Alex Payne writes online here.

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Towards Better Technology Journalism

Rarely does technology journalism produce informed, correct, relevant, and readable content. This is a sorry and damaging state of affairs.

I’ve been drafting this post in my head for ages, and bringing the topic up to friends and colleagues ad nauseam. One approach I could take is to rantingly provide example after example of miserable technology journalism. For anyone immersed the culture of high tech – that is, those of you who care about this issue and have read at least this far – those examples are practically unnecessary.

Most technology professionals I know roll their eyes at our industry’s press. “What are you going to do? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t get publicity for new products without ’em” seems to be the mindset. To ask for truly superb coverage of anything more than the latest gadget is asking too much in today’s tech media landscape. As an engineer, a consumer, and an avid reader, I’m unsatisfied with this.

Before I dive in, I’d like to clarify that this is entirely my personal opinion, and in no way reflects that of my employers. To maintain focus in my job, I ignore any and all press about Twitter that I’m not forced to read while strapped to a chair with my eyes pried open, Clockwork Orange-style. My personal projects have been covered with reasonable accuracy. This is not axe-grinding. Moreover, my agenda is not about ensuring that technology business and research gets a pass from the press; if anything, our industry should be regarded more critically.

With that said: instead of harping endlessly and unproductively on the culprits, I’ll briefly feature two recent examples of inept tech reporting. Then, I’ll expand on the problem and offer some potential solutions.

Example One: “TechCrunch Are Full Of Shit”

That phrase has been a rallying cry in the web community of late, urged on by a post on Last.fm’s blog. Long story short, the popular web-oriented technology news site TechCrunch reported on a rumor, something the site does seemingly as standard operating procedure. Generally, companies and individuals don’t bother to retaliate when slandered by TechCrunch, as to do so would lend an iota of legitimacy to to the site, while reducing the victim to their level of pettiness.

Last.fm bucked this informal policy and took a stand. They were quickly validated for doing so. The damage to the company’s reputation, though, is done. In an industry where ending your consumer relationship with a company is one click on a “delete my account” button away, misleading and false press can utterly undermine a business.

TechCrunch hardly count as “journalists” or “the press” by any reasonable definition. They’re a tabloid masquerading as a legitimate news outlet, a sort of Drudge Report for nerds; they lack even the sense of humor of actual tech industry tabloids like Valleywag. While TechCrunch may have started out as a blog, free of the restrictions and expectations of traditional journalism, their content is now syndicated by the Washington Post. TechCrunch’s is one of the most widely-heard voices in technology reporting. This should be considered an embarrassment to our industry.

Still, to really illustrate what’s wrong in technology journalism, an example from a credible publication is necessary.

Example Two: Dirtying a Clean Slate

In mid-February, the New York Times published a piece by John Markoff with the provocative title Do We Need a New Internet? The article discusses a fascinating research project called Clean Slate, set to “reinvent the Internet” with an eye towards security. Anyone with some network engineering experience understands that while the Internet is a clear success on a human scale, there’s room for improvement at the level of bits and bytes, particularly when it comes to security.

Markoff does this essential research project (and credulous readers alike) an enormous disservice by veering away from actual reporting at the end of his article. The last several paragraphs are nothing more than speculation on the author’s part, and not even speculation that’s of particular relevance to the aims of the Clean Slate project. Beyond being generally in the ballpark of security stuff, there’s nothing pertinent there. Though its placement in the “Week In Review” section may account for the editorialization, it’s serious subject matter being treated carelessly.

While not outright slanderous, the New York Times have not, to my mind, fulfilled their journalistic responsibilities when discussing Clean Slate. Airy speculation is for blogs (cough) and barrooms. No wonder that security experts like Ben Laurie were aghast at the irrelevance and incorrectness of Markoff’s conclusions.

The poor quality of technology journalism is not simply an infection plaguing unaccountably popular blogs. It’s real and present in the most trusted names in news.

The Problem

The scary truth of information technology is that it’s just too huge a domain to be an expert in, even if you’re a full-time engineer. I’d wager there’s just a handful of people on this planet who can claim expertise in everything from silicon up to human-computer interaction. Even if most engineers were halfway-decent writers, most engineers aren’t equipped to write about technology in the large.

The majority of technology journalists are even less equipped. Many have no engineering background. They’ve never built anything like the things they write about. Or, if they were once engineers, they haven’t written a line of code or soldered a circuit in years. In a fast-moving industry, professional engineers get left behind the state of the art all the time. How can journalists without any engineering expertise possibly hope to keep up? Simply tapping expert sources isn’t enough. A reporter can’t simply string together quotes from PhDs and CTOs and end up with something cogent, accurate, and informative to a non-technical reader.

We shouldn’t be content to trust the public record of high technology to individuals ill-equipped to report on it accurately. In an age where new media have enabled the people who make technology to produce a dynamic record of its creation and use, the role of the technology journalist is to tell a story that reaches outside our industry and community. It is, then, partly our responsibility as an industry and as a community to ensure the quality of that shared story.

The worth of accurate technology journalism produced by qualified professionals is unquestionably high to the technology industry and the public it serves. How do we fix this?

Solutions

This is not an easy problem to solve. Journalism of all sorts is under attack; the lack of quality reporting and the corresponding lack of trust and engagement amongst readers is not unique to the technology industry. High tech has the advantage, though, of a track record of interdisciplinary problem-solving. Solutions are out there.

Here’s several, to get the ball rolling:

  1. Teach technology reporting in J-school (better) — Journalism schools offer specialized tracks for business reporting, financial reporting, even sports reporting. There are a handful of programs in technology journalism, but these tend to focus on the hard sciences. High tech industry professionals should help instructors develop accurate and informative curricula, and make themselves available to speak directly to journalism students in the classroom. Want someone to talk to your journalism class about how web applications work? Email me. I hope other engineers will contribute their expertise to the classroom.
  2. Report on your 20% time — An increasing number of tech companies encourage side-projects and open source contributions. Why not use that time for journalism as well? Let’s get working engineers in the field, reporting on the subject matter they know better than anyone. This would require a strong editorial hand, but the risk seems worth the reward of highly informed technology reporting.
  3. Incentivize technology reporting as a career — It’s hard to make a buck as a technology journalist, particularly one who reports on something more substantial than gadgets and empty enterprise software press releases. No wonder that TechCrunch has gone the route of sensationalism; it drives ad clicks and sparks debate, making a potentially dreary beat profitable and exciting. Tech journalism isn’t sexy, but it could be made so. That change starts with breaking the cycle of low-quality tech reporting, giving prospective technology journalists a set of role models they can aspire to.

Your solutions are needed. Without them, the only hope for technology journalism is that communication channels like blogs and Twitter outpace the inaccuracies of bad reporting with the distribution of fact. To a degree, this is already happening: friends only heard about the Last.fm scandal because the corrected story was making the rounds on Twitter, “routing around the damage”. This is small comfort, though, and a shallow goal for our industry and community.

You can assume the inevitability of mediocre technology journalism, or you can contribute solutions and make a change. The fidelity of the public history of high technology is in your hands.