Bloggers have put "real" journalists on the defensive in a big way. You can't believe bloggers, say some "real" journalists -- they have no editorial boards, no fact-checking, no training or credentials. You, the trusting reader turning your big wistful puppy eyes on their Web sites have no way of knowing who these people are or why you should trust them. That's what they say, at any rate. Yeah, right. Let me share an amusing little tale with you about the difference between bloggers and "real" journalists.
Take a look at Danaquarium.com. Danaquarium.com is a blog. Be sure to read the page title up at the top of your Web browser, because that is a Clue. Now take a few minutes to read some of the stories ...
... all done? Did you figure out that all the stories are fake? It isn't obvious, because they are so well-written, and in these loony modern times, far too plausible. How would you know if they are real or not? Some of the clues take a bit more work than reading the title of the home page. For example, you might have noticed that all the spokespeople quoted in the various stories are named Keppelmeyer, and you might then have said to yourself "That is not a coincidence. Something is going on here." You might have noticed that some of the reader comments say "This is fake." You might even click What is danaquarium? and read "I may even just make stuff up for the sake of posting it."
If you're just casually Web-surfing it doesn't really matter anyway. Have a chuckle and move on. But let's say you're a "real" journalist, and you find this site, and you think the material is interesting and quote-worthy. What's your next step?
- Take some steps to verify the material, like contacting the author or the people named in the articles.
- Link to the articles with no checking.
- Link to the articles with no checking or attribution, and simply pirate the articles and publish them as your own.
And there is another interesting wrinkle - the story appeared in a big-time mainstream online news site, which I won't name because I did not have the foresight to cache the page, but in classic Winston Smith fashion it has mysteriously disappeared without a trace.
So, as this example illustrates, what's the difference between bloggers and "real" journalists? Answer: bloggers are more honest ... ?
I asked Dana Sibera, the brainiac and troublemaker behind danaquarium.com, for her reaction to all this silliness. She said "hahah tech media suxx0rs lolz they am pwn3d!" Which she then translated as "The biggie to me is that I didn't try to fool media sites -- it just naturally happened through the processes already in place. See someone else report a story, grab a copy, then put it to print. No source checking, no *sanity* checking, just publish & go." Dana then answered the blindingly obvious question we're all asking - not one single site or publication contacted Dana to verify the story.
Who To Believe?
This is not an isolated aberration. It happens all the time. I don't believe that journalism in general has declined; I believe that the Internet exposes its flaws and shortcomings -- all the warmed-over press releases masquerading as news reporting, the astro-turfing, the lack of independent research and verification, the analysts and pundits who have discovered a gravy livelihood without actually delivering anything of substance. So how do you know what to believe?
First of all, recognize that everyone is biased. There is no such thing as a purely logical viewpoint, as humans are incapable of such. Knowing the source of the bias is the key -- is the objective of a particular article simply to fill space? Make people angry to generate more clicks? Does it read like a sales pitch? Or does it deliver some actual substance and help you solve a problem?
I adore tech authors with strong technical backgrounds, like my fellow authors at Enterprise Networking Planet. These folks know what they are talking about, and have a lot of excellent practical knowledge to share. Ideally, though it's not always possible, they will tell you why they prefer to do something a certain way, or why they prefer one product is preferable to another. This is the kind of information that helps you decide what is best for your needs. And they're not selling anything.
The real gold is in article talkbacks and user forums, or what I call "real people" feedback. In the feedbacks to Dana's article many readers said it was a fake, which is a heck of a lot savvier than the alleged professionals.
Google Groups and the mail lists, forums, and wikis associated with a product are the ultimate sources of "real people" data. No vendor or software author can test a product as thoroughly as a huge gaggle of users, and your fellow users will not shine you on.
When you're looking at tech news and analysis, a good quick-check is to Google to see how many publications are parroting the same story. When you see the same story repeated ad nauseum and nearly verbatim, that means they did not do any of their own homework, and it is probably a warmed-over press release. In the endless (and pointless, but good for clicks) Windows vs. Linux wars, the author should be able to back up his or her assertions with facts and data. Ofttimes the premise or conclusion do not match the data presented in the article, which is amusing and fun to catch.
And finally, it's a cliche but it's true - follow the money. Vendor-funded "studies" and reports are worthless, except for their entertainment value. You can bet money that they are carefully crafted to support certain foregone conclusions, and any studies that present an unfavorable conclusion will never see the light of day.