If a journalist covering the federal government of Canada were to write that Prime Minister Harper smothers babies in their sleep, they'd find themselves out of work pretty quickly. Also probably sued for libel. Rightly so as well, we've come to expect a certain level of quality in journalism, and while there are obvious examples of bad journalists in all fields it seems that tech journalism suffers from a fairly high number of them. In politics one can point to Fox News as a place where sensationalist and often downright deceptive journalism is rewarded, but in tech journalism they're all too easy to find.
Part of the problem is that making incorrect or outrageous statements is often rewarded. The need for traffic, which drives revenue, often means that getting the clicks is often more important than getting the facts. Good SEO (search engine optimization) often trumps good reporting and in the world of blogging simply quoting a few paragraphs from someone else's published work will often get you paid as much as having done the work yourself.
It's hard to pick just five things that I see wrong with a lot of tech reporting, but the internet likes lists so here is a list of five of the most common mistakes. If you see these sins in a piece then you should start to be more skeptical as you read. If you see more than one then you might as well be reading fiction.
1. Quoting an analyst as an expert: Tech analysts are not experts, they're just people who get paid for having an opinion and they're often wrong. Also because they're paid for having an opinion their opinions tend to be whatever the people who have hired them or who they want to hire them would like it to be. The ones who haven't already been bought or paid for tend to make the mistake of assuming that they know what's best. Thus they will say things like "Company X should release product Y this year." Which is fine, but if they actually knew what's best they'd be running Company X and not toiling as an analyst.
2. Comparing a released product to an unreleased product: Declaring that a product is going to be released is a pretty easy thing to do. If that's all it took to run a successful tech company then I'd be gracing the cover of Forbes much more regularly. There's nothing wrong with getting excited about an upcoming product, tech journalists are people too. Where the trouble comes is when journalists, and the term gets used loosely here because this would never fly in other areas of journalism, start to compare unreleased products against released products. Remember when everyone got excited because RIM was doing a touchscreen BlackBerry and without even having held one in their hands many journalists declared that it spelled the end to the iPhone? The thing was the BlackBerry Storm had no flaws at that point because it didn't exist, and obviously the iPhone had flaws because it did exist. This sort of journalism is kind of like if you were to dump your girlfriend because you find the Jessica Rabbit the animated bombshell of a wife from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to be sexier. Your real flesh and blood girlfriend is never going to be as perfect as an animated cartoon who you can project all your hopes, dreams and desires onto.
3. The zero sum game / The X killer: When Honda releases a new car automotive journalists don't start writing things like, "Nobody is going to want a BMW anymore". Why not? Because automotive journalists understand that the car industry isn't a zero sum game. In the tech industry our brains have been warped by the dominance of Windows as the computer operating system of most of the world, to believing that there can be only one winner in any field. Even though this pattern has not been true of the industry as a whole, and mostly seems like an odd quirk of the PC OS market, tech journalists keep casting everything in this light. Nobody would reasonably expect there to be one fast food chain, no matter how many "Big Mac Killers" that Burger King releases, but obviously there's only going to be one successful cell phone. Right?
4. I'm the only smart one / The single use case: I've worked retail enough to have a healthy hatred of humanity, but nobody tops these tech journalists. The problem here is when the journalist assumes that not only do they know better than anyone else, but that whatever it is that they want is what everyone else will want. Rather than keeping an open mind about new products they quickly decide whether it's something that they'd buy, and if not they can't imagine why anyone else would want one. Rather than accept that their own needs or wants might be different than others they cast those that disagree with them, or buy the wrong thing, as being duped by some kind of magical advertising campaign. They can't understand how anyone could have a rational reason for liking something that they don't. Not only that, but rather than look at a product and try to see who might use it, if they refuse to see past their own needs. A good movie reviewer needs to be able to note that while they might not be the target audience for the latest Dreamworks animated movie, that it's probably going to be enjoyable for kids.
5. New is always better: I can always tell I'm writing for a good publication when an editor asks me to try to define what is better about a new service or gadget that I'm writing about than what currently exists. Why is using Twitter better than using Facebook? Why is using a mobile phone to keep your to-do list better than a pen and paper? Tech journalists, and I'm guilty of this myself, too often become evangelical about what they write about. We find technology cool, and thus we get excited about it and want others to understand our passion. Too seldom however do we actually take a step back and ask ourselves things like, "So as cool as a 3D TV is why would anyone want it?" This causes us both to believe that some products will be more successful than they are, when the rest of the world looks at them and asks "What's the point?" and to overlook the flaws in the products that excite us.
Journalism is a tricky thing. It's hard and it requires work and time and often that's something that tech journalists who are never paid enough and always having to hustle for the next job, just don't have. There's some great ones out there, John Gruber at Daringfireball for example, and for the most part we're all just doing our best. Everyone makes mistakes, and I'm certain I've been guilty of all five of the above sins at one time or another. All we can do is try to be better. All you can do is demand that we get better.