Journalism, or irresponsible rumour-mongering?

by Mathew on February 23, 2009 · 42 comments

TechCrunch, one of the Web’s top tech blogs, sparked a firestorm of criticism with a recent story about Last.fm — the popular music-sharing network that CBS acquired last year — by reporting that the service had turned over a pile of user information to the Recording Industry Association of America. The story turned out not to be true, and Last.fm co-founder Richard Jones responded with a blistering denial, in which he said that TechCrunch was “full of shit.” Plenty of people on Twitter and elsewhere have been using the piece as a stick with which to beat TechCrunch, arguing that the report was irresponsible and the blog has lost all (or most) of its credibility as a result, etc. (some good perspective from MG Siegler here).

Pretty open and shut, right? After all, Erick Schonfeld relied on an unidentified and third-hand source (someone with a friend at CBS, who said they were upset by the handing over of data). The more I thought about this story, however, the less comfortable I felt joining the crowd with torches and pitchforks outside TechCrunch’s door. Was the story clearly wrong? Yes. How closely did Erick check the source? We don’t know. But what we do know is that Erick tried repeatedly to get a comment from the company, and got a one-liner dismissal (which he included).

After the story went up, Richard Jones posted a comment saying the report was “utter nonsense.” Erick updated the post as a result, then updated it again after more denials, then updated it again after speaking with a technical lead at Last.fm about how the service collects data and who it shares that data with. The TechCrunch writer was skeptical about the comments, saying it wasn’t an unequivocal response, and suggested that the full story wasn’t really clear yet. All along, he treated it as an unconfirmed rumour.

Was this an irresponsible display of gutter journalism that is indefensible, as Aaron Brazell of Technosailor described it to me on Twitter? I’m not so sure.

Yes, running a report like that with nothing but a third-hand report from an anonymous source is pushing the boundaries, but we have no way of knowing how reliable that source is. Most mainstream media outlets prefer to have more than one source, but as we’ve seen recently even the New York Times breaks those rules in the pursuit of stories that it sees as important. And handing data to the RIAA is pretty big.

To me, the updates that Erick provided go a long way toward mitigating the effect of what appears to be a mistaken report from a source. Could he have checked that source more closely? I don’t know. But to his credit, it was described as a rumour and the piece was updated multiple times as more information came to light. That’s better than many mainstream media outlets would provide, or have provided in similar cases. Obviously no one wants to go ahead and publish an erroneous report, including TechCrunch.

The reality is that media outlets of all kinds run with single-source stories all the time, and they are happy to do so because they often turn out to be right. Occasionally, they are not. When the nots outweigh the right ones, then you have a problem. Has TechCrunch reached that point? That’s for each individual reader to decide for themselves.

  • http://www.dasgesundheitsportal.de Ratgeber Gesundheit

    One word, one mistake, more problems arise. This should be avoided if only people behind this were “professional” in their dealings. For me, this will never be a big “news” if only good camaraderie and communication were steadily available to all parties concern. Its not yet late to fix things up. Grab that humility and start the good talk.

  • http://disruptivethoughts.com Fraser

    Thank you for bringing a balanced view to the debate. I enjoyed reading this perspective and found my head nodding in agreement. With the ability to provide real time updates as additional information is learned do you think we'll see more outlets publish single source stories?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I don't know really. And I'm sure there are those who would argue that single-source stories are *always* wrong, no matter who does them. I think the issue is a lot less black and white than that, and is only getting grayer.

  • http://ryanholiday.net Ryan Holiday

    This is going to be an interesting reality to deal with going forward. Blogs, because they're are more of them and can respond faster, get more stories right in the aggregate. But on an individual basis there are going to be complete disasters like this one. So, how does society learn to adjust and “deal with it”? I'm not sure. The influence of a blog like TechCrunch is so big that the damage from its mistakes reverberate everywhere.

    We face the same question with Wikipedia. In the long run, the amount of knowledge it puts in people's hands is spectacular. But the consequences of a false report are still very real. If Last.Fm was a publicly traded company what would TC's report have done to the stock price over the last few days?

    I'd be curious to see with what solutions you think there are Matt.

  • http://blog.fagstein.com/ Steve Faguy

    1. Just because the New York Times does something doesn't make it right.

    2. Describing something as a rumour, or putting it in the form of a question, doesn't make it OK to disseminate information you can't verify. The writer didn't treat it as an unconfirmed rumour, because if it had been treated that way, it would never have been posted.

