In the past year or so, I’ve written two posts strongly critical of the New York Times’ technology reporting. The two articles about which I wrote, both by Stephen C. Williams (5/1/2008 and 10/20/2009), included images taken directly from Apple and Motorola corporate press kits and presented no “facts” about the products beyond those offered by the corporations’ own press releases. It appears that the New York Times has collected no more information for these articles than the press kits themselves.
On-line comments and off-line reaction indicates that my reasoning behind these sarcastic posts may not be perfectly clear. So I’ve decided to be a bit more explicit, if possibly dull, in sharing my concerns about technology journalism at the New York Times.
1. I’m not talking, strictly speaking, about plagiarism. Although all information and images appear to be taken from corporate press kits, the actual words of these New York Times articles are mostly different from the words written by Apple and Motorola corporate public relations departments.
2. But these are New York Times articles which have variously appeared online and in newsprint, and the New York Times is an institution which has built its journalistic reputation on the basis of thoroughness, straightforwardness and independence. These articles do not match the New York Times’ historical standard. The articles are not thorough — they uncritically pass on rewritten corporate press releases. The articles are not straightforward: there is no indication to the reader that the facts are drawn exclusively from corporate press releases and media kits. The articles are not not independent: they take as given what a corporation tells the New York Times about its products’ merits and pass the claims on to readers without anything substantial added other than the legitimizing stamp of the New York Times brand.
3. The articles do not reveal that their content is derived from a press kit. The presence of a photograph accompanying a New York Times article is an indication to the reader that the New York Times has taken the photograph, which is a further indication to the reader that the New York Times has had some actual contact with the product, which it apparently has not. The presentation of facts, along with the name of a reporter as author, is an indication to the reader that the reporter has in some way ascertained these facts, not regurgitated them from a press kit.
4. Legitimate ethical questions arise when only some corporations’ products are featured in these articles and the decision to write about a product is not based on contact with the actual product itself. Implicitly, the New York Times’ announcement of a product with a listing of its merits is an indication that a product has some worth. But apparently having no contact with a product, reporters have no basis other than the claims of a corporate press release to measure its worth. Explicitly, the use of phrases such as “stunning image,” “a step further,” or “friendly” indicate evaluation by a reporter when the reporter has no basis upon which to make an evaluation. Stephen C. Miller’s article of May 1 2008 goes even farther, passing on the recommendation that “you might consider the Motorola Moto Z9.” Surely the New York Times does not publish articles for all of the press kits it receives. Some product announcements are published and some are not. What is the decision criterion when no one involved at the New York Times actually uses, touches or even sees these products? The criterion cannot be product quality if product quality has not been determined by New York Times reporters.
So what is the standard, then? Do the biggest corporations with the largest market share get their press releases and image kits converted into New York Times articles? If so, then the New York Times is doing big corporations a favor and small corporations a disservice, acting to reinforce current market share. Do the most cleverly written press releases about products get converted into articles, with actual products unseen by reporters? If so, then the New York Times is rewarding the wildest claims about products and reinforcing an already existing tendency in the tech industry toward highly exaggerated press releases about “vaporware” products that don’t live up to their hype. Or do corporations with some relationship to the New York Times get first dibs for articles in the Technology section? New York Times executive editor Bill Keller recently let slip that the Times and Apple have been working together behind the scenes to develop a new proprietary format for delivering the New York Times to an “impending Apple Slate” product. Does that relationship give Apple a foot in the door for a processed press release? It’s a reasonable question to ask when the standard for inclusion is opaque but must have to do with something other than the quality of the product itself.
To this point, I’ve been critical of current practice rather than positively prescriptive of future practice. You might ask what I would do if ran I the zoo. If I ran the New York Times, I’d choose one of three options:
A. Be thorough, straightforward and independent. That means articles about products should occur after the reporter writing critically about the products after having personally used and evaluated them. This is the approach I take when I write about technology, and I’m just a blogger who buys the gear he evaluates using his own pocket change. Surely the Gray Lady can get Apple or Motorola to swing a product sample by the office for a few minutes.
B. Be straightforward. Label the source of press kit photos accurately, giving photo credit to the corporation. Don’t give the person rewriting the press release a byline, since authorship doesn’t really belong to the New York Times. Indicate openly that the sole source of information for the article is a corporate press release.
C. Don’t bother paraphrasing the press releases. Just cut and paste them directly into the New York Times Technology section and label them as corporate press releases.
Options B and C might make the New York Times look bad, which indicates to me that Option A is best.
What do you think the New York Times should do?