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Journalists vs. Bloggers
November 27, 2012 7:45 AM   Subscribe

If you follow the usual crop of technology news sites, you will have read yesterday morning that Google had apparently acquired a little-known WiFi hotspot company for $400 million. This story spread with the help of the most popular (and most reputable) sites, like TechCrunch, Engadget, The Verge, The Next Web, and others. Only one small detail: the story wasn't actually true.

Arik Hesseldahl of AllThingsD was the first to debunk the rumour. After checking with his sources at Google, he concluded that the sole source for this news was a press release on PRWeb (removed, but Google has it cached for now).

So what happened? In a nut, and despite the implications to two publicly-traded companies, bloggers simply failed to verify this single-sourced information before rushing to the "Publish" button. All the original reports have since been corrected, and PRWeb has issued a release claiming "identity theft" was responsible.

But this story isn't over, because it isn't about the non-acquisition; this story is about the difference between bloggers and journalists. As Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land noted yesterday, issuing press releases is simply a matter of paying a $159 fee. Actual journalists would ideally double-check that information before reporting it, but bloggers typically don't have that kind of training. The Twitter exchange captured by Harry Marks between reporter Kara Swisher and TechCrunch blogger Alexia Tsotsis is indicative of the rift between the two camps, especially as blogs like TechCrunch and Engadget become increasingly influential.
posted by nickheer (54 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Actual journalists would ideally double-check that information before reporting it...

This is my lol face.
posted by DU at 8:02 AM on November 27, 2012 [27 favorites]


Well, at least we don't have to read some "wag the finger" ending written by a "famous redditor", like what happened with the fake Sony phone.
posted by FJT at 8:02 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the last 15 minutes or so I've been trying to come up with a "Cyber Monday" pun that describes this situation, to no avail.

I should have just gone over to PR Web's site, where they promise to "Cut Through The Cyber Monday Noise!" -- so apparently, they are even writing the jokes for me today.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:11 AM on November 27, 2012


Well, once someone can validly identify and clarify exactly what the word 'news' means, then and only then could we even attempt to justify the distinction between journalists and bloggers. Until that day comes, this will get filed under the 'trivial terms' category that future me will use when he ends up on future Jeopardy.

All of this seems really to be a continuance of the 'how long is a piece of string' conversation, that by it's very definition is useless.

The real issue is not about the difference between two meaningless terms, the actual problem is simply how do humans convey information to each other. You can break that down twilight style into team-journo and team-blogger, but once you jump into that particular rabbit hole you are then only dealing with the pitfalls of the current methods and have lost sight of the actual problem at hand.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:13 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ha-ha!
posted by Splunge at 8:19 AM on November 27, 2012


There are times when barriers to entry and friction in the economy are good things.
posted by tommasz at 8:19 AM on November 27, 2012


But given more thought (and forgive me, I'm not in the industry so I haven't), while I part of me loves the whole "gotcha bloggers, do the minimal amount of research next time!" angle of this story, I think... (on preview, I agree with Blue_Villain who said exactly what I wanted to say better than I did)

Further, this weekend, yesterday, and today, NBC had a correspondent reporting breathlessly about Cyber Monday from inside Amazon's fulfillment center, talking all about the great prices and how fast your order would get out. What we've traditionally called "real journalists" aren't exactly winning any prizes either.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:23 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actual journalists would ideally double-check that information before reporting it..
This is my lol face.


Yeah, that doesn't always happen in this best of all possible worlds. But I do think any hack worth anything would call to get a quote/verify expand the story in a case like that, if only to try and carve out an angle for their publication. And if this case is truly as counter-intuitive as is claimed --- the tech world equivalent of "McDonald's to stops selling big macs" then yeah, I think they'd hold back before publishing.

I don't think there's any inherent difference between journalists and bloggers; journalism is a set of practices, blogging a form. But there is a question of whether the necessities of the form undermine the practice. In that way I think a humiliation like this can actually be a good thing. Most ethics rules are the result of someone doing the wrong thing, getting punished for it and subsequently trying not to do it again.
posted by Diablevert at 8:29 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Huh, so the entire world has problems with premature pubulation, not just metafilter.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:32 AM on November 27, 2012


But I do think any hack worth anything would call to get a quote/verify expand the story in a case like that...

iraq war i rest my case.
posted by DU at 8:33 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Diablevert, what necessities of the blogging form? Is there something about blogging that requires the blogger to hit "publish" without checking out the story?
posted by Longtime Listener at 8:35 AM on November 27, 2012


People use "blogger" to mean "untrained, id-driven, basement-dwelling snarkbot who writes for the web" but the truth is all that it means is "writes for the web." Plenty of J-school grads write for internet publications; plenty of untrained, id-driven snarkbots write for print. (Diablevert is right saying "journalism is a set of practices; blogging a form.")

