It’s been a bruising few years in the media for the world’s biggest tech companies. One by one, many of the industry’s most prominent firms and their leaders have come in for unprecedented levels of scrutiny from the press: over disinformation during the 2016 election, over hate speech and targeted harassment, over the treatment of workers, over discriminatory advertising practices, over the spread of conspiracy theories, over sexual misconduct, over business ties to the repressive Chinese government, and over perceptions of political bias within the companies themselves.
Sustained critical coverage of Silicon Valley is both a natural consequence of these powerful companies’ dominant and growing role in American life and a correction to what many observers feel was years of insufficiently rigorous reporting on the way their products and practices are reshaping contemporary society.
Tech’s newfound place under the media microscope has led to grousing among tech executives, in public and private, that the press has overcorrected, going too far in its antagonistic coverage toward the industry, blaming it for problems it didn’t create, and ignoring its successes.
To gain a fuller understanding of how Silicon Valley understands its changing relationship with the press, BuzzFeed News conducted the first-ever survey of attitudes of tech workers toward the media. The survey, of 1,000 professionals across a broad range of companies ranging in size from 500 to more than 10,000 employees, reveals an industry with deep skepticism toward the media and significant concerns about the role identity politics plays in press coverage of technology.
Indeed, more than half (51%) of tech industry professionals “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement that “President Trump has a point when it comes to the media producing fake news.” A separate survey conducted by BuzzFeed News, of 1,000 Americans representing the national population, found that only 42% somewhat or strongly agree with that statement.*
This finding puts in new context Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s much-publicized desire to build a site for tracking journalists’ credibility — a campaign many dismissed as eccentric grandstanding but which appears to arise from a pervasive sentiment in the industry, one that appears to be stronger than in the country at large. Older employees (over 55), employees of larger tech companies, and employees of companies with over $1 billion in revenue were more likely to have a negative opinion of the media than younger employees (18-49), employees of smaller companies, and employees of companies with less than $1 billion in revenue. In addition, women in the tech industry are less likely to hold a positive opinion of the media than their male counterparts.
Tech workers’ mistrust of the press seems to stem from several sources, one of which is the perception of identity-based bias in the media’s coverage of tech companies.
Nearly 4 in 10 of tech workers (38%) and nearly half of men in the industry (45%) surveyed believe “the media has become too feminist.” (A separate survey conducted by BuzzFeed News* found that the national percentage of people who believe the media has become “too feminist” is 39%.) Over the past several years, dozens of stories have focused on the relative dearth of women working in the industry — specifically in technical jobs — and the difficulties faced by the women who work in tech.
Similarly, more than a third (34%) of survey respondents, and more than 4 in 10 male survey respondents (41%), believe the media is unfair to white men. Last year, former Google engineer James Damore sued his old employer, alleging a company-wide effort to increase the number of women and underrepresented racial minorities that discriminated against white male conservatives.
Another source of tech worker skepticism toward the media comes from the perception that when it comes to covering their industry, members of the press often don’t know what they’re talking about. Only 50% of tech industry professionals surveyed think journalists are knowledgeable about the companies they report on, and only 43% believe the media has a strong understanding of technology itself.
(The survey asked respondents to select outlets that they felt covered the industry most fairly; TechCrunch, CNN, and Wired led the way, with 12%, 11%, and 11% of respondents selecting them, respectively. Conversely, respondents selected Fox News, CNN, and Fox Business News as the outlets that are most unfair in their coverage of the tech industry, with 17%, 13%, and 8% selecting them, respectively. BuzzFeed News ranked next, at 5%.)
Much of the recent critical reporting on tech companies has been enabled by corporate leaks. This topic strongly divided survey respondents. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that employees of tech companies “should freely speak with the media”; meanwhile, 49% “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that employees of tech companies “should not share information with the media.” (The statements were presented to respondents as two separate queries, which is why they add up to slightly more than 100%.)
One clue as to when tech workers might believe such leaks are justified came in the form of a question about China. Less than one-third (31%) of tech workers “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that US-based tech companies should operate in China. Dragonfly, Google’s secret initiative to build a censored search engine for the Chinese market, stalled after its revelation by the Intercept led to internal complaints. Meanwhile, 59% of tech workers “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that “tech companies should work with the US government on military projects,” another source of recent controversy in the industry, which also came to a head when reports exposed Google’s Project Maven, a drone AI imaging contract with the Pentagon, which it subsequently did not renew. (Only 38% of American consumers feel the same way.)
In addition to questions about tech workers’ attitudes toward the media, the survey asked subjects’ opinions on the major companies in the industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the company that has faced the most lacerating criticism from the press over the past two years, Facebook, was also the most negatively judged by tech professionals. While 80% of tech workers believe the industry has had a positive impact on society, only 46% of tech workers believe Facebook has, and 32% believe Facebook has had a negative impact on society — the most of any company listed.
Meanwhile, respondents were asked to select words or phrases that applied to a variety of tech companies. The vast majority of the responses were positive — for example, Google was most commonly described as “Dependable,” “Innovative,” “Leader,” “Stable,” and “Respectable.”
Of the companies listed, only Facebook’s top five descriptors were all negative. They were “Controversial,” “Secretive,” “Exploitative,” “Arrogant,” and “Frustrating.” ●
Graphics by Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images
The BuzzFeed News & Lucid Tech Industry Perceptions study was conducted between December 27, 2018, and January 10, 2019, and questioned 1,000 US Representative Sample of Tech professionals aged 18–64. Results in this article are based on responses from tech professionals who work more than 30 hours per week and are employed by a tech company with 500-plus employees. For comparison purposes, a probability sample of this size has an estimated margin of error (which measures sampling variability) of +/- 3%. Click here to view the detailed data tables.
*Consumer Sentiment Tech Poll (via Pollfish, n=1000, US Census representative among those aged 18–64)