New study examines depictions of computer science in TV and film content
Movies and television may give us the impression that technology can do anything, but who is shown using tech on screen? A new report, released Sept. 1, examines portrayals of computer science across media. The results demonstrate that while the uses of tech may seem to be unfettered, there are still limits on who can be shown on screen using computer science.
The study, conducted by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg and funded by Google’s Computer Science in Media team, examined television content and movies. The result is a sweeping investigation that examines how many characters use computer science, the demographic attributes of those characters, and the nature of those depictions.
The study sheds light on how media portrayals may present a skewed vision of computer science. For companies, schools, and parents, the report demonstrates how media offers audiences a window into computer science as an activity or profession that may fail to attract a diverse group of participants.
One team working to create a more vibrant media environment is Google’s CS in Media team. With the goal of inspiring a new, inclusive vision of computer science, Google’s CS in Media team has served as a resource to the entertainment industry by advising content creators on computer science-related storylines across ten TV series and TV movies. One aim of the study was to assess the impact of the project. The analysis found 5.9 percent of 1,039 characters depicted in the set of programs influenced by Google were engaged in computer science, compared with less than 1 percent of 883 characters in a matched sample of content. For this portion of the analysis, every episode of each series sampled was assessed. These results demonstrate how rarely computer science is shown on screen, and reinforce the importance of Google’s ongoing efforts.
In addition, popular media content was analyzed to provide further context for Google’s CS in Media team. Only 2.2 percent of a total of 2,138 characters used computer science across the top 20 movies of 2015, 20 TV series popular with 18-49 year olds from 2015-16, and 20 popular TV series among 2 to 12 year olds from the same time frame. Two episodes of each TV series were included in the analysis.
“Storytelling opens a window into professions or activities that might not otherwise capture our imaginations,” said Professor Stacy L. Smith, director of the MDSC Initiative and the study’s lead author. “Although technology powers much of our daily lives, we see few stories that reflect this in media. Given this, Google’s work to highlight computer science in narratives is more important than ever, especially those showcasing women and individuals from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.”
One idea that guides Google’s work is that audiences—especially girls and individuals from underrepresented groups—may be inspired to pursue computer science by seeing role models on screen. However, the report finds that even among the small sample size of characters using computer science, these individuals still tend to be white and male across all media studied. Nearly 25 percent, or 15, of the characters engaged in computer science in the Google-influenced series were female, while none of the characters using computer science in the matched sample of content were girls or women. Almost 41 percent, or 9, of leading or series regular characters that engaged with computer science in the Google-influenced shows were female.
Comparing these findings to popular content revealed that females fare better as computer science users in TV shows popular among adults 18-49 than in top films, though once again there are few characters overall using computer science. Over one-third of characters using CS in prime-time series were female which is 8 girls/women total. This is compared to only 15 percent of characters engaged in computer science in popular movies, which represents just 3 females. Forty percent, or 8, of leading and/or series regular characters using computer science were girls and/or women. “While a higher percentage of females overall used computer science in popular content,” Smith said, “girls and women are still outnumbered as computer science users, even when the only limits to their participation are the imagination of content creators.”
The authors also explored factors related to computer science stereotypes. Across the stories evaluated, characters using computer science tend to be dressed in “hacker-type” clothing, lack romantic or family relationships, and rarely mention how CS could be used to help others—exemplifying stereotypes about computer science users. One bright spot in the storytelling influenced by Google was that female characters using CS were more likely to be praised for their intelligence than their appearance. Despite this, the researchers concluded that portrayals of computer science still reflect a view of the field that is rooted in tired tropes.
“Media representations of computer science may be one way that viewers learn about the profession and develop an interest in what technology can do,” Smith said. “When stereotypes permeate the environment, theory and research suggest that this may dampen attraction to the field, especially for females. The very tool that might contribute to expanded diversity in the CS workforce may be working against it.”
“Inclusive representation is critical in order to inspire students to pursue CS,” said Daraiha Greene, Google CS in Media’s Multicultural Strategy Lead. “Research and rigorous evaluation are imperative to the work that we do as we strive to change the narrative of computer science pertaining to underrepresented groups in mainstream media. We look forward to creating more favorable perceptions of CS across industries and demographics by transforming concepts, storylines, and characters in order to have a greater effect on the landscape of media content.”
The report is the latest in a series of investigations published by the MDSC Initiative this year. It is the first study conducted by the MDSC Initiative in partnership with the Google CS in Media team to assess depictions of computer science in film and TV and to use theoretical and empirical evidence surrounding stereotypes of CS when evaluating these portrayals. To read the full report, visit this link. To read previous reports by the MDSC Initiative, visit http://annenberg.usc.edu/mdsci. For other reports on computer science in education from Google, visit: g.co/cseduresearch.
