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Covering technology: Challenges

May 2, 2011

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By G. Pascal Zachary

In this section, we look at the common mistakes made by tech reporters and how to avoid them.

“The PR person misled me.”

It happens. Mostly commonly, tech PR exaggerates potential. Even skeptical reporters are sometimes defenseless against hype.

How do you defend yourself against PR spin? One way is to go to the PR person from a rival company, or a promoter of a competing technology. The PR rival often has plenty of reasons why their rival will fail. The quickest way to puncture the hype and exaggeration presented by one company is to go to a competitor.

Hype by scientists is harder to identify. One red flag: when scientists also have their own companies, apply extra scrutiny to technical claims.

“I can’t understand the basic technologies.”

You may never understand them. Electronics is based on complicated physics and mathematics. Ultimate understanding of, say, how a new data-storage device works, may be impossible. One workable compromise is to identify people who do understand these technologies, poll the views of at least three of them, tally their common conclusions and then identify inconsistencies. Points of disagreement can be looked at more closely. If disagreements remain, tell the reader: not even experts agree on whether the new technology will work or not.

“I can’t predict the future”

No one can. But tech reporters are constantly asked to provide insights into the new big thing – or at least a warning on what’s around the next bend in the road. Fortunately, many scientists and engineers specialize in looking ahead. There are even professional futurists. Finally, learn how to qualify your predictions by presenting several “scenarios.” Rather than betting on one outcome, present a range of possibilities, each supported by reasonable forecasts.

In technology reporting, knowledgeable sources abound. People too eager to help may be pushing their own agenda. Check their claims with other experts who don’t have a direct stake in your story.“I’m a prisoner of my sources.”

“I over-simplified.”

In trying to write simply and clearly about tech, you can sometimes introduce errors and distortions that draw complaints, erode your credibility and even force you to publish corrections. Clear and reliable explanations of technological change are a moving target. Twenty years ago, writing about the Internet required an elaborate explanation about how the vagaries of computer networks. Today, the Web is a plain English word known by nearly everyone.

“This already happened.”

Camera CES
Photo by Robert Scoble

Never write that a technological breakthrough is the first or the best, unless there’s overwhelming independent evidence in support of the claim. Often there isn’t time to learn the history of a field, so avoid grand claims. If you have time, learn the key milestones of your technology beat.

“Because I missed the last big thing, I’ll call everything the ‘next big thing’ – and never miss one again!”

Journalists have a history of ignoring major shifts, especially  in individual technologies. The integrated circuit, invented in Bell Labs in 1947, merited only a few lines in the New York Times and was widely ignored for many years. Few gave any attention to Facebook or Twitter when they launched. The examples of media ignoring the next big thing are legion. So journalists should be careful before dismissing out of hand any innovation. But the answer is careful, if brief review. Avoid declaring every promising innovation “the next big thing.” They can’t all be.

“Am I rooting for the home team.”

Technologies compete on a global field; the innovation leaders in your home town play an international game. Because you’re the sources and subjects in your city or region are more accessible, you tend to take on their view of the world. For a reporter who finds Google or Apple in his or her “backyard,” adopting the outlook of the “home team” may make for good journalism. But even technology pacesetters have blind spots, and journalists should fight against adopting them. The best therapy for the home-team disease: talk regularly to tech leaders in other geographies.

“I suffer from amnesia.”

The past often provides parallels about the present. Many technology challenges of today, especially in business, can be at least partly illuminated by quickly looking at past experiences. In choosing historical analogies, cast a wide net. Draw on the many professors of history who specialize in technology. One benefit: older technologies are more familiar, easing the burden of explaining how things work and opening space for highlighting complexity.

Henry Petroski’s superb history of the pencil, for instance, contains an extraordinary chapter on the global competition for leadership in pencil-making – and the push 100 years ago by the U.S. government, and leading American technology companies, to wrest away global leadership from Germany, which then dominated pencil technology.

Technologies move so fast that often there seems to be no time for looking backwards. But getting into the habit of doing so has another benefit: some innovators actually relive the past. Some technologies presented as new actually aren’t new at all. They were tried before – and failed for reasons that might help you assess the latest instance. One example is all-electric cars: reportage of new efforts to market an all-electric can be enhanced by recounting GM’s failed attempt in the 1990s.

G. Pascal Zachary reported on Silicon Valley and business technology for the San Jose Mercury and The Wall Street Journal (1987-1995). He’s been an innovation columnist for Technology Review, Spectrum, and The New York Times. He is the author of two books on technology: “Showstopper” about the making of a software program at Microsoft; and “Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century.”


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