Dear Tech Journalists,
When mainstream media covers technology -- which is increasingly often as tech takes center stage in the global economy and in daily life -- they regularly make blunders. And, the tech press loves to jeer and castigate them for it.
Let's be honest. We do it partly because we are threatened by them. More and more, mainstream media is honing in on our territory and competing with us for the attention of the masses on big tech stories. The problem is that they often aren't very good at understanding the context, the history, the jargon, or the science and engineering involved. So, they miss important parts of the story or over-react and get it wrong when they try to extrapolate and analyze.
For example, they amplify virus stories and make it sound like the end of the world. They fall for things like rumors about the perpetually-imminent Apple television set. Or, they misinterpret the true game-changing context for new products like Google Glass (hint: it's really about the data).
This is changing, of course, because some mainstream outlets are simply hiring tech-savvy journalists like Shibhani Joshi, Joanna Stern, or Clayton Morris to cover tech stories. (And, this doesn't count folks like Walt Mossberg and David Pogue since they don't typically report tech news but focus on reviews of tech products -- and do it quite well). Nevertheless, it's still true that most mainstream media is often out-of-its-element when trying to provide valuable context and perspective on deeper tech stories.
The same is true when the tables are turned and the tech press tries to cover general news stories. Most of the time, we wisely avoid it. But, occasionally, we veer over and pick up a mainstream story because it has a geek culture factor or because it's something of particular interest to the tech crowd or because we can add an interesting tech angle to the conversation.
None of that was the case this week with the Boston Marathon bombing, when the eyes of the world turned toward Beantown with horror and compassion as terrorists targeted the world's greatest footrace. Then, it was followed by a dramatic manhunt that finally ended Friday night.
As social media filled with conversations about the tense events in Boston, several tech sites inexplicably decided to become general assignment reporters and cover the stories as straight news. My immediate reaction was that those sites must have seen their users' attention drawn to Boston -- and away from stories about tech startups and the latest devices -- and so they opportunistically followed the eyeballs.
The problem was that they were way out of their league, in exactly the same way that the mainstream media is when they try to tackle complicated tech stories. The difference is that while mainstream media might bungle a tech story and get people to over-inflate the danger of a virus alert, the tech media's foray into general reporting on the Boston Marathon is not only unconstructive but also irresponsible.
The vast majority of tech journalists do not have the proper filters, contacts, or background to handle these kinds of stories. They don't know when to call into question potentially bad information. They don't have people to call to verify, confirm, or simply gut-check the information. And, they don't have the knowledge of terrorism, crime, and law enforcement to ask the right questions about this kind of situation and then provide valuable perspective that can help the public understand the larger implications. For example, would a tech journalist have thought to ask whether or not the suspect was read his Miranda Rights when captured?
Without this kind of perspective, these tech sites were likely to propagate many of the rumors and false information that was spreading like wildfire across the web this week. Acting as a megaphone for that stuff negatively impacts their readers and the public at large.
If you wanted to cover this story because it mattered to your readers, then the best way the tech press could have done something helpful was to publish stuff where it can use its expertise to make a valuable contribution rather than just adding useless noise to the cacophony of general stories.
Instead, show people a set of resources for the best places to find information on the web about the bombings and the manhunt. Or, share resources for following the manhunt on their smartphones if they weren't near a TV or web browser on Friday. Or, if you want to go deeper, delve into the technologies that sped up the manhunt -- from high-res video cameras and video search to the imprecise use of social networks for identifying the suspects.
While some will argue that because the whole thing unfolded on tech platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, that turned it into a tech story. That's disingenuous. The same argument could be made for almost any story, from the U.S. presidential election to the latest earthquake.
Without a proper tech angle, the general reporting of the story by the tech press simply smells like a way to profit from all of the online attention that was directed at this disaster. And, any time you are profiting from human misery you need to seriously question your motives.
The mainstream media didn't always do a great of covering the events in Boston this week, but the tech press trying to jump in and report the news didn't contribute anything meaningful. In fact, it was unnecessary noise at best, and a megaphone for untrusted information at worst.
Remember that this is only one human being's opinion on the situation. I'm not writing on behalf of my publications or the media company that I work for. That's why I posted this on my personal site. I'm not writing this to take a cheap shot at other publications that I normally respect. I'm just putting it out there for the best and the brightest in the tech press to consider, since we're all involved in the process of re-creating what we want the media to be in the 21st century.
I'm sure many of you will disagree with me, and if so you're welcome to respond to this on Twitter or Google+. I'm happy to listen to all well-reasoned and well-thought-out perspectives on the subject, and I'm willing to change my mind if you can convince me that there was value to what some of the tech press did by swerving out of their lane on this one.
P.S. - If you're wondering why I wrote this blog post in the form of a letter, then here's the answer.
P.P.S - At the request of Computerworld's @sharon000 in Boston, I've added a couple examples of the kind of coverage that I was referring to. I've also added a couple other links that add to the conversation.
MG Seigler's take on the egregious "profiteering" by the tech press
Josh Topolsky's defense of The Verge's coverage