This article was published on November 19, 2014

Why corporate investigations into journalists (and Boris’ article) are wrong

Why corporate investigations into journalists (and Boris’ article) are wrong
Roberto Baldwin
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Roberto Baldwin

Roberto Baldwin was a reporter for The Next Web in San Francisco between April 2014 and March 2015. Roberto Baldwin was a reporter for The Next Web in San Francisco between April 2014 and March 2015.

Wow. How about that Uber right? Over the last few days the company has been caught using a tool that tracks users (including journalists) with apparently zero oversight. It wants to make changes to a proposed piece legislation that would increase the number of wheelchair accessible taxis. And of course, the news that started this whole mess, at a dinner party Senior Vice president Emil Michael talked about hiring researchers to dig up dirt on journalists.

Of course, journalists (myself included) took to Twitter, blogs, Facebook and possibly Ello to voice our outrage. We also voiced disbelief that a company would think that investigating journalists would make its problems — both real and reputation-wise — go away.

This isn’t a company that’s just recently been caught pulling shady tactics to get what it wants. It has a long history of questionable and sexist business practices and apparently creepy internal culture. The problem isn’t that journalists are treating Uber unfairly, the problem is that Uber does horrible things because disruption.

So when I woke up this morning to see Ashton Kutcher’s tweet I chalked it up to ignorance of how journalism actually works. Then I saw TNW co-founder Boris Veldhuijzen Van Zanten’s post and my heart sank. Not just because I disagree with the post, but that it misunderstands the fundamental nature of journalism and that this precedent could squelch reporting of actual issues within the tech industry.

My job, and the job of all journalists, is to find the truth and share it with readers. Sometimes that truth is full of rainbows and happiness. Other times, that truth is harsh and uncovers issues within an industry that has been skating by on the belief that it’s changing the world (most of the time it’s not) and is above reproach.

I’ll be the first to admit that tech journalism is nowhere near the equivalent of hard news. I’m going to Apple events and CES, not covering a war torn nation. But between all the phone releases and app updates, we’re here to help the reader not only make informed decisions but to understand what is going on in this industry.

What Emil Michael, and to a less extent Boris, proposes isn’t journalism by digging up information about journalists. It’s retaliation at best, and at worst, could lead to extortion. The end goal of a company-sponsored investigation into a journalist isn’t to find the truth, it’s to sideline the very people that are looking out for the public.

In his piece Boris states:

And if that journalist tries to crucify that company by writing increasingly critical articles, wouldn’t it be fair if the company was allowed to fire back with its own investigative reporting that exposes undisclosed biases in that journalist’s work?

There is already a group of people that points out the bias of journalists. They’re called journalists. In fact, Valleywag (the blog journalists love to hate, but I mostly love) has made it one of its missions to point out the ethical lapses in tech journalism. But it’s not just Valleywag, I’ve seen journalists rip each other to shreds on Twitter over perceived biases and logical missteps. A few weeks later I’ll see those same journalists chatting over a beer.

We argue with each other because we care about journalism. When we see a colleague post something that we believe is false, bias or just dumb, we call them out because we want tech journalism to be seen as the truth. Sometimes that call-out is private. Other times it’s public and can be messy.

The idea that it’s okay for a company to retaliate against a critical piece of journalism by investigating a reporter isn’t citizen journalism, a search for the truth or even ethical. It’s mean-spirited reactionary stupidity. Instead of “investigating journalists,” maybe that money would be better spent fixing the problems that have been pointed out by said journalists.

Boris is a nice guy and actually pretty smart. And while I think his article is wrong wrong wrong, the fact that I’m writing this rebuttal on his site shows that unlike Uber, he can handle criticism. We all have a voice at TNW and sometimes those voices conflict with one another. That’s a good thing.

Companies also already have a voice for sharing their ideas. It’s called public relations. Armies of individuals and high-paid firms make sure that a company’s message is shared with journalists and the public. Press releases and events are fine tuned so that everyone knows exactly what a company wants them to believe. The PR firms that do a good job at this, know about everything that’s happening in the company, market and on sites like this. Plus, most companies now have their own blog where they can announce news and wax poetic about the state of the market and how awesome they are.

In fact, journalists are already under investigation and it’s by those PR firms. They know more about us than our parents. I’ve been pitched about surfing, my band, snowboarding and cats because that’s the information that’s been gathered about me in some giant PR database.

It’s creepy, but it’s part of making sure the right person is pitched about a product.

Using that information and anything else you can find out about me to attack and possible silence me isn’t a part of doing business. It’s same tactic that the mob uses to silence potential informers and in the end, it’s also not very smart. That attack will end up on the front page of all the tech blogs because journalists want to share the truth.

So good luck with that.

Photo illustration credit: Roberto Baldwin

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