice president at ITIF and the report’s co-author, began with an overview of the findings of the textual analysis of 250 articles from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post from 1986 to 2013. The overall tone of press coverage of “technology” over the last 30 years is trending toward the negative, driven primarily by a decline in the number of articles that present an unequivocally positive view of technology, from 15 in 1986 (60 percent of articles coded) to just 4 in 2013 (16 percent of articles coded).
Among the likely explanations for the trend, the study finds that the average frequency with which civil-society organizations were quoted making critical comments about technology-related topics rose from about 46 percent in the 1980s and 1990s to 77 percent in the years since. When discussing the rise of these civil-society groups, Morgan Reed of “ACT | The App Association” offered three categories of sources that typically appear in tech articles: cheerleaders, skeptics, and Luddites. He suggested that the ITIF report highlighted the increasing tendency of civil society to fall into the latter category, and urged reporters to be especially critical when sourcing both cheerleaders and Luddites.
A second trend identified in the report as a possible cause for the trend was that news organizations are under increased financial pressure, partially due to declining subscription revenue and print advertising. Katerina Matsa, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, noted that in 2016, there was a 10 percent decline in the newsroom workforce—the largest single-year drop since the 2009 recession. This reflects an ongoing decline: Between 1994 and 2014, newsrooms lost 39 percent of their writers.
Exacerbating the downsizing of newsrooms, Amy Schatz, vice president of media affairs at USTelecom and a former Wall Street Journal reporter, suggested that with the rise of online media, outlets are now forced to constantly produce new content in a short timeframe, instead of having a full day to produce a story for a daily print edition. These trends have especially taken a toll on fact checkers, who Deborah Blum, the director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, argued are critical to ensuring accuracy and protecting the media’s declining credibility. Matsa also observed that the resources smaller papers can devote to national issues have declined substantially. POLITICO’s Ashley Gold noted that the consolidation of smaller media outlets has centralized national coverage to a few areas, including Washington, DC, New York City, and Los Angeles.
The journalists on the panel disagreed though that the bleaker media environment gives tech reporters a greater incentive to write negative stories, arguing instead that this incentive has always existed and is not necessarily bad. Gold stated, “’Technology works’ is not a news story. ‘Technology crashes and someone gets hurt’ is a news story.” Blum agreed, pointing out the 1984 Challenger disaster received more coverage than all previous successful shuttle missions combined. Similarly, Schatz argued that reporters are supposed to ask tough questions and examine issues with a critical eye. Gold also countered the assertion that tech media is uniformly skeptical, highlighting what she referred to as the fawning coverage that often accompanies the rollouts of new products.
The final theme discussed by the speakers was the diverging roles of digital and traditional media. Matsa noted emerging online outlets absorbed a negligible number of journalists laid off from traditional media outlets. Although there is less overlap between these two spheres than commonly assumed, Schatz noted the rise of digital media is not necessarily negative. Bringing up the example of a former Uber employee who wrote a viral blog post about her problems with the company’s HR department that led to Uber’s CEO publicly responding, Schatz argued relying on traditional media would have meant waiting weeks for a story to be published and likely would not have had the same impact. Gold further suggested that digital tech journalists can go deeper on stories instead of writing pieces simply to fill out the Sunday tech section. But Blum warned, digital media allows us to cherry-pick sources in a way traditional media does not because readers are more siloed than ever. Reed concluded that this phenomenon is more readily exploitable in a digital media environment, and allows Luddites to maintain and spread beliefs about technology with no basis in fact.