Truth Shoes

Disclosure for those who don’t know: I work for Microsoft. I’d write this post even if I didn’t, because it hits the sweet spot for my blog.

Some years back, as I was starting my blog, my second choice for title was “truth shoes,” taken from the oft quoted and possibly wrong Mark Twain quote: “A lie can make it around the world in the time it takes the truth to put its shoes on.” And when I’d use that quote, I’d then append – and that was before blogs and the era of 24/7 journalism.

In his column today, Ed Bott goes off on "journalists" in a way that would make Mark Twain proud, using the black screen of death story as a cautionary tale. You should for sure read his full post, but his lede sums it up completely:

I’ve spent the better part of the last 48 hours looking into the colossal fiasco that is the “Black Screen of Death” story. It’s a near-perfect case study in how Internet-driven tech journalism rewards sloppy reporting and how the echo chamber devalues getting the story right.

It is almost for certain sure that some people have experienced the black screen. It is almost equally for certain that this was not caused by a security update. Those are the facts as we know them now. But on Monday and Tuesday, the “facts” were something quite different – and today for a large majority of people those facts haven’t changed – the black screen is widespread, and it is caused by Microsoft. As Ed devastatingly chronicles, the world we are living in often rewards fast better than best, could be rather than is. And in general, first is what people remember, and it is easy to hide behind the shield of “objectivity:”

It’s he-said-she-said journalism at its finest. Security expert says Microsoft patches seem to cause fatal crashes, and Microsoft denies it! Who’s right? Hey, we’re just the press, we don’t know. You decide! In a refreshing bit of actual reporting buried deep in his story, ComputerWorld’s Gregg Keizer notes that a search of Microsoft’s support forums turns up only one thread on the subject in the entire month. Alas, he does nothing to help his readers draw the obvious conclusion from that data point.

I remember a conversation I had once with a reporter where I noted that if I followed the same standard being employed by him, I could write a story that says “Reporter Joe Smith has been accused of drug abuse and perjury but denies it,” and feel good about my ethics, since I was “reporting” both an allegation and a denial. This did not go over well. 😉 Here is what Ed had to say on this point:

The idea that IDG was chasing a fast-moving story in real time is absurd. IDG publications weren’t chasing the story, they were leading it. As I noted, the original blog post was published on a Friday. No one noticed it until Monday morning, and IDG was the first one to report on it. An IDG editor could have tossed the story back for some basic fact-checking and reporting. If someone had exercised even a basic set of journalistic skills, this story might never have taken off. But someone decided that this sensationalist report was worth a lot of page views and hit the Publish button when it was half-baked.

There are a bunch of lessons here, for everyone. For communicators, it reinforces the imperative to be fast, be accurate, and have the ability to talk directly into the right channels. Of course, this is contingent upon actually having the facts – which can take some time. For reporters and bloggers, it means that power and responsibility are linked. You have embraced a standard that is high – live up to it. The beauty and terror of the web world in which we live is that authoritative voices can appear quickly – bear this in mind and wear the responsibility well. And readers/viewers/listeners – today we trust total strangers sometimes as much as we trust established voices. A bit of skepticism is in order. My dad used to say, “believe half of what you read and none of what you hear.” Maybe the old guy should’ve been a blogger….

One Response to “Truth Shoes”

  1. Jon Burg's Future Visions Says:

    Can we restore integrity to breaking news? Can we afford not to?…

    The Problem I have a problem. I don’t know who to trust. The wisdom of the crowds faces serious challenges when faced with the echo chamber of the fishbowl. And with far too many sources trying to “break” breaking news,……

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