Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

Low points in tech journalism; we seem to be having rather too many of them

I've been doing tech journalism for 20 years; I've seen DTP arrive, repro houses shrivel and online journalism go from brochureware to citizen engagement to linkbait repurposing to the reinvention on magazine on shiny tablets.

The pace of online journalism is seductive; you can publish *right now* instead of waiting 2 weeks for the issue to come back from the printer, and someone else is publishing *right now* and you want to have your say, and this other site has a story so you have to have a story so you can just paraphrase theirs and add your telling insight... Seth Godin rather politely calls it 'lazy journalism' and asks for something a bit more useful.

Putting a two-line 'here's my view' shell around someone else's story is infuriating to me, because I don't actually view links that have so much of the story readers don't need to click through to my original as valuable marketing. I don't know about the editors of the sites who pay me to write the stories that 'inspire' retreads (I understand the usual view is that you just have to live with it), but I'd rather like to get a micropayment share from the ads the repurposers sell against what was my original research or the interview I got because I've spent years investing in relationships or the pieces I put together that no-one else had noticed. Maybe the reputation I'm getting from generating stories that do the rounds keeps people commissioning me, but I've never had an editor mention that ;-)

The other infuriating thing is running ludicrous stories with a single source that doesn't know what they're talking about (the predictions that the Lumia 800 would fall flat by financial analysts I'd never heard of were a good recent example, or the rash of stories about who Microsoft might buy and who might buy Nokia and RIM). And sometimes, those analysts cross over into what they call tech journalism and apply those same high standards of deep technical understanding. Go read Ed Bott's glorious account of the ex Lehman Bros analyst who is now a 'journalist' for the The Street, who can't tell the difference between Flash memory and Flash the browser plugin.

Or there's the Indian tech site I'm not going to glorify with publicity (read the Guardian story if you want the name) that 'reviewed' the Nokia Lumia 800 by looking at the specs and comparing them with a couple of other phones and deciding the Lumia didn't compete (not least because they ignored many of the features on the phone). So many people commented about how terrible the story was that the author apparently mistook it for a co-ordinated attack and went through the IP log to see if it was astroturfing. Turns out one commenter had an IP address owned by Microsoft, another had an IP address owned by Nokia and they didn't declare their affiliations when they gave their reactions to the story.

Bad idea? Probably. Understandable? Yes, when you see idiotically bad journalism, keeping to the moral heights can be just too hard. Astroturfing? No, I think that takes rather more than one person per company. Part of a pattern of malicious abuse? The IP address owned by Microsoft has been used for plenty of Wikipedia edits that suggest the user (or users - it could easily be a shared IP address that links to different people) is Indian or based in India, has strong views on football, thinks blogs are useful sources rather than the spurned primary evidence Wikipedia pegs them as - and doesn't understand the difference between editing a story on Wikipedia to correct an error and leaving a comment on the talk page to note that a paragraph is complete and utter bilge. Frankly, if most of what the IP address deleted had been marked with a suitable comment about why it wasn't worth the electricity it took to transmit, the edits would have been improvements.

And the Indian site taking the comments so badly that the writer posted a followup disclosing the IP addresses of the commenters? I think that's the pot calling the kettle black and sooty, but is there an expectation of privacy in comments to a blog or news site? Without a proxy, anonymous you ain't.

At least that means that when you publish trashy, low-quality idiocy masquerading as technology journalism online, people can point and mock and look up your career. It would be nice if that could make this a low point we rise from. Because if what you do brings my chosen profession into disrepute, I am not going to like you.
Tags: ethics, journalism, rant, scoop, writing

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