• Alexandra Schwinges

How Loud Did They Bark? - The Watchdog Role of Journalism in the Age of Big Tech

The past two decades have witnessed a meteoric rise of Big Tech(nology) companies to powerful political players in our societies. To exemplify: every step, from writing to sharing this blogpost alone, involved a number of these companies. The dynamic digital reality we are left with has many people worried. The question arises how do we hold Big Tech companies accountable for their influence on society?

Traditionally, news media have been considered to be watchdogs over political institutions. Guarding public interests and metaphorically barking at undemocratic undertakings. However, the role of journalists towards Big Tech has not yet received scholarly attention.

Our Study

In our study, we aimed to find out whether news media coverage of big technology companies resembles a watchdog function. In a longitudinal content analysis, we manually looked at 20 years’ worth of news coverage in the United States and Germany. In total, we analyzed 920 news articles and tried to identify the media’s performed watchdog function.

First, we looked at the visibility of Big Tech in the news to see when these corporations make it into the news. Second, to investigate how Big Tech has been covered, we borrowed measurements of watchdog role performance from the literature. We identified whether journalists questioned, criticized, or denounced Big Tech and investigated alleged wrong-doings. If journalists indeed performed their watchdog role, we further distinguished two types of watchdog role performance: a detached watchdog that leaves the criticism of Big Tech to cited voices, and an interventionist watchdog, one that dares to be critical.

Here’s What We Found

1. In terms of the attention that media have paid to Big Tech, we see that the volume is small but increasing over time. The coverage is mainly driven by events. For example, we see that US media coverage peaks in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook (Meta) between 2016 and 2018 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

2. When it comes to the tone of news coverage, we find a predominantly detached manner of critical reporting (see Figure 2). This means that journalists perform the role of a critical watchdog, but prefer to have cited sources do the barking. To a lesser degree, a more interventionist watchdog is on the rise as well, where journalists increasingly and openly scrutinize Big Tech. However, we find several differences over the years, across countries and between the individual news outlets we looked at.

Figure 2.

Overall we find that journalists do hold Big Tech companies accountable in their news articles. In the corporate context, some scholars had claimed that journalists failed to perform their watchdog role. We cannot reiterate this criticism, as journalists are found to perform the role of critical yet passive observers, following the prevailing style of Western European journalism. Our study showed that the news media menacingly growls, but we need to further explore when they bark.

Interested in the differences we found? Or simply fascinated by the role of journalism in the age of Big Tech? Feel free to reach out to Alexandra Schwinges (a.schwinges@uva.nl).