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.

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