Why technology journalists like me are doing a pretty crummy job

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study this week about what kind of stories get the most play in technology reporting. They spent a year tracking the stories of 52 different American news outlets, and here are a few of their key findings:

  • “The most prevalent underlying message about technology’s influence has been upbeat—the notion that technology is making life easier and more productive.”
  • “The biggest single event or storyline during the year involved the perils of technology: the hazardous yet compulsive practice of texting while driving.”
  • “The second-biggest storyline addressed a more positive development:  the launch of the latest Apple iPhones. Attention to the release of the iPad was not far behind.”
  • “Apple, with its flashy press events and often drawn out releases of new products, narrowly outpaced Google in total coverage. Twitter and Facebook ranked third and fourth. Microsoft, on the other hand, once the feared technology behemoth, fell far behind—attracting just a fifth of the coverage of Apple and less than half that of Twitter.”

Does any of this seem amiss to anyone?

It’s been noted that music journalists have a curious symbiotic relationship with the artists they cover. On one hand, music journalists are journalists, and as such they are expected to be fair, honest and unbiased in their coverage; if Elvis Costello records a bad album (which is impossible… with one exception) a music journalist is only doing his job if he reports it as such, regardless of his feelings about the artist, the genre, or anything else, really — if the product is bad, the public ought to know.

But on the other hand, music journalists depend on musicians’ continued success for their own livelihoods. If no one cares about the music being written about, why would anyone read about it? So, in a way, it only makes sense that music journalists would want to hype up these artists — if the public cares about their favourite artists and is buying recordings, they are also likely to read about them. And if a music journalist has readership, his existence (and continued employment) is justified. It’s a fine, incestuous little cycle.

Technology journalists face a similar conundrum. We have to walk a fine line between our responsibilities as journalists and the realities of readership levels and bottom lines — if the headlines in newspaper technology sections went along the lines of, “Facebook will kill you,” or “Apple is ruining our children,” it will have an effect on public feelings towards technology. Maybe not overnight, but messages like that repeated enough times to enough people in enough ways will change public opinion, and people will lose their fascination with technology.

But that would be suicidal. Technology journalists like me only keep our jobs if you care about technology. And that’s why the stories we write are so overwhelmingly positive. That’s why we want you to feel upbeat about technology. That’s why we are so unashamedly approving in our coverage of corporations who produce products that keep your interest.

If you ask me, it’s a disgrace that 42 per cent of the stories about Apple “described the company as innovative and superior, and another 27 per cent lauded its loyal fan base.” Could you imagine any other corporation getting this much positive ink? What if 42 per cent of stories about McDonald’s were about how delicious their hamburgers were? What if 27 per cent of stories about Nike were about how much people dig their shoes? It would be outrageous.

Technology journalists need to take a good, long look at themselves in the mirror and ask, “Am I really a journalist? Or am I a guy who provides free advertising?” We need to ask ourselves if we are actually providing the public with a service or just a corporate message. Sadly, I think the latter is becoming the norm these days.

I’m not trying to become this guy. I’m not trying to say that technology journalism isn’t journalism, or websites like Techvibes aren’t worth reading. In my short time here, I’ve produced work that I’m truly proud of; and I’m not just proud of my work with a critical tone, I’ve proud of my work that has been celebratory, even if it is blatantly advertising something, because I believe that the subject matter is something that our readers will be enriched by.

What I do think is that we journalists ought to be more critical of technology corporations’ output, even if that output is what keeps food on our tables as writers. We are public servants first and foremost, and when we forget that we have failed. We owe it to our readers to do better, and believe me, I’ve gotten to know some pretty talented journalists in this line of work — we absolutely can do it.