Tech journalists go wild in the country

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Journalism is the ultimate profession. We are fed information intravenously and we read, talk and learn a lot about everything every day. We don’t like to be called divas, but we love to flaunt our growing wisdom to make you feel inferior. Our infinite pride in what we do (some exceptions apply) prevents us from being modest.

We enjoy lecturing you and we sunbath in your approval when we point the finger at an already bloody nose. Dissing others, including our colleagues, is one of our most special talents. We are the go-to experts you want to talk to and listen to. Don’t ask why. We are the ones asking questions.
Don’t get me wrong. Having chosen the profession of journalism, with some detours here and there, is what I always wanted to do and I do not regret my choice.

Right out of college, I was full of ideals, I wanted to change the world and help the poor. But you can’t change the world as a lawyer, you have to go with the flow and fit into an existing pattern. As journalist, you can change the world. Some journalists command an incredible power to influence public opinion, to reveal the bad and improve all our lives. For me, I was very fortunate early on in my career and I achieved everything a tech journalist could wish for.
These days, I am reading more than I am writing and for the most part, I enjoy what most of my old colleagues and many friends are writing, how they compete for your attention and how they show their passion for what they believe in every day.

It is truly amazing how the landscape of journalism has changed over the past five years. Of course there is a discussion whether that was for the better or worse. You may argue that the quality has declined overall, but in the end we all have to see that wages have to be paid and readers are voting with their pageviews who gets how much.
If we believe what the reader says, then it is not quality alone anymore that brings in money for publications.

The trend in quality newspaper shutdowns, cuts in workforces left and right, is an admittedly alarming sign that journalism is changing. Time is an increasingly important factor in our daily work and if you improve on time, you obviously have to cut that time somewhere else. Common sense.
Some of us old school journalists, yes at age 36 I am convinced I am old, have trouble accepting the changing journalism landscape. We don’t like that our core values such as journalism ethics are diluted by a million and one blogs that get more attention than we do.

We have a hard time accepting that reader needs are changing and we desperately try to hold on to what we once learned. Why I am telling you this?
Well, from a distance I followed the whole PrevX story, in which a security company went overboard claiming that lots of computers are affected by an apparently malfunctioning Microsoft patch. If you are interested in tech, then you know the story anyway, so I’ll spare you the details. If you don’t know what went down, you can read more here.
Who is to blame for the drama that unfolded? PrevX, journalists or Microsoft?

According to ZDNet’s Ed Bott, journalists are to blame. Really?
Bott, an “award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications” lectures us that the PrevX story is a template for explaining the horrific state of journalism today. Here is how it begins:
“Here, let me walk you through the whole sordid, depressing episode.” Sure Ed, go ahead, we are all ears.
“On Friday, November 27, an obscure computer security company, Prevx, publishes a blog post accusing Microsoft of releasing security patches that cause catastrophic crashes in Windows PCs. The inflammatory headline reads: Black Screen woes could affect millions on Windows 7, Vista and XP. The post lacks even the most rudimentary technical details and is maddeningly vague. It goes unnoticed over the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend.”
You have to give Ed props for his dramatic words. Obscure, catastrophic, inflammatory, maddeningly. All in one paragraph.

If that does not build tension, I do not know what does.
The bottom line is that Bott criticizes Jeremy Kirk of the IDG News service to have sent out the story without investigating the actual content of the story any further. He picks on major IDG publications, which actually rely on the centralized IDG News Service for their news content, to have picked up the story: “Conveniently, the story is posted at 7:05AM Eastern Time, ensuring that it will be at the top of news sites as Americans drag back into work after the long holiday weekend.”

Sounds like a huge conspiracy plot against Microsoft by now.
Someone is just out to get Microsoft. Bott analyzes:
“It’s he-said-she-said journalism at its finest. Security expert says Microsoft patches seem to cause fatal crashes, and Microsoft denies it! Who’s right? Hey, we’re just the press, we don’t know. You decide! In a refreshing bit of actual reporting buried deep in his story, ComputerWorld’s Gregg Keizer notes that a search of Microsoft’s support forums turns up only one thread on the subject in the entire month. Alas, he does nothing to help his readers draw the obvious conclusion from that data point. After two full business days of relentlessly negative coverage for Microsoft, the noise from the echo chamber is deafening. More than 500 separate posts on mainstream tech sites and in blogs have amplified the original story, most of them simply repeating the accusations from the Prevx blog post with no original reporting or fact-checking.

The story has now taken on a life of its own.”
You gotta love Bott’s drama talent.
Ok, I’ll admit Bott has a point. Someone could have contacted Microsoft or someone could have checked the user forums, if there is such a dramatic story headline out. But I wonder: If Bott knows everything, why didn’t he figure it all out? Is it just me or is it just a bit arrogant to tell experienced journalists what they should have done a few days later?

Ed, your post is journalism arrogance at its finest and it is people like you who make other journalists uncomfortable when we meet with industry representatives. Neither Jeremy Kirk or Gregg Keizer needs your smart advice.
I feel sorry for Microsoft what has happened and PrevX clearly went overboard. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they just did not know better and just went for a dramatic headline to attract attention, not knowing the outrage that could follow. I have a hard time believing they did this intentionally, since they would have know that they are playing with their reputation and credibility which are essentially destroyed by now. So they got their finger slap and Microsoft’s PR department can breathe again. PrevX should consider some PR advice perhaps.

As for journalism, I hate to tell you that, despite all ethics, there are hundreds of press releases out every day and sometimes, journalists simply translate what is published in press releases without questioning the content in many cases. Don’t believe me? Check Google News and compare the similarity between major news stories every day, as far as they relate to official corporate or product announcements.

Bott is right that outrageous claims need to be checked and Jeremy Kirk could have added a line that no major reports of actually failing computers have surfaced and that the report should be taken with a grain of salt and more details coming up. It is a should have-would have scenario. But why is it that this award-winning writer who really has focused his career only on Microsoft, a writer who names his own blog “Windows Expertise” did not have a story on this security issue on his blog or ZDNet until two days after the story was posted by Kirk?

All journalists are human and they make mistakes. We get punished severely for mistakes and our most hated rivals love to jump on such opportunities to piggyback on a headline and grab a piece of the undeserved spotlight. It is part of the deal. But Bott’s criticism is beyond my comfort level and the way he stabs fellow journalists in the back is selfish, unfair and the kind of journalism I despise. It is not the journalism I learned and I doubt it is the journalism Ed Bott learned.
Thanks for the lecture, Ed, we all got it and we promise to follow your guideline and do much better in the future.
Ed, what about an apology to Jeremy and Greg?