Just the facts: Is tech journalism fake news?

As someone who has been writing about technology since the days of Windows 95, I get an insane number of email messages from readers each day. Most of those messages are from people who have questions about something that I have written, although I do get my share of messages from Internet trolls. Lately, however, I have been getting an ever-increasing number of email messages from people who are convinced that tech journalism is fake news. I initially tried to ignore these messages, but it has gotten to the point where I feel as though it is time to address the issue.

Before I begin, let me just say that so far none of the people who are screaming about fake tech news have cited any evidence to back up their claims (at least I haven’t seen any). What the accusations lack in substance, they more than make up for in tin-foil hat conspiracy theories pertaining to the tech industry as a whole. Let me give you an example.

Case-in-point: WEP

Fake NewsRecently, I have been getting email messages from someone who claims that a widely used security mechanism actually makes network endpoints far less secure.

Rather than dismissing the sender as being paranoid and delusional, let’s look at this objectively. Before I parse this theory, however, I wish to point out that I am not going to name the product involved or talk about which specific security feature the emails referenced. I do this to protect the privacy of the person who sent the messages, and out of respect for the vendor whose product the person was discussing.

So with that said, there actually isn’t anything all that unusual about the idea of a well-intentioned security feature weakening security. I have seen a few different situations over the years in which a security product contained an exploitable bug. Consider, for example, the WEP protocol that once was the de facto security standard for wireless networks. WEP ultimately proved to be easily exploitable, and in many cases, it was easier to gain access to someone’s network by exploiting WEP than it would have been to crack a password.

The point is that security flaws can, and sometimes do, happen. The thing that made this particular person’s claims so outrageous was that he went on to say that tech journalists know the truth about the security vulnerability, but are complicit in suppressing it. In other words, companies around the world have allegedly been left vulnerable because tech journalists such as myself want to protect tech vendors. As if that were not bad enough, I have received messages from other people who claim that tech journalists are pawns of the big Silicon Valley companies who own them.

The only way that I can think of to debunk this one is to talk about the way that tech journalism really works. Some of the major tech sites and publications do employ staff writers, but the vast majority of the tech journalists that I have met over the years are freelancers like myself. Although there are exceptions, freelancers are usually given a great deal of autonomy regarding the things that they write about. For example, nobody told me to write an article about fake tech news. I have a certain number of articles that I write each month, and the topics and content are up to me.

This isn’t to say that topics are never assigned. Sometimes they are. For example, I recently had someone ask me to write an article about Azure Active Directory. Once again though, the substance and the tone of the article was left up to me. No one told me to say that Azure Active Directory was the greatest thing ever to come out of Redmond, nor did anyone ask me to write a hit piece. It was up to me to decide what went into the article.

No ‘Evil Empire’

fake news

The point is that there is no Evil Empire that sends out an email every Monday morning giving tech journalists their talking points for the week. If we all sometimes sound alike, it’s probably because we all have access to more or less the same information as one another. Tech journalists often, for example, attend the same tech conferences and receive the same press releases from vendors.

Some in the fake tech news conspiracy crowd seem to believe that tech journalists cannot be trusted because they have all been bought off by hardware and software vendors. Personally, I find that idea to be absurd. While I don’t deny the possibility that there may be a few journalists out there who have been bought off, I have never actually heard of it happening.

This isn’t to say that tech journalists do not interact with vendors. They do. I will openly admit that I regularly write whitepapers for vendors. To me, these papers are a job — nothing more, nothing less. I write the paper, they pay me for the paper, and I move on to the next job. That’s it. The vendor does not own me just because I wrote a whitepaper for them. To put it into perspective, consider that I once sold an old Pontiac to someone. Saying that a vendor owns me because I sold them a paper would be like saying that the guy who bought the Pontiac owns me because I sold him a used car. The argument is ludicrous.

Admittedly, writing a whitepaper for a vendor could raise ethical questions about the potential for the paper being biased. I can’t speak for other tech journalists, but I have always tried to avoid conflicts of interest by making it clear to the vendor up front that I will not write anything about their product that isn’t true. I can’t do it. The moment that I compromise my ethics to make a vendor happy is the moment when my writing loses all credibility. I’m not willing to throw away over two decades’ worth of work just to satisfy a vendor. It’s not worth it.

Overall, it’s not fake news

The bottom line is that tech journalism as a whole is not fake news. Certainly, I have occasionally stumbled onto a random article that could probably qualify as fake news (although I hope that the piece was the result of the author being ill-informed rather than exercising deliberate fraud). It’s possible that there may even be entire tech publications or websites that qualify as fake news (I don’t actually know of any). In any case, I believe that these are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the tech journalists that I know work hard to maintain their credibility and would not resort to writing blatantly false tech propaganda.

Even so, I can definitely understand why some people might assume that tech journalists spew fake news. Being that so many media outlets have been accused of publishing or broadcasting fake news (whether it is true or not), it seems only natural that the cynicism toward the media would spill over into other types of media such as tech and media covering other vertical industries. My hope is that this cynicism is undeserved and that journalistic integrity has not become a lost art.

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