This shouldn't be a conversation about the people who propagated the story without verifying it. It should be a conversation about the millisecond online news cycle (on so-called "blogs" [or whatever you want to call them, they're really not blogs anymore, are they?] but also on the web versions of print publications) and how our correspondingly deteriorating attention span as consumers of information carries with it a deteriorating bullshitometer. The owners of these websites who demand 20-50 posts/day eliminate their writers' ability to expand/deepen/verify beyond inserting their own opinions. They hire very smart, very fast editorialists—because that editorializing angle is what differentiates the Techcrunch post from the Gizmodo post or whatever—and those folks are not necessarily research/investigative journalists.
posted by firstbest at 8:37 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is there something about blogging that requires the blogger to hit "publish" without checking out the story?

Pageviews.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:37 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actual journalists would ideally double-check that information before reporting it.

Reading the follow-up from Hesseldahl, apparently "actual journalists" have fallen for this trick before.

Too lazy to go looking it up now, but I'm willing to bet that somewhere a newspaper column exists that calls out radio or television reporters as not being "actual journalists".
posted by hartez at 8:38 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actual journalists would ideally double-check that information before reporting it, but bloggers typically don't have that kind of training.

I didn't know that The Associated Press was run by bloggers now.
posted by Skeptic at 8:40 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Actual journalists would ideally double-check that information before reporting it...
This is my lol face.


Given you were the first commenter, is it ok to assume you read all the links before posting?
posted by yerfatma at 8:43 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


In a nut, and despite the implications to two publicly-traded companies, bloggers simply failed to verify this single-sourced information before rushing to the "Publish" button.

In contrast, let's all cast our minds back to the measured, carefully researched aplomb with which CNN and Fox News handled the Supreme Court's health care ruling.

Truly, those were better days.
posted by mhoye at 8:50 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I followed this story yesterday because it enraged me so much. I can't think of a better example of why a blog like TechCrunch is not journalism. Despite snarky comments about the quality of journalism, any decent reporter with an editor is going to do at least a little fact checking before running with a story. Like calling the companies involved for comment, for example. Fake press releases are nothing new, and anyway an actual journalist is going to do more than just republish a press release. Particularly disgusted by Alexia Tsotsis' stance as editor of TechCrunch; they either do not care about publishing accurate stories or else don't understand how to do it. "We'll publish made up shit and fix it later" is not good enough. AllThingsD demonstrably does better.

As for why this all happened in the first place, ICOA is publically traded. And its stock price roughly quadrupled yesterday for a few hours. Yes, only from $0.0001 to $0.0004, but over a billion shares traded at that price, about $400,000 worth of action. Not a bad little pump-n-dump, particularly when you can get the "stars" of tech blogging to unwittingly shill for you. Someone made a nice bit of profit off this fake press release. And this kind of scam happens regularly, I'd guess about once a month. Journalists feel a responsibility to not be party to it; tech bloggers, not so much.
posted by Nelson at 8:51 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Because journalists double-check the veracity of their sensationalistic twaddle.
posted by fleacircus at 8:51 AM on November 27, 2012


I feel sure I remember ill-founded stories about acquisitions sweeping round and acquiring authority even back in the days when no-one had a computer and Arpanet wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye, but perhaps memory plays me as false as these pesky bloggers on my lawn.
posted by Segundus at 8:52 AM on November 27, 2012


Plenty of J-school grads write for internet publications

Including incidentally Kara Swisher and Arik Hesseldahl of AllThingsD which is an internet publication.
posted by atrazine at 8:56 AM on November 27, 2012


The punchline of course being that not even the paper of record, presumably the highest standard working journalists can be held to, thinks journalists need to worry about truth.
posted by DU at 9:01 AM on November 27, 2012


After checking with his sources at Google

That's the tricky part. These sites will be lucky to get a response from a Google rep if they ask for confirmation. And if it was an Apple acquisition, any publication would be lucky to get a call back. So you run with the news and mention it was sourced from a press release.
posted by smackfu at 9:03 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Diablevert, what necessities of the blogging form? Is there something about blogging that requires the blogger to hit "publish" without checking out the story?