    3. Clearly the source wasn't solid. It was wrong. And the tone of the post made it pretty clear that the author didn't trust the source 100%

    4. Being a big story means you should be MORE concerned about accuracy and sourcing, not less.

    5. Posting updates with corrections mitigates some of the damage, but it does not make it all ok. Many people will see the original story but not the correction. (For that matter, it's not presented as a correction at all)

    6. Taking a gamble on an unverified story is where TechCrunch went wrong. It doesn't matter if 99% of the time that gamble pays off. Either the information can be trusted or it can't.

    7. A lack of response from a source is not implicit acceptance and should never be taken that way. The Times got screwed that way before. PR people can't categorically deny everything, especially on a weekend when they can't reach the boss. TechCrunch should know this.

    This was third-hand rumour that unsurprisingly turned out to be false. To defend it is to defend the dissemination of rumours without verification.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a good question, Ryan. I guess the simple solution is — try harder :-) But seriously, I think journalists (broadly defined) have to resist the urge to publish immediately and damn the consequences — but readers also have to learn to think critically about what they're reading, regardless of where it is published — on a blog, or in a mainstream newspaper.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I didn't say it was right, Steve — just that TechCrunch isn't the only one that does it.

    And whether you think rumours — or unverified reports — are worth publishing or not, it happens at all sorts of fine, upstanding, mainstream publications all the time. In many cases, those rumours are correct, and no one minds that they came from a single or anonymous source. It's when they are wrong that everyone gets upset.

    Erick clearly believed his source was credible enough to go with — that's a judgment he has to make, not us. We get to judge whether we continue to trust him or not, and as I said, that's a personal decision.

  • Bob

    Question: Is okay to for me to write that I heard a rumour that someone might have seen Michael Arrington smoking crack with the headline: “Rumour: Is Michael Arrington addicted to crack cocaine?” Fill it with speculation along with the quote from a single unnamed source who said his friend told him he saw someone who looked like Arringston hitting a crack pipe as long as I update it with Mike's denial but never change the head?

  • http://www.myphillynetwork.com Anthony Farrior

    Eric was stretching with the source/friend thing. I was more worried though about the magnitude of light shown on this matter after it being just a rumor. There were HUGE consequences involved with this kind of hot topic. It doesn't look like he checked the other side of the coin until after the fact…

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Okay in what way, Bob? You're free to do that, I suppose — except for the fact that you'd be alleging criminal behaviour, so that's a legal issue you might want to be careful of. And I don't think many people would read you if you kept that kind of thing up regularly. But I'm certainly not going to stop you.

  • delbert norton

    i'm not comfortable with the practice of publishing a rumor as such and then waiting for confirmations, if they exist, to float in. TC put up a post and describe it as a rumor is neither a defense, nor honorable. and that he used a third-hand source as the basis of his post is even more curious. if you're going to go with a report that may have harmful effects on a person or company, should you not first make every possible effort to at least second source your story? this is not about new media or old media; it's about fairness

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Stretching, maybe. But he included a comment from the compan in the original post, and updated the post as soon as someone from Last. fm commented.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Delbert, check the story again. Erick posted a comment from Last. fm as part of the original piece, and tried repeatedly to get further elaboration. When a comment came in, he updated the post. Could he have waited for a second source? Sure, he could have, but he chose not to — a choice every writer/editor has to make at some point. Maybe he would choose differently now, maybe not.

  • Bob

    I'm agreeing with you here. I think this might have been defensible if they'd changed the headline once denials started coming in, which a lot of sites do.

    As it stands, I don't see this as being much better than the Steve Jobs had a heart attack piece. While it didn't affect share prices, Last.fm did lose users over it which is uncool.

    Plus, I'm really uncomfortable running with something on the basis of an anonymous source who claims to have a friend who heard….blah blah blah. Again, as I suggested above, what if this was alleging criminal behaviour?

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  • delbert norton

    mathew,

    we all must decide for ourselves what outlets to trust and which ones to view with suspicion. from my vantage point, shoenfeld had a responsibility to be far more sure about his “facts.” instead, he opted to go with a single (and apparently flimsy) source.

    everyone makes honest mistakes from time to time. but this was a case of a poorly sourced rumor from the get-go. the fact that TC posted the last.fm comment after the story was up on the site does not relieve schoenfeld of responsibility. it's a shoddy practice.

  • http://www.inquisitr.com Duncan Riley

    Well said Matthew and consistent as well with your earlier post
    http://www.mathewingram.com/work/2008/10/15/im-

    We all make calls on info, sometimes they work out, sometimes they don't. I'm no Erick Schonfield fan, but I 100% agree that the lynching here isn't called for. Heck, there's far better things you could go Erick over :-)

  • http://www.inquisitr.com Duncan Riley

    Delbert
    the key here though is that he didn't report it as fact, which Matthew quite rightly points out, is something newspapers often don't do. If you read the post, you'll also note that Erick HAD received a response from Last.fm, and that line was in the original post. It was only subsequent flat out denials that were added to the post.

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  • http://ewan.to Ewan

    One interesting thing is that Techcrunch alleged criminal behaviour themselves, as last.fm are based in the UK and the data protection act would almost certainly make passing over a large unfiltered database of user data to an American company a criminal act.

    Everyone makes mistakes, and in this case I think Techcrunch made quite a significant one, but it's not going to change the world. The best Techcrunch can do now is say “Turns out we are full of shit after all”, then move on.

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  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    “To me, the updates that Erick provided go a long way toward mitigating the effect of what appears to be a mistaken report from a source.”

    I have to disagree with you on this one. Far from mitigating things, I think Erick compounded his error, badly, with his updates.

    I'm not one of those people who is against single-sourced stories. Everyone gets a story wrong sometimes – that just goes with the turf of journalism. God knows, I've got a few wrong in my time.

    But Erick got on-the-record, clear denials from several sources including one of the company's founders at the point of his first update. When one of the founders of a company says in your own comments that a story is “utter nonsense and totally untrue”, you don't then try and weasal out of admitting you got it wrong.

    Unfortunately, that's exactly what Erick did. His *second* update tried to question the veracity of a quote he'd obtained from Last.fm before publishing the story. In other words, rather than holding his hands up and saying “I got it wrong”, he attempted to justify himself.

    That was the point at which he should have shut up, *called* (NOT emailed) Last.fm, and asked the questions he still had. And, if he didn't get immediate answers, keep calling until he got them.

    Sadly, instead of doing that, he then went on to try and prolong the story, by claiming the denials weren't equivacal enough and that he had “a lot of unanswered questions about how exactly Last.fm shares user data with the record industry.” Well, sorry, but he needed to ask those questions of Last.fm rather than trying to make out Last.fm was hiding something, which was the implication of his update.

    If Erick had left his updates at the point of the first one, while doing more digging with Last.fm to allow him to clarify things and get answers to his (legitimate) questions, I think he'd have done an OK job – and this would probably not have blown up as much as it has. His second update, though, was a mess up of the highest order – and that, to me, is what turned this from a poor story into a stupid one.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    Duncan, as I mention below, the problem is that Erick got flat-out denials in his own comments from a company founder and THEN tried to keep the story running by claiming he “still had questions to ask” – implying that Last.fm was hiding something. It's one thing to get a story wrong: it's another thing to ignore on-the-record denials and try to spin it out further.

  • http://www.alabamablogger.org Ricky Peterson

    I'm a new reporters media online. May i learn from here?

    Ricky

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a fair point, Ian — although I think Erick has been doing this long enough to have learned that a denial isn't always what it seems. I don't blame him for being skeptical, but he could have done a bit more of a mea culpa.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=705631706 Rogers Cadenhead

    I think you're being too easy on TechCrunch here. You shouldn't run a story based entirely on a single secondhand source, particularly when the claim is as spectacular as this one. The allegation that Last.fm hands user data to the RIAA could torpedo the company. No one would share their audio listening activities with a company they fear might do that.

    As I said on my blog, TechCrunch needs to explain why it trusted the friend of a CBS employee with a secondhand tip, whether anyone tried to contact the employee to corroborate the claim and whether it was wrong to run such a damaging story without at least one source who had direct knowledge of the alleged data transfer.

    TechCrunch is too obsessed with the 24/7 pro-blog news cycle of getting things first.

    Yes it's true that journalists run poorly sourced stories. But I never worked at a publication that would have run with a single *secondhand* source like this.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Those are all good points, Rogers. And clearly, Erick trusted a source who turned out not to be trustworthy. But those things happen, don't they? Especially online, where speed is even more important — although obviously, good publications of any kind think twice before publishing rumours.

    Still, in terms of the damage such a story can cause, it was only a matter of hours before someone commented from Last.fm and the story was updated. Is that really such a big deal?

    I still think it's a lot better than traditional media outlets running a story and then either not updating it at all, or running a correction several days later in a part of the paper no one reads.

  • http://colinprincipe.com Colin Principe

    So every time a sports reporter criticizes sports bloggers for not having the same qualifications or adhering to the same standards as print journalists, they get savaged as being “dinosaurs.”

    Yet the Tech Crunch incident is a prime example of how bloggers have a long way to go in terms of being accepted as reliable news sources. Sure broadcast and print media run with unsubstatiated stories, but they are large organizations with physical presences that can be sued. Consequently these outlets tend to be a little more cautious about what they publish and try to adhere to an established code of ethics. Any idiot can start a blog and cause just as much damage with nowhere near the repercussions that a major news outlet can suffer.

    It's about time that the internet echo chamber matured into a medium with a little less immediacy and a little more substance.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I don't think the two are as different as you make them out to be, Colin. The reality is that journalists of all kinds — broadly speaking — are constantly balancing the need for speed with the need for accuracy. Maybe Erick fell on the wrong side of that equation this time, but he is far from alone, and doing so is hardly unique to blogs.

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  • Daniel Gibbons

    I don't think there's any need for TechCrunch / Schonfeld to fall on their swords over this particular story, but one issue it raises is the persistently poor or non-existent quality of their “sources”. Remember the “we have it on great authority that x, y or z are buying Digg” stories? Or the third-hand reports about what was going on at Yahoo / MSFT?

    The truth is that they simply don't do any real research for most of their stories, don't appear to have any really credible sources, and use the real-time nature of the way they're published as a crutch on which to support a whole lot of ill-informed conjecture. I understand and support the argument that many blogs have done great things with regard to the responsiveness and dynamism in the creation of news stories, but I just don't think TechCrunch is doing this any more.

    It's rather sad, too, that Michael Arrington's response to any kind of criticism is to lump everyone together as trolls and stalkers who have a grudge to bear, when many are simply trying to add to a real discussion.

    I actually prefer it when Arrington cheerfully treats TC as a bully pulpit to say exactly what he thinks; I stop reading when that gets obscured with the attempts by his other writers to cobble together 20 non-stories a day.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I guess that is the real issue, Daniel — whether this kind of thing has happened often enough to permanently decrease the credibility of TC when it comes to reporting actual news, as opposed to opinion. As I say, that's a judgment call that everyone has to make for themselves.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=705631706 Rogers Cadenhead

    For a lot of stories, running a rumor might not be a particularly big deal. In this case, though, I think the potential for damage was so great, and the sourcing so thin, that TechCrunch should have recognized the risk they were taking.

    Also, considering the history between Michael Arrington and the CBS-owned CNET, TechCrunch has another reason to tread carefully when reporting on CBS properties like Last.fm.

    P.s. When you are logged in here with Facebook Connect and you try to post, you get a Disqus error about not entering your name. I had to log out of Facebook Connect and back in again to post this.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Rogers. That's a fair point. As for the Facebook thing, I've noticed the same problem, and I've been back and forth with the folks at Disqus about it. They are working on it apparently.

  • http://guhmshoo.wordpress.com Guhmshoo

    Does anyone know how many stories TC has gotten wrong in the last year? I do remember they wrote a story last year about Twitter and ads that turned out to be wrong. Just curious.

  • http://ubiquitense.com Naren UBi

    It's all about creating sensation in the news-hungry public arena. I bet, Techcrunch would've got the maximum number of visitors no sooner than they posted such a view on Lastfm. I think that this is normal. Most of today's media rely on such practices to increase its viewership base.

    If sanity had prevailed in the media, the world wouldnt have believed that WMDs existed in Iraq.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=582407926 Vlad Zablotskyy

    Wouldn't be nice if everyone embraced transparency? Whoever decided to respond with that one-liner dismissal should learn a lesson.

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  • http://www.pacelegal.com.au/ adele pace

    “1. Just because the New York Times does something doesn't make it right.

    2. Describing something as a rumour, or putting it in the form of a question, doesn't make it OK to disseminate information you can't verify. The writer didn't treat it as an unconfirmed rumour, because if it had been treated that way, it would never have been posted”

    Agree wholeheartedly, saying

    “It has been rumoured that X is a paedophile but we don't know whether this is true” = defamation

    Being online doesn't obviate your responsibility to check your sources before you publish something which results in injury to someone else's interests. Lives and companies have been ruined over.

    There are plenty of reasons to be more careful over things which are published over the internet. There are many people with less than pure motives pushing their own agendas. The internet is becoming polluted by cybervandals of all kinds actuated by different motives.

    The impact of these untruths should always be the utmost consideration.

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