What if tech journalism is the bad guy?
A much-shared Wired article this weekend highlights how a changing public mood is — or isn’t — affecting a tech sector used to being painted as heroic.
The author, Erin Griffith, notes that the media used to be filled with unquestioningly fawning puff pieces about new tech companies, and having been “burned” by badly behaved tech firms, journalists now cover the industry in a much more skeptical way. But the article misses a just as important point — all that fawning press coverage acted as an enabler for Silicon Valley’s worst crimes.
The novelty of novelty
As the tech industry rapidly expanded, boosted in no small part by the growth of smartphones and the app economy, so did the number of media outlets devoted to covering it. These new titles often hired young, inexperienced writers and editors, keen to make an impact in a competitive field.
The PR departments at bigger tech firms used this scrum to their advantage. When journalists asked for comment on a story, they’d often be given information ‘on background,’ attributable only to a source within the company. This worked well for the tech companies, who got to distance themselves from any expectation of true accountability.
‘On background’ information also worked well for the journalists, who got to look like they had better sources than maybe they did. Writing about what an unnamed source told you looks more impressive than writing about what a PR rep said. It was often the only option, too; ask for an attributable quote and you’d just get a soulless PR word-soup that said nothing useful.
Competition for scoops meant some outlets went as far as becoming the best damn PR outlet for a tech company that they could. I once heard a story about one of the tech giants that chose to give most of its exclusives on product launches to one particular publication because it often produced a glossy video to go with the article — basically a free video ad on YouTube!
Meanwhile, new startups came to expect this unquestioningly positive approach. The tech press tended to only cover ‘good’ companies as no-one wants to read about mediocre products, after all. New entrepreneurs often saw tech media as a place to get their press releases published in a slightly rewritten form. All too often, this was the case.
Over time, readers’ interest in this fawning type of coverage has declined. The novelty of reading about new apps and startups wore off as people figured out what they wanted from their smartphones and they didn’t need to hear about every hot new app on the market anymore. Meanwhile, Product Hunt sucked up much of the early-adopter audience that was desperate to try fun new apps.
Around the same time, some of tech’s hottest companies were found to be cutting corners or acting illegally. Suddenly, there was drama — and traffic — in exploring tech’s darker side, and in calling out every problematic decision tech companies made. Tech blogs are generally a lot less polite than they used to be. Having ‘bite’ used to be refreshing, now that ‘bite’ is so common it can often come across as hackneyed and forced.
Does this all reflect a true ‘backlash’ by the public? At least some data shows that public opinion hasn’t actually changed much. Separate recent studies by Morning Consult and YouGov BrandIndex showed continued high positive sentiment for big tech companies, even as the media reported a significant shift.
So, what if the ‘backlash’ is largely a narrative produced by tech media, overcompensating for its own complicity in letting companies misbehave unchecked in the past? Sure, people outside the media use Twitter to call out the Bodegas, Juiceros, and badly pitched Netflix tweets of this world, but then Twitter has become an outrage machine where people get angry about anything and everything for five minutes before moving on. Some tech companies are bound to get caught in the fire.
And even if the backlash is real, the media needs to account for its own role in there being something to ‘lash back’ against. In an environment where few questioned them, it’s easy to see why some leaders in tech thought they could get away with less-than-ethical behavior.