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Why the Press Buy Haystacks

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 14 2010

Photo credit: Vitor Antunes

Princeton's Ed Felten thinks I'm overreacting about the forces conspiring to produce a realm of tech journalism that would hype Haystack without the due diligence one tends to associate with good journalism. Yesterday I argued that it's more difficult to vet start-ups technology projects and software programs than it is to fact-check events, say, or quotes given by sources. And I said that I thought that a contributing factor is that, until quite recently with the growth in the field of techno-advocacy, there weren't "obvious knowledgeable sources" who had both technical chops and the ability to talk in a language tech reporters can understand. Here's Ed Felten:

Note the weasel-word "obvious" in the last sentence --- it's not that qualified experts don't exist, it's just that, in Scola's take, reporters can't be bothered to find out who they are.

That's not quite right. "Can't be bothered" isn't the relevant metric, it's that they're not, and that there aren't many incentives in the modern media world to compel them to do differently, and still make a living as a journalist. The argument isn't that that's a fine and dandy thing. Frankly, to inject a little opinion, I think it's an extremely troubling state of affairs. If ours were a healthier media environment, it might be reasonable to hope that we're simple in the middle of a gap, where reporters haven't yet mastered this relatively new issue area of politically-tinged technology. But a more negative read of the landscape is that there's perhaps insufficient resources -- money, time, staff, audience attention-span -- for even well-intentioned and dedicated reporters to develop those chops.

Another angle on this: Evgeny Morozov fleshes out the argument that some of the bigger names in tech, well, punditry -- folks who enterprising reporters might have thought of as sources in this case -- perhaps fell short of their role as public intellectuals when it came to Haystack.

And other thought on this whole story comes from our Nick Judd, who suggests that in the occasional cases where the tech at hand is a discrete software program, media should adopt the notion of "demo or it doesn't work."

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