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Why So Sad? A Look at the Change in Tone of Technology Reporting From 1986 to 2013

February 22, 2017

While coverage of technology in the 1980s and early 1990s was largely favorable, the mood has soured over the years as criticisms have garnered an increasing share of coverage.

Public opinion on many issues is shaped by the media. Yet while there is growing concern that the media is not always neutral in its reporting, the impact of media bias is not always well understood. One understudied aspect of media bias is how the press portrays technology. This portrayal has important implications for public policy, because coverage that is slanted in one direction or another can drive public opinion—and thus policymakers—to favor unnecessary, unwarranted, or unwise policy interventions. For example, policymakers regularly cite surveys of consumer attitudes about privacy as part of their rationale for new laws and regulations for digital services. But these views are likely distorted by media coverage.

Most people’s opinions about hot-button issues, including popular technologies, are not shaped by the facts as much as an amorphous set of emotionally charged data points they associate with that topic. Psychologists call this “hot cognition”—rather than processing and remembering all details about any given object, people instead have a running tally of affectively charged data points that come to mind automatically when they are presented with that object. Thus, the way the media frames its coverage of an issue can easily affect people’s attitudes about it.

This report looks at the way that the U.S. print media has covered technology over the past 30 years, examining the claims that a typical reader of national newspapers is likely to have seen during that time. Does technology solve problems and make our lives easier, allowing us to do more with less? Or does it introduce additional complexity to our lives, isolate members of society from each other, threaten our privacy, destroy jobs, or impose other potential harms?

The findings show that coverage of technology in the 1980s and early 1990s was largely favorable, with a heavy focus on the economic and military advantages afforded by advancing technologies. In the late 1980s, in particular, there was a notable focus on the economic opportunities afforded by the developing technology sector and its offerings. However, that tone has gradually shifted over the years, with more articles highlighting the potential ill effects of technology: its displacement of face-to-face interaction, its role in environmental degradation, its threat to employment, and its failure to live up to some of the promises made on its behalf.

The findings also indicate that positive and negative claims are more likely to be associated with certain segments of society than others. Claims about the potentials of technology and their associated benefits are more likely to come out of the private sector, while claims about the potential problems are more likely to come from actors in civil society and government.

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