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April 6, 2008

Filed under: journalism»ethics»online

Swing or Spin

There are lies, damn lies, and press releases.

On April 1, Rochester University put out a press release about a researcher who has invented a new way to analyze a clarinet recording and turn it into a new kind of MIDI file for a physical modeling synth. The recording and the synth are not groundbreaking, but the analysis is mildly interesting if it can actually pull expression data from a recording.

Unfortunately, the PR flack didn't write that. Instead, he wrote "music file compressed 1,000 times smaller than MP3," and used provocative quotes from the researchers in question to imply that this technology could be the future of music. By the time Ars asked me to write about it, at least one news outlet had screwed up the story based on the release. Even after I interviewed the team leader and put something together, Wired had reproduced the faulty "1000x better than MP3 compression" headline on their Gadget Lab post.

I don't expect Wired to read Ars before posting to get the real story, of course. But the press release reads as instantly fishy to someone even with my limited digital audio education. It would be nice to have some confidence that a news outlet covering audio tech would be able to reach the same conclusions.

The real problem is twofold. One is that the flacks apparently felt comfortable writing a release about technology that they obviously didn't understand, and were willing to take liberties for a bit more controversy. But perhaps the more serious dilemma is that tech writers fell for it.

A couple of weeks ago, there was another article in Wired about the competition between Engadget and Gizmodo. These two gadget blogs are huge moneymakers online, and they're constantly