About USC Annenberg Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative
The Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative (MDSCI) at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a leading think tank studying diversity in entertainment through original and sponsored research. MDSCI findings create valuable and sought after research based solutions that advance equality in entertainment. Dr. Stacy L. Smith is the Founder and Director of the MDSCI. Dr. Smith and the MDSCI examine gender, race, LGBT status, disability, and age on screen and gender and race/ethnicity behind the camera in cinematic content as well as barriers and opportunities facing women and people of color in the entertainment industry. The MDSCI also conducts economic analyses related to diversity and the financial performance of films. In 2015, LA Weekly named Dr. Smith the #1 Most Influential Person in Los Angeles, and she has spoken on research at multiple high-profile engagements ranging from the TED Women stage to the United Nations. Dr. Smith and the MDSCI have been featured in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Newsweek, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and NPR, among others. The MDSCI’s most recent research reports include the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD), multiple landmark studies with Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles and two studies on inclusion on screen and behind the camera across 800 top-grossing films conducted at USC Annenberg. The MDSCI is generously supported by The Annenberg Foundation, The Harnisch Foundation, Sony Pictures Entertainment, EPiX, Humana, LUNAFEST, The Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation, and other individuals. To learn more, visit http://annenberg.usc.edu/mdsci or follow on Twitter @MDSCInitiative.
About Google Computer Science in Media
Google aims to inspire young people around the world to be creators of technology, not just users. Millions of jobs that will require skills like problem-solving, collaboration and coding are projected to go unfilled; women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, and additional groups are already drastically underrepresented in technical fields. Our computer science (CS) education work with the entertainment industry strives to create more favorable perceptions of CS across industries and demographics by transforming concepts, storylines, and characters to be more inclusive in mainstream media. This creates more opportunities for underrepresented groups (URGs) to discover and pursue CS careers, developing and sustaining a diverse pipeline. For more contextual information, please view this video highlighting some of the work.
Depictions of computer science are still rare in both popular programming and series influenced by Google.
In the Google influenced and non-Google influenced samples, a total of 3.4% (n=65) of characters were depicted talking about or engaging in computer science. The sample of Google influenced content (5.9%, n=61 of 1,039) had a higher percentage of characters engaging in computer science than a matched sample of programming (0.5%, n=4 of 883).
Of 2,138 speaking characters evaluated, a total of 46 (2.2%) engaged in computer science across three samples of popular media (20 series popular with viewers age 18 to 49, 20 series popular with viewers age 2 to 12, and 20 top-grossing films from 2015).
Demographically, the profile of computer science characters is still skewed in favor of White males. Viewers would need to watch a great deal of entertainment content before seeing a female using CS—especially if looking for depictions of underrepresented females.
In the Google influenced content, 24.6% (n=15) of CS characters were female, and 75.4% (n=46) were male. This is a ratio of 3.1 males to every 1 female CS character.
Slightly more than two-thirds (67.2%, n=39) of CS characters in the Google influenced content were White, 17.2% (n=10) were Asian, and 15.5% (n=9) were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.
The sample of non-Google influenced content contained no females or characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups engaging in CS.
Prime time series (38.1%, n=8) featured a greater percentage of females in CS than did popular films (15%, n=3). Although series popular with 2- to 12-year-olds had the greatest percentage of female CS characters (40%, n=2), this small sample size should be interpreted cautiously. Despite this, in each sample, male CS characters still outnumbered female CS characters (prime time=61.9%, n=13; total day=60%, n=3; film=85%, n=17).
Popular prime time series (28.6%, n=6) and films (23.5%, n=4) showcase a percentage of underrepresented characters in CS higher than what is seen in the Google influenced content. Once again, series popular with 2- to 12-year-olds have the highest share of underrepresented CS characters (50%, n=2), but the smallest sample size.
Portrayals of computer science in film and television continue to reflect a view of the field that is rooted in stereotypes. This includes showcasing few CS characters who are referenced as attractive, shown in romantic or parental relationships, or who state prosocial goals for CS use. In the Google influenced sample, 62.3% of CS characters (n=38 of 61) were shown in stereotypical attire versus 75% (n=3) of the CS characters in the match sample. Nearly half of CS characters were shown in stereotypical attire in the combined samples of popular content (45.7%, n=21).
Tech-focused and non-tech focused series can be targeted for CS interventions. In Google-influenced content, CS characters primarily appear in tech-focused series. Among the Google influenced content, 51 CS characters were in tech driven narratives and 10 CS characters were not.
In the sample of non-Google influenced content, all of the CS characters were featured in non-tech stories. In the samples of popular media, CS characters were more likely to appear in shows and movies that did not feature a technology-oriented theme (80.4%, n=37) than those that did (19.6%, n=9).