Robocop has it right, basically. Back in the 50s, most major cities had morning and evening papers; TV news killed the evening ones by making their info seem dated.

These blogs --- it'd be interesting to see, and I bet they could tell you, exactly what the half life of their stories are. Not every story is like this, but I'd bet that for a breaking news piece like this having it half an hour or an hour later than your competitors does have a measurable impact on how many views it gets. They almost certainly pay in quite measurable ways for waiting.
posted by Diablevert at 9:04 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have had a recent piece of my research on crowdfunding get covered extensively by the press.

I never got a call from a single blogger, yet articles describing my results ran on Techcrunch, Mashable, and other places. All of these articles clearly didn't get the statistical details of the work. Now, that isn't surprising, since the models were pretty tricky, but nobody even asked me to interpret my data. Worse, one article on Mashable had inflammatory headlines that had little to do with the research, and made it sound like my work was attacking crowdfunding companies, which it absolutely wasn't. It also pissed off the community of people who I was working with, since they thought I was insulting them. Attempts to contact the reporters who wrote the articles were useless.

On the other hand, most conventional press organizations actually called before running articles, and, as a result, the pieces in places like USA Today and Wired magazine were a lot more accurate. And, when they weren't completely accurate, at least they had talked to me about what was important. This isn't universal, for example, the Guardian ran a piece without reaching out, but the mainstream press was so much better. Wired actually had a fact checker call after the reporter did, and all for an article that mentioned my work in a line or two.

The result is now that I am very suspicious of the tech blog world. The problem isn't even the lack of reporting, or the errors that pop up, it is that writers are under such pressure to create content that getting the details right has to be secondary. There is still some advantages in traditional press, and they are often rather subtle. Errors are still there, but there are at least mechanisms in place to try to prevent them.
posted by blahblahblah at 9:06 AM on November 27, 2012 [18 favorites]


The Iraq war I rest my case

I’m guessing you’re referring to Judith Miller et al and the Times’ reporting in the run up to the war? That’s an entirely different type of journalistic malfeasance, I think. After all, the Times certainly reported on what Hans Blix and the UN Inspectors as well as what Iraqi officials were saying; they erred in giving more credence and less skepticism to the info they were getting from well-placed, off the record sources inside the Bush administration. In this example, the public information was incorrect and well-placed off the record sources inside Google were instrumental in shooting it down, resulting in the Gallant hacks not publishing and the Goofus bloggers running with bad info.
 
One can err either way, trusting to insiders or by just taking things at face value. The Times’ problem was that it trusted Miller too much and Miller’s problem was that she trusted Cheney and Ahmed Chalabi too much. You’re certainly welcome to take the position that all hacks ought to be cast into the pit, but I’d advise you be more Catholic in your disdain. The Protestant just have everybody burnin’ but Dante teaches that there are many gradations in sin and its punishment.
posted by Diablevert at 9:09 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


smackfu: These sites will be lucky to get a response from a Google rep if they ask for confirmation.

There's no way TechCrunch, or The Verge, or any of those sites don't have sources at Google. The AllThingsD denial didn't come from a Google PR person, but from people with knowledge of the matter, as they say in the industry.
posted by nickheer at 9:14 AM on November 27, 2012


Diablevert is right; the NYTimes and Judith Miller's failure in Iraq war reporting is a whole different thing. This ICOA fake press release is just a garden variety scam combined with bloggers rushing to post as fast as they can. It's a rush to the bottom for ad revenue, it's revolting.

The solution as a consumer is to stop reading the bad tech blogs. I personally don't care if I hear about some acquisition 30 minutes before someone else; I'm happy to wait a day. Or a week; bless The Economist. I read a lot of tech blogs still, but I read the ones that really dig into stories and do original reporting and analysis. Anything that publishes 30+ stories a day is a complete waste of my time.

(My favorite example of terrible TechCrunch blogging: the Google PC running the Google operating system. The sole sourcing for the article? A company named Everex released a product named "gPC" running "gOS". Erick Schonfeld ran a whole story assuming that g must mean Google. It still sits on TechCrunch, uncorrected. Schonfeld later was promoted to editor in chief.)
posted by Nelson at 9:20 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


smackfu: That's the tricky part. These sites will be lucky to get a response from a Google rep if they ask for confirmation.
Nonsense. Corporations are very responsive to information requests. Those responses might be "no comment" in some cases, but they respond.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:25 AM on November 27, 2012


This is an embarrassment for tech-bloggers but the shill accusations and I-told-you-sos just make the folks with J-school degrees look jealous and out of touch. Decry the lack the fact checking, praise those who didn't fall for it, and make the world of blogging better by starting one of your own. sure fine. But we're not going to magically zip back to the world of 1975--blogs are what reporting is going to look like everywhere eventually.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:29 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


This happens all the time, look at all the articles about the rumored Color Labs aquisition by Apple. The only difference here is the press release. Looks like a pump and dump scheme to me.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:33 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ad hominem: look at all the articles about the rumored Color Labs aquisition by Apple.

But that was, in effect, true.
posted by nickheer at 9:36 AM on November 27, 2012


iraq war i rest my case.

and as per, your case is a crock of shit.

You're a coder, right? Show me companies rushing software out the door under deadline pressure that do it with zaroo bugs. Show me the bug-free software that's shipped anywhere. Show me the commercially pressured element of the industry that doesn't sometimes make murky compromises with advertisers and sponsors. Show me the politically exposed side of the industry that doesn't make bad deals with governments and do things that are counter to the public interest.

Or, just show me the honest and diligent programmers just trying to make a better world from within their chosen profession and I'll show you the same from the media.
posted by fightorflight at 9:37 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


But that was, in effect, true.

But there were articles for at least a month before it was confirmed. Here is one from a month before it was confirmed. It could just as easily been false.

Just shows that these bloggers run with rumors and speculation. That is just what they do. They aren't impartial parties, they are investors, friends with founders and cheering section.

We all should have learned this from the CrunchFund debacle.

As an aside, how do you think all these crazy acquisitions happen? If I am an investor in dozens of companies and one is like Color, going down the tubes, I can always find someone to bail it out so I break even.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:01 AM on November 27, 2012


I didn't know that The Associated Press was run by bloggers now.

Doesn't that really put the kibosh on this whole stupid story?

The Twitter exchange captured by Harry Marks between reporter Kara Swisher and TechCrunch blogger Alexia Tsotsis is indicative of the rift between the two camps

Swisher really comes off as the juicebox there.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:02 AM on November 27, 2012


It strikes me that this is likely to continue for a couple of reasons.

1) There's no consequences for the blogs. If TechCrunch gets an occasional story wrong, nobody is going to stop reading them. Partly because...

2) Information is much more disposable now. In the days when something got set in physical type, there was a sense of permanence, and a cost to getting things right or wrong. Now, bits fly so freely and people consume stories, memes, and LOLcats like popcorn. Everything becomes a bit of infotrivia, with a momentary lifespan.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:15 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


nickheer: "Actual journalists would ideally double-check that information before reporting it, but bloggers typically don't have that kind of training."

"Double-check your information. Class dismissed."
posted by brundlefly at 10:18 AM on November 27, 2012


Show me companies rushing software out the door under deadline pressure that do it with zaroo bugs

We're not talking about zero bugs here, we're talking about zero testing; not even a token attempt to verify correctness before publishing.
posted by mhoye at 10:22 AM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


We're not talking about zero bugs here, we're talking about zero testing; not even a token attempt to verify correctness before publishing.

DU was talking about Iraq in the part I cited. He's generally talking about the uselessness of journalism. That's the context behind his opening lol that is beloved by so many.

Yes, this is dumb. Yes, some of the outlets that are usually better than this were burnt. But exactly as parallels many other industries (though software development's a good fit with its combination of principles, vocation and commercialism) the situation's nowhere as simple, or the people as dumb, as DU wants.

This is the equivalent of the install script from the new hot thing that accidentally wipes your external hard drive, basically.
posted by fightorflight at 12:28 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think that this is an issue of journalists vs. bloggers. It's an issue of good vs. bad journalism. A few "bloggers" do good, well-researched journalism, and a great many purported journalists are mere shills and hacks.

This said, I find it vastly more worrying to see that the AP fell for this scam than TechCrunch or Engadget. While the latter are restricted to a narrow, well-informed public who generally know how much credit to give to their reporting (not much), wire service reports are reproduced, without any additional check whatsoever, by all sorts of media across the world.
posted by Skeptic at 2:42 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it vastly more worrying to see that the AP fell for this scam than TechCrunch or Engadget.

I don't think there's been any difference between TC, Engadget, Gawker, etc. and the AP in a loooong time. It's all the same ball of wax.

The USS Maine, Korea, Guatemala, Vietnam, Iraq ... it goes on and on and on and on.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:57 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Related: NASA's big discovery more to do with the Internet than with Mars.

posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 3:43 PM on November 27, 2012


CheeseDigestsAll is close, in my experience, but has it sort of backwards: it's not so much that there's no consequence for posting the information, it's that there's an arms race to get it up fast, and news-heavy sites lose out if they don't have something that everyone else does. Really big announcements get put up by everyone well under an hour after they're announced (sometimes within minutes), and company PR agents often take several hours to reply or don't reply at all as the companies get bigger and more multinational.

The ICOA scandal could certainly get a lot of people to ask for comment more often. Ultimately, I'm not sure how much it will change the process as it's visible to readers -- stories may get corrected more quickly, but that doesn't mean they'll stop getting posted in the first place. A false positive is bad, but these hoaxes are uncommon enough that it's more likely you'll get a false negative if something isn't published.

Which isn't meant to say I don't find this incredibly frustrating. I just think it's as attributable to structural brinksmanship as it is to individual instincts. At some point, everybody in news is going to have to deal with it, not just blogs.
posted by Tubalcain at 4:15 PM on November 27, 2012


issuing press releases is simply a matter of paying a $159 fee.

If there is a financial benefit to the issuing party, wouldn't they be liable to some degree for allowing false information to be published?
posted by sammyo at 5:34 PM on November 27, 2012


As usual, a journalism discussion on Mefi is Judy Millered by DU right out of the gate. Sigh.
posted by mr.marx at 5:39 PM on November 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Could be worse. In some parts of the world, newspapers are still mistaking The Onion for a credible source.

The blogs that are going to keep on publishing this sort of thing as rapidly as possible, all they really need to do is attach some kind of credibility rating to each story.
posted by sfenders at 5:51 PM on November 27, 2012


Prweb isn't a "real" press release service in that you can't use their service to disclose financial earnings in an sec-kosher manner. The ones that do meet the sec standard (bw, prn, mw) have higher editorial standards when it comes to market moving news but are still duped on rare occasion.
posted by ejoey at 9:03 PM on November 27, 2012


In some parts of the world, newspapers are still mistaking The Onion for a credible source.

I take your Peruvian tabloid and raise to the Korea Times and the Communist Party of China's Own People's Daily.

LOLFakeJournalism.
posted by Skeptic at 1:16 AM on November 28, 2012


NASA's big discovery more to do with the Internet than with Mars.

I suspect it had even more to do with the simultaneous ministerial meeting of the European Space Agency and NASA's space exploration team wanting to help their European counterparts (who contribute to Curiosity) in the budget negotiations...
posted by Skeptic at 1:24 AM on November 28, 2012


Regarding the Iraq derail- there is a difference between being misled by primary sources, and being misled by secondary sources. A difference between failing to *find* the truth, and failing to look for it.
posted by gjc at 5:31 AM on November 28, 2012


One question I have is how did the sites pick up on this random press release? Clearly no one is actually reading everything that crosses PRWeb, since it's vast and includes tons of junk. Was there also a leaker who pointed the sites to this?
posted by smackfu at 9:41 AM on November 28, 2012


smackfu: They probably have a news alert set up for Google acquisition stories.
posted by nickheer at 10:12 AM on November 28, 2012


One question I have is how did the sites pick up on this random press release?

I guarantee there's one guy/gal in every newsroom with an alert set up for press releases that reference Google purchases.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:14 AM on November 28, 2012


Hi Please Check this source : Google's name used in bogus report of $400 million acquisition
posted by FiaCaballero at 11:47 PM on December 6, 2012


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