Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is the Uber-Motherboard pitch an indictment of tech journalism? No.

A little context is in order here.

On May 24, Motherboard ran a post with the title "Uber’s Next Stop: America’s Military Bases." In the interests of transparency, Motherboard ran the following text at the end of the post:

Motherboard is running a week of stories about Uber. We asked the company’s public relations department what stories it thought the media should be writing about, and this story was one of the things Uber pitched.

This original text, recorded here and here, was subsequently replaced by a much longer explanation. The entire tempest in a teapot clarified a few things - most notably, that Uber did not pay for the article.

However, a question still remains - possibly.

Here's how Thomas Baekdal framed the issue:

... it just feels like they [Motherboard] are trying not to rock the boat too much.

Evgeny Morozov goes into more detail:

...traditional media find themselves in an odd relationship with Silicon Valley. Their future depends upon tech firms and their CEOs (who are rich enough to buy them out, as Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, did with the Washington Post)....

Most tech blogs just recycle press releases from startups and established technology firms....

Now that the tech media do not even bother concealing they are just a PR appendage to Silicon Valley, you have to worry how the accumulation of so much power and cash in one industry – combined with aggressive legal campaigns targeting the few who, for whatever reason, are still critical of it – is happening at a time when there is no one to keep our new elites on their toes.

Morozov is arguing that the media in Silicon Valley is dramatically different than media in other places. He's made similar arguments before.

But is coverage of non-tech stuff truly different than coverage of tech stuff? Journalists in ALL industry sectors "just recycle press releases" all the time. Frankly, that's one of the reasons why Narrative Science (despite Morozov's concerns about its ultimate state) is able to work successfully; if your typical business coverage merely consists of repeating little bits of information, well, a computer can write that.

So, yes, Motherboard felt the need to let Uber state its side of the story in one article. But that isn't unique to the tech industry. In fact, some consider it good journalistic practice. When the Washington Post recently ran an article detailing Trump's comments about New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez, the Post writer (and Bezos employee) felt compelled to add the following:

Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, defended the attacks on “Fox News Sunday.” “There’s no attack on a Latino or a woman governor,” he said. “What this was was laying out the economic perspective of what the state of New Mexico was doing, and he’s saying we need to do a better job.”

The article reported what a candidate said, and the writer felt it necessary to turn to a spokesperson for that candidate for clarification? But I thought you only buttered up to sources in the tech industry, not other industries.

Then again, perhaps media coverage of the Trump campaign may not be the best example to use to talk about critical coverage.
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