Ten years ago, your favorite tech-centric site was an online news portal. Meaning, it was run by, edited by, and written by news professionals. Old school journalists and editors, brought up through the system we all know and expect. At some point, that changed for the (much) worse, and very few realize it.
If you relied on sites like C|Net or ZDNet for news, you used to get it. A story would break, a journalist would investigate. They would send emails, make phone calls, talk to sources, consult experts, and write it up. It would then be edited by one or more people with experience editing, a demanding and precise skill. That process would ensure that articles you read were reasonably researched, accurate, and generally contained no error the journalist was directly responsible for.
Just as print newspapers fell victim to technology, so did the digital news outlets that replaced them. Instead of a new technology, they fell victim to new uses of existing technology, including the dreaded social media. Why wait 24 hours for your favorite site to publish a 500 word article, when you can get 5,000 words written by 1000 people in a matter of hours. Some of those words from people you know and trust!
This caused the same cycle; do it cheaper and faster while calling it better. Online news outlets have not been able to monetize much beyond ad revenue. Subscription models never came around, so all these years and we still don’t pay for our news. That means fewer journalists, fewer editors, and cutting back the entire process that produced quality news. Investigative journalists are a dying breed. Most chase the low hanging fruit; stories that write themselves and do not take research or follow-up. Quantity has become entirely more relevant than quality.
In keeping with that, the traditional editing process has been replaced. Journalists can update their site via their own blogs, that fit seamlessly into the ‘news’ site. There is a post-now, edit-later mentality that dominates current sites. Where “edit later” is a rare occurrence. Despite this tragic decline in journalistic standards, many of us would be fine with it if the journalists actually updated an article when required. However, that does not happen as it should.
Several months ago, all of the above was perfectly demonstrated by Charlie Osborne and Zack Whittaker at ZDNet. In an article titled “Hacker, Verizon duel over customer record claims“, the authors detail a data breach where Verizon allegedly had some 300,000 records of customers stolen by a hacker. The article was updated later the same evening, and again the next day to provide more information, but mostly speculation and he-said / she-said. The two updates, in conjunction with the original article, should make it clear to any journalist that something was suspect. The story and details changed enough in a 24 hour time period to make any skeptical person question the original source.
After the article was published, before the final update, Space Rogue did his own research into the incident. He is known for being skeptical and cautious, something journalists were once known for in the past. His research led him to write a blog titled “Anatomy of Hype” in which he debunked the ZDNet piece. During this time, he also tried to contact the authors and editors both, providing them with information and perspective. Despite that, no further updates were posted, and the article remains as-is to this day.
This transition from legitimate news to glorified blogger has been a slow, but steady transition. It has been mostly transparent to readers, both casual and devoted. With this, it is absolutely critical that their readership be aware of the journalistic standards in place, or the lack of. Remember, these news sites are fundamentally no different than a shitty blog, except they enjoy a much bigger audience.