A More Critical Tech Press Crucial to Technological Progress

Daniel Castro March 2, 2017
March 2, 2017

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Last week ITIF released a report that explores how the media has portrayed technology’s impact on society over the past 30 years and finds that the tone of coverage has turned notably more pessimistic over time. To counterbalance this trend, ITIF recommends that tech reporters more critically examine the merits of the claims they choose to include in their articles. Not surprisingly, some reporters objected to a think tank critiquing how they do their jobs. But in some cases, they also missed the point of our report, so it is worth clarifying the potential implications of our findings for technological progress.

ITIF’s report examines trends in the technology reporting of three major newspapers—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post—over the past 30 years. Specifically, our analysis delves into who has been quoted in technology-related articles and what types of claims they have made. As with virtually any study, there are limitations to our research. For example, we wanted to look at the trend over a 30-year period, so for consistency we confine our analysis to publications that existed the whole time; that excluded online media, which in recent years have produced a great deal of technology coverage.

That caveat aside, we found that the coverage of technology was largely favorable in the 1980s and 90s, with a heavy focus on the economic and military advantages of technology, but there was a shift in subsequent years, with more articles highlighting potentially negative aspects of technology. Indeed, articles about technology’s impact on society today routinely claim that it is subjecting us to a series of harms—fewer jobs, less freedom, an erosion of privacy, and more—which would certainly be newsworthy developments if they were accurate, but in many cases they are highly speculative, lacking in context, or simply false.

One of the key drivers of this shift was that quotes from civil society groups turned significantly more negative—in the earlier period, only 46 percent of their claims were negative, but this rose to 77 percent in the later period. These findings are important because they suggest a souring of the public debate that drives policy decisions: Both policymakers and the public are more likely to have their views about technology shaped by negative claims, and these skewed perceptions mean there is likely less support for technological progress now than in the past.

The concern about the possibility of declining public support for science and technology is not idle speculation. We already see these effects playing out in debates about climate change and genetically engineered food where public opinion often diverges significantly from scientific consensus. The reason for this disconnect can be explained, at least in part, by well-organized advocacy groups who successfully get their views aired on equal footing with those based on more rigorous research. For example, as Slate writer Will Saletan notes, “The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all declared that there’s no good evidence GMOs are unsafe. Hundreds of studies back up that conclusion. But many of us don’t trust these assurances. We’re drawn to skeptics who say that there’s more to the story, that some studies have found risks associated with GMOs, and that Monsanto is covering it up.” Distrust of technological innovation translates into less support for policies that support innovation and more support for those that thwart it.

So if objective evidence about technology-related issues is being lost in the din, what should journalists do? To be clear, ITIF is not claiming, as one reporter suggested, that journalists are “too mean.” Quite the opposite. We are arguing that reporters are not always skeptical enough about the claims their sources are making. And we are suggesting that tech journalists spend more time on the admittedly laborious and time-consuming process of fact-checking statements, examining the methods used in research, and exploring the validity of assumptions. Indeed, at least one reporter who covered the ITIF report more or less demonstrated the need for this by spending the most significant part of her article questioning our motives for publishing this report rather than engaging with the substance. Attacking the messenger might be the most effective way to generate clicks and ad revenue, but it does a disservice to the broader public interest.

Neither is ITIF arguing that reporters should ignore important stories or treat the tech industry and the implications of their products and services on society with kid gloves. Critical, in-depth reporting on technology and technology companies, whether on serious issues, such as pay wage inequality and sexism in Silicon Valley, or even less consequential ones, such as the company Ashley Madison using bots to impersonate female users, are virtues of an independent press; they inform readers and promote accountability. But that is not what our study focused on. It focused on whether the claims made about technology in the press have changed over time, and if they have, then in what ways? To be sure, asking pointed questions is very different from repeating unsubstantiated claims, just as posting thoughtful comments online is very different than trolling.

Many reporters are guided by the American humorist Finley Peter Dunne’s famous quote that their job is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” In other words, the responsibility of journalists is to question powerful interests without fear or prejudice while looking out for those who are marginalized and lack their relative privilege. But if journalists only challenge those they perceive as powerful without pausing to make sure they are asking the right questions to the right people and scrutinizing the answers before publishing them, then they risk doing a disservice to the public. For example, inflated concerns about privacy, which tend to get a positive reception in the press, underpin many privacy laws. Unfortunately, these laws can have serious consequences. To pick one notable example, researchers at MIT and the University of Virginia published a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Political Economy that found variations in state medical privacy laws decreased the efficacy of health IT and increased infant mortality rates.

Those who are familiar with the history of technology and society know that the debates we are having today about the impact of technology on culture, employment, safety, privacy, and the like are not new. While technology changes, these fundamental human concerns do not. Moreover, there are always going to be people who want to blame technology for society’s ills. We’ve seen this before—remember how video games are making us violent and the Internet is making us stupid?—and we’ll see it again. Our point is not that reporters should ignore professional technology detractors, but rather that they should critically examine the substance of their claims, just as they should for ITIF and others who champion technological innovation.

Plenty of journalists take the time to grapple with how their writing impacts society, such as the political press wrestling with how to properly cover the Trump administration and the Hollywood press reflecting on its coverage of actors and directors with checkered pasts. Given the importance of technological progress to our nation’s economic and social wellbeing, it is important for journalists covering technology to do the same.