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By Dennis Nguyen, Erik Hekman and Koen van Turnhout

An Exploration of How Media Discourses Make Sense of the Digital Transformation

News media reporting can influence the public perception of big data (BD) and artificial intelligence (AI): it informs audiences about innovations, opportunities, conflicts and challenges associated with datafication and automation. For example, the news cover how data-driven technologies empower consumers with novel devices or drive progress in diverse domains (e.g., healthcare, industries, governance). News media also report about data scandals such as Cambridge Analytica or discrimination in algorithmic systems. In this way the news shape awareness for data risks such as privacy invasion, data bias, exclusion, and inequalities, i.e. challenges connected to a fair and inclusive digital society. A critical analysis of news discourses can uncover how societies make sense of the digital transformation, what benefits they associate with it, and what risks they perceive as most pressing. It can further reveal who in get to dominate the “making of meaning” in discourses on emerging technologies, especially in terms of “value”, “impact”, and regulation. Furthermore, comparing news media coverage on big data and AI from different cultural spaces allows for charting cultural differences in the perception and adoption of inherently global tech trends. In sum, these insights help with identifying current social frictions, political conflicts, misunderstandings, and forms of exclusion in debates about technology. This provides then a starting point to 1) critically review the role of data literacy in news media, 2) take inventory of ethical challenges and relevant stakeholders, 3) identify hegemonies in tech discourses, 4) observe technologies’ social impacts in their cultural contexts, 5) trace the changing meaning of “value” and “risk” in the digital transformation over time, 6) understand how societies “talk” about complex issues such as automation and datafication, 7) reveal and critically discuss social conflicts in tech developments.

This ongoing research project has several parts but the two main research questions are:

  • How do new media frame big data and artificial intelligence?
  • What individual and collective risks do news media point at in their reporting of Big Data and AI?
  • Who dominates technology discourses in news reporting on Big Data and AI?
  • How does news framing connect to data literacy in the digital society?

The study charts the news framing of big data and AI in 20 news outlets from around the world (e.g., The New York Times, South China Morning Post,, India Express, The Guardian, Gizmodo, Wired and others) via a combination of manual and automated content analyses (over 15,000 articles in total) for clustering large volumes of textual data based on pre-selected document features.

The preliminary results imply that media attention, especially on AI, increased in recent years and that news reporting became visibly more critical over time. While big data and AI are mostly framed in respect to economic benefits, news media often connect them to the individual and collective risks that they can entail. This connects to news media’s role in building-up data literacy among a broader public.

Example from data analysis on 4 out of 20 news outlets

The framing of emerging technologies happens in multiple domains: expert discourses in academia and (industrial) research, business and management, culture, politics, and government policy. These discourses do overlap, especially in news media formats. The assumed role of news media is to connect different expert views on technological innovations to general audiences that are affected by and, directly or indirectly, contribute to the adoption of new technologies as citizens and consumers/users . This happens in two intersecting dimensions: first, the more frequent an issue is covered in the news, the more salient it becomes in public discourse and among audiences. This relates to agenda-setting theory: how editorial choices influence the visibility and ranking of topics in public discourses. Second, the way in which a technology is presented may have an impact on how audiences perceive and evaluate it. The question is then in what exact contexts do news media cover a technology and in what frequency. And more specifically, in which contexts do they refer to individual and collective risks and in what contexts to benefits. For example, is the technology primarily portrayed as an opportunity or as a threat in each context?

In a first preliminary study, we focused on data justice and explore whether it occurred as a noticeable frame in four globally renowned news outlets that cover big data and AI. Below you can watch a short presentation on these early findings from the “test analysis” with an outlook for future steps. The presentation is part of the 2021 Data Justice Conference in Cardiff. What we are currently experimenting with are more inductive forms of automated content analysis, include hypothesis testing to go beyond a merely descriptive approach, and explore ways to include sentiment analysis.

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