Pete Dienstmann

Abort, Retry, Fail

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Data error in technology reporting: accuracy and balance not found

“The fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other.” That quotation from Edward R. Murrow is a favourite of Internet journalist K.K. Campbell. He often cites it in relation to reporters whose wisdom and understanding are found lacking when they cover the Internet. Campbell is a sort of curator of stupid Net coverage. He collects different species from around the world as if they were butterflies.

Not that they’re rare, mind you. The amount of coverage the Net has garnered since coming out of virtual obscurity less than three years ago has been simply monstrous in quantity and too often, it seems, in quality as well. One minute, the media were hyping the Internet as the greatest medium for telecommunication since television-perhaps even greater; the next minute, they were portraying it as a sinners’ den teeming with anarchists, Nazis and perverts, oh my! The truth is that the overwhelming majority of Internet users are nowhere close to being that interesting, and the Net itself is neither the saviour of the human race nor the agent of its destruction, but something in the middle. The Internet, after all, is a complex entity, and when the bandwagon is zooming down that superhighway, it’s too dangerous for journalists to be carelessly hopping on.

Internet coverage is just one aspect of technology reporting, which recently has exploded in importance in the mainstream. People are buying computers in unprecedented numbers; Canadian hightech firms are making it big internationally, and people want-need-to know about these things because their lives are being affected by them and they require constant updates on new developments. But repeatedly, the media, in their excitement, their fear or their ignorance over reporting high-tech issues, lose touch with the most basic journalistic virtues of truth and balance.

K.K. Campbell wants you to know the truth about the Net. He uses his columns in The Toronto Star andeye, a local alternative weekly, to crusade against mistakes and misunderstandings about the Net by all four estates. You can visit his site on the World Wide Web and see the Media Moron Awards archives (, dedicated to educating journalists and consumers of the media about bad Internet reporting through real-life examples. A clipping from the archives illustrates an all-too-common faux pas, made, in this case, by CBC reporter Jeffrey Koffman in 1994, when he posted the following in the ont.general newsgroup:

“Have you discovered the limitless range of computer porn? Have you discovered your kid/student discovering the same? I am a CBC TV journalist preparing a report on computer pornography and I am looking for people who are prepared to talk about their own experiences. I’d like to meet some teenage kids who can navigate through the world of computer porn and who can show me what they’ve found. I’d also like to meet parents and teachers who have come across their kids/students exploring this world.”

The readers of the newsgroup were not impressed with Koffman’s preconstruction of the story. Justin Wells, then an undergrad in the University of Waterloo’s math program, publicly posted this mocking response:

“I am a yellow journalist preparing a sensationalistic story on the information superhighway, and I am looking for people prepared to provide me with shocking and unrepresentative anecdotes from their own experiences.”

Campbell should consider updating that entry in the archives, since a different group of CBC journalists didn’t do much better a year later with an episode of Witness entitled “Wired for Sex.” Titillating ads for it had been broadcast frequently; thus, days before the show even went to air, it was being criticized on the Internet for its hypocrisy in using sex to sell a documentary that portrays the Net and computer users as immoral. The show’s introduction featured (I swear I’m not making this up) Knowlton Nash announcing that “computers are changing our love life.” Over the next hour, viewers were introduced to more cyberpornographers than you ever thought existed, plus an S&M bulletin board system, people who’d fallen in love over the Internet, not one but two stories of Internet child molesters and some “viewer discretion advised” examples of what there is to see in “the red-light district of cyberspace”-shown purely for journalistic purposes, I assure you. Not surprisingly, almost all the subjects were American because it’s too difficult finding enough sensational Canadian ones to fill an hour’s programming.

Campbell’s least favourite example of Canadian Internet reporting is a Calgary Sun article from March 1995 about a Victoria, B.C.-based World Wide Web site supposedly distributing suicide how-to manuals to troubled teens. He wrote all about it for the May 11, 1995, issue of eye in an article called “The Little DeathNet Story That Grew.”

DeathNet, the Web site in question, is actually a research site offering the latest news, court reports, parliamentary debate transcripts and bibliographies pertaining to dying with dignity and euthanasia issues. It does not distribute suicide kits to teens. According to Campbell, Calgary Sun managing editor Chris Nelson saw John Hofsess, the right-to-die advocate who founded DeathNet, talking about the site on TV on March 5. Nelson mistakenly believed DeathNet was offering suicide tips to anyone over the Internet. He immediately assigned Steve Chase to cover the exclusive story, seeing as how he knew something about the Net. (Chase had a freenet account.) An expert on euthanasia very familiar with DeathNet was contacted by the Sun regarding the Web site. She later told Campbell she had made it clear what the site was all about, and as for helping teens kill themselves, “DeathNet does nothing of the kind.” Chase also e-mailed Hofsess posing as a depressed teen; he asked where he could find information on the Internet to learn how to kill himself. Hofsess replied that, as far as he knew, no such information is available anywhere on the Net.

Many journalists see the Net as a sinners’ den teeming with Nazis and perverts. In spite of the facts, the article ran March 12, with a single paragraph admitting that the Sun was not actually able to obtain proof of wrongdoing, but otherwise leading people to believe DeathNet was indeed helping kids die. The story also ran in The Toronto Sun, but without that confessional paragraph. From there, the story was picked up by Canadian Press, and then Associated Press passed it on to the world. Even The Times of London carried it.

A little journalistic vigilance by any of the news outlets could have stopped the story from spreading. All anyone had to do was visit the Web site to check it out. Besides Chase, no one bothered.

Campbell warns editors: “You’ve got to get on the Net. The more you use it, the more aware you become of the way it works, and you can no longer get sucked in for dumb stories.”

Like when The Globe and Mail printed the infamous Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe story. The amusing tale, widely circulated by e-mail and long known by veteran Netters to be an urban legend, goes like this: A Neiman-Marcus customer asks to buy the recipe for the store’s delicious chocolate chip cookies. The price agreed upon is “two-fifty.” When her credit card statement arrives, she’s shocked to see the charge is $250, not $2.50, as she had thought. Her revenge: give away the secret recipe to as many people as possible, hence the Internet distribution. Globe Focus editor Sarah Murdoch ran the story and recipe on November 11, 1995. A disclaimer followed the article, saying that it could not be authenticated, but that didn’t protect Murdoch from the ribbing she received the following week. “Frankly,” she says, “I don’t mind getting caught out. The readers had a laugh, perhaps learned something about the perils of the Internet and we had some fun. And a couple of days later, William Thorsell, editor of the Globe, dropped by my office with a brown paper bag. Guess what? It contained Neiman-Marcus cookies baked by a friend of his.”

But not every blunder can so easily be laughed off.

Perhaps the lowest example of Internet journalism ever is Time magazine’s “Cyberporn” cover story of July 3, 1995. It’s particularly disturbing because it was not the work of someone who didn’t know what he was talking about, but Philip Elmer-Dewitt, Time’s senior technology editor. Elmer-Dewitt’s tragic flaw was not ignorance-he was writing about computer sex back in 1983, virtually the dawn of time. Rather, the crime was good old-fashioned yellow journalism.

The cover featured a picture of a young boy gaping at a computer with the cover line: “Cyberporn. Exclusive: A New Study Shows How Pervasive and Wild It Really Is. Can We Protect Our Kids-and Free Speech?” The sensational article led many to believe that credible research had shown that the Internet was a vast storehouse of digital images that were harder than hard-core-deviant-and that children were in danger of being corrupted. As soon as the article was published, the study was exposed as a mockery of good scholarship done by an engineering student with no credentials. But besides being based on spurious data, the article misrepresented the given “facts.” Anyone unfamiliar with the Net would not have realized that most of the article dealt, not with the Internet, but with adults-only BBSs, which are far less accessible to minors than adult videos or magazines.

When the story’s flaws were brought to light, Net users were outraged, and they lynched Time’s and Elmer-Dewitt’s reputations on-line. The Internet community is not very forgiving in such cases, and it has great power to spread information. The international scale of the Net means that it’s being reported, often badly, around the world and that blunders get ridiculed in front of an audience much wider than that reached by the offending medium. As one British Net user, irate over a stupid Net story by the BBC, put it, “Welcome to the information age, ladies & gentlemen, and learn what the Internet really means-it means you’re talking to an audience that can bite back when you abuse them!!!!!”

How can a journalist avoid getting bitten? One way is to create technology beats where reporters know enough about their field and are well enough connected to do a good job. Already that’s beginning to happen, thanks to the surge in popularity of computers. In April 1994, The Toronto Star started devoting a weekly section, called Fast Forward, to high-tech issues and service articles, and it may just be a glimpse of the future of technology reporting for the mainstream press. By using highly specialized freclance writers, editor Robert Wright is confident of the quality of information in the section.

Unfortunately, not all papers can afford such a stable of experts. Even the Star’s A section has to rely on general-assignment reporters to cover high-tech stories from time to time, so the dangers and inefficiencies of ignorance are always present. The reality is that tight deadlines and staff cutbacks make it even tougher these days for the average journalist to do the necessary research to understand a high-tech story he’s reporting.

As a result, there is a great temptation to accept corporate handouts of information. Before coming to Ryerson Polytechnic University to study journalism last fall, Jessica Goldman worked both as a reporter for The Toronto Sun and as a public relations consultant with high-tech companies among her clientele. She knows how difficult it is for a general assignment reporter to cover a high-tech story. To a techno-illiterate reporter with a tight deadline, any sufficiently advanced technology press release is indistinguishable from real news copy. Hoping above all else for its press releases to be related verbatim by the media, especially the wire services, a PR firm can take advantage of reporters inexperienced with technology. “Very often,” recalls Goldman, “the firm would set up interview appointments beforehand. We have our own list of who knows what. And if a reporter didn’t match up to our list, we knew we were in for an easy ride.”

So what’s a techno-illiterate reporter to do? According to veteran technology reporter Geoffrey Rowan of The Globe and Mail, remember one thing: “The basic rules of journalism.”

That’s pretty much the advice from all the pros. Ask the right questions. Don’t cut corners. Don’t believe everything you hear. All the stuff they teach on day one of journalism school. “View things skeptically, and always have them prove it to you,” says Rowan. “I’m from Missouri, and the state motto is ‘Show Me.’ And that’s what it’s gotta be.”


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