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Who's at Fault for Hyping Haystack?

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, September 13 2010

Over on her personal blog, the Berkman Center's Jillian York tears into "the media" for its part in selling the story of Haystack, a much-discussed online circumvention software project that bubbled up from the froth of coverage around Iran's supposed post-election "Twitter revolution." Evgeny Morozov has done his part to poke some holes in the Haystack story, and creator Austin Heap has pulled Haystack back into the labs until its security implications can be vetted more fully, telling potential users "If you have a copy of the test program, please refrain from using it." What York's wondering is why those in the press ran with the Haystack story as if Big Foot had been tagged, tracked, and scrutinized:

Haystack has been billed by the media since last summer as a wonder tool, a silver bullet for the Iranians who need desperately to evade censorship.  The truth is that, until this week, no one–neither the media nor the circumvention community–could actually vouch for Haystack one way or the other, because none of them actually saw a copy. No one was capable of speaking to the tool’s security or efficacy, and yet, a number of journalists did anyway. 

I've got several thoughts on this, none of which make me sound less than cynical. But here are hints at a few.

For one thing, the pace of the news cycle these days and the value placed on "big stories!" create something of a personal storm around tech. So much of what genuinely matters in the reporting of tech news is process, and process stories aren't generally all that tweetable. The State Department gave something of a seal of approval to the approach Haystack was said to be taking, as folks like the New York Times' Mark Landler wrote. It takes real work for reporters and editors to vet tech stories; it's not enough to fact check quotes, figures, and events. Even "seeing a copy," as York puts it, isn't enough. Projects like Haystack need to be checked-out by technologists in the know, and I'd argue the before the recent rise of techno-advocates like, say, Clay Johnson or Tom Lee, there weren't obvious knowledgeable sources for even dedicated reporters to call to help them make sense of something like Haystack, on deadline and in English.

More than that, though, writers and reporters learn by watching what happens to others, and you can make perfectly good living writing less than accurately about tech for an outfit like CNET or the Washington Post. There's not much incentive, other than personal integrity and honor, I guess, to expend the time and effort to get this stuff really right. You might get called out by a Berkman Center staffer, sure. But really, the majority of your audience -- and editors -- still think you're a hip, with-it, cutting edge writer who can help them tap into this strange new digital world. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

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