Tech journalism must center the workers that keep Big Tech running

“VC of the Year.” “Founder of the Year.” “Best Startup.” 

TechCrunch hands out these superlatives to “recognize and celebrate the most compelling startups, internet and technology innovations of the year” during its annual awards show, the Crunchies

As New Yorker writer Anna Weiner puts it, “If the tech industry was selling itself, journalists on the tech beat were among its enthusiastic buyers.” 

Mainstream technology journalism, which focuses on companies working on information technology and the internet, has largely covered tech with unfettered optimism. That manifests in news articles and features following venture capitalists, start-up founders, and front-facing profiles of tech companies, while ignoring invisible labor — real people — as byproducts of creating and sustaining technologies and services.

But that focus reduces journalists to PR wings for tech companies.

Some terms that make up the basic vocabulary of tech reporting, like “tech company” and “startup”, seem neutral. But they help companies by distracting from other aspects of their product — namely, who runs it. For example, though Uber has an app, the majority of its workforce is made up of Uber drivers who support their rideshare services, not engineers. 

Reporter Sam Harnett argues that journalists “both normalized and at times generated this rhetoric and framing,” which later helped enable unethical policies and practices. This terminology parroted, and at times expanded, the language in press releases, positively distinguishing tech companies from other businesses. 

Tech reporting then becomes weaker: it prevents people from better understanding how technology actually works and obscures its impact.

More importantly, for tech journalists to challenge structures like capitalism and white supremacy — along with technology itself — they need to center the perspectives of workers whose labor is obscured by the tech companies that benefit from them.

A lack of class and racial diversity in journalism negatively impacts tech coverage 

Journalism is a predominately white industry and there are many financial hurdles to breaking in, making it harder for people from working-class backgrounds to enter the field.

At the same time, within the tech industry, the working class is composed of mostly those who would be considered underrepresented minorities in the office. At Amazon, 47% of corporate employees were white, compared to only 28.5% of Amazon’s field & customer support employees in 2020. This percentage is flipped for senior leadership, which is 70.7% white. This is especially stark since Amazon is primarily made up of warehouse workers: in 2020, according to an internal audit, there were 622,077 employees classified as laborers and helpers compared to 101,965 employees who were categorized as professionals. 

Tech’s workforce is also made up of many immigrants. More than half of Silicon Valley’s tech STEM workforce was born outside of the United States and many gig workers are migrant and immigrant workers

“A lot of times, if you are a migrant worker, you have family to support so you’re sending a lot of money and remittances,” said Do Lee, a professor at Queens College researching immigrant food delivery cyclists. “But also, as a migrant worker, you may have a lot of debt to the people who may have helped you into the country.”

He said he’s heard of some workers owing tens of thousands of dollars to those who have helped them immigrate to the US.

Immigration status doesn’t only affect the working class. It also impacts working conditions for white-collar workers.

“Technology is an industry that depends extremely heavily on labor from people who are dependent on their employers for immigration status,” said Vicki Niu, a software engineer at Discord. She organizes with the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association against 24-hour shifts for home attendants. 

“Even for a citizened employee, if the rest of the workforce is going to be willing to work long hours because they’re at risk of losing their immigration status, that also lowers the bar for what you can ask for from your employer,” Niu said.

Journalists not reflecting the communities they cover contributes to a pattern.

Even in reporting that is critical of tech, such as coverage of Uber violating traffic laws by launching self-driving cars in California without permits or the company’s ‘God view’ tool, which allowed employees to see the locations of customers, very little focuses on the workers powering the platforms. 

“The dominant narratives around Uber were solely focused on corporate scandals, capital funding, and regulatory escapades,” Edward Ongweso Jr, a tech and labor reporter at Motherboard, told me. “When drivers did come up, there was not too much focus on the driver themselves unless they were advocates for the gig work model.” 

Tech has changed the nature of service and warehouse work, providing more metrics and surveillance to monitor individual employees and outsourcing managerial work to apps, rather than people. It has also expanded the number of opportunities for gig work and led to more workers being classified as independent contractors.

In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 55 million people worked as gig workers — about 34% of the US workforce. In 2020, they projected that number to rise to 43%. As technology continues to shape how we live, technology companies—and, by extension, the people and organizations that use their services—will increasingly rely on contract and gig labor for tasks, from food delivery to labeling images and transcribing audio clips. Even companies like Google, which primarily provide software rather than services, are made up of mostly temporary contractors with fewer benefits and lower pay than their full-time counterparts. 

But when gig workers are mentioned, they’re often mischaracterized.

Lee, the professor, conducted a media analysis of 74 news articles covering New York City food delivery cyclists between 2004 and 2015. 

He found that almost three-quarters of the articles didn’t quote a single delivery worker. Instead, journalists quoted residents of neighborhoods and customers for their perspectives of delivery workers, which often led to depictions of delivery workers as menacing. One article in The New York Post used terms like “Szechuan psychos” and descriptions like “prowl residential neighborhoods at night” to describe the predominantly Asian and Latinx male immigrant delivery workers.

Ivy, an Amazon warehouse worker using a pseudonym for safety reasons, said that coworkers in fulfillment centers talk about how mainstream media coverage doesn’t reflect their experiences, such as coverage of Amazon delivery drivers being so overworked they resorted to using pee bottles.

Depicting Amazon workers as “trapped in some torture chamber” without agency comes off reads as reporters fundamentally misunderstanding what it’s like to work in an “unskilled” job, Ivy said.

“I would like to see less focus on the fun, gory details like the pee bottles and more on [issues workers actually face like] repetitive stress injuries,” Ivy said. “So much reporting on Amazon really relies on something that you [reporters] heard from somebody else, like another reporter or another person’s story, rather than finding Amazon workers.”

Nuanced coverage of tech labor organizing can help jumpstart improved tech journalism

More workers are beginning to organize, whether through mutual aid networks or formal unions. Rest of World, which covers tech around the globe, found that 48% of platform workers around the world they surveyed were part of a formal group or union and 59% had participated in a strike. 

With changing employee-employer dynamics, as demonstrated by the gig work model, there is no one-size-fits-all method of organizing followed by tech workers, especially because the industry isn’t monolithic. 

For some gig workers, organizing happens through mutual aid.

Cheryl, who asked to be identified by only her first name for privacy reasons, has driven for various rideshare apps since 2014, and wanted to create a sense of camaraderie between drivers. She founded a Facebook group with two other drivers in Tampa to communicate with fellow drivers and created a channel in Zello, a walkie-talkie app, where drivers could share their locations and speak to each other while driving to make sure drivers stayed safe.

Though Lyft and Uber had a hotline to report bad experiences with customers, Cheryl says companies responded by filing a report and blocking the user’s email, which didn’t deter customers from creating new accounts. 

“There’s no protection for the drivers and you’re always wondering, ‘Am I going to get that person again? Am I going to end up picking up that person on a different account?’” she said. “There was no emergency button in the app at the time. There’s no 911-button, if you could even get to it, but you could always hit that Zello button and keep it on and the other drivers could hear everything. I got rescued several times by drivers before.”

It’s not just gig workers who are organizing. White-collar workers at tech companies like Google and Kickstarter have also begun to unionize and speak out about workplace issues, from experiences of harassment and discrimination to working on projects they disagree with, such as contracts with Customs and Border Protection and exploitation of warehouse workers.

“Our labor rights are not well protected in general, but I think the tech industry is reaching a point where we’ve gone from this shiny, new super profitable money-minting industry to ‘Okay, now it seems like half of our workforce is exploited contractors,’” said Raksha Muthukumar, an Alphabet Workers Union member and a former Google software engineer.

But tech reporters need to learn from unilaterally labeling particular events as catalysts for future organizing efforts. For example, the failed unionization vote at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse in 2020 received national coverage focusing on different theories on why it failed. However, it doesn’t reflect the everyday experiences of workers, Ivy said. 

“[Employees] would get pulled into meetings where everyone would have to listen to a seminar about why unions are bad, and it doesn’t really matter if people believe that or not,” Ivy said. “What matters is that it was fucking annoying to be doing this all the time and to be getting a billion texts every day from both sides. People just voted for it to go away.”

But not everyone in Ivy’s warehouse felt the same about unionization, Ivy said. That’s in part because Amazon departments themselves can be drastically different from each other based on management, culture, and worker composition, making it imperative for reporters to talk to as many people as possible instead of latching onto a singular narrative.

Just as important as gathering multiple perspectives is protecting sources, since workers may face repercussions for speaking out against their companies if they are identified. For instance, the National Labor Relations Board has found multiple cases of Amazon retaliating against workers for protesting

“The company could retaliate in more subtle ways [than firing],” said Ira, another Amazon warehouse worker who asked to only be identified by first name for safety. ”Protecting a worker’s identity when appropriate and making sure to report their words accurately and conscientiously [is important]. Especially for organizers — organizing comes first, so be careful that the reporting doesn’t endanger the organizing.”

Ultimately, tech reporting should be like any other form of journalism. It’s about covering systems of power and people who are affected by them, and understanding that individual companies and incidents point to larger systemic issues. 

“Portraying the voices that have historically been silenced inherently feels like a bias towards those voices because we’re so used to hearing the corporate PR bigwig speak,” said Muthukumar. “As soon as you start talking to the workers on the ground, then it’s like, ‘Well now this seems really biased progressively.’  Maybe we were just biased the other way for way too long, and now we’re actually listening to more people.” 

Highlighting the experiences of workers isn’t biased: it acknowledges and attempts to balance the uneven power dynamic between workers and their bosses. Covering tech shouldn’t just be about glorifying and predicting the next big startup. Journalists should look critically at how it affects people, including the workers who build it and the systems it exists within—otherwise, they’re failing to fully understand the tech industry, and perpetuating the harm it causes.

“You just push a button on your phone and tomorrow or the day after or whenever, a package shows up at your house with the thing you ordered,” said Ivy. “Under all of it, somebody has to go find that package and put it on a conveyor belt.”

Lily Lou (she/her) is a writer and software engineer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her at lilylou.xyz.

Editing by Janelle Salanga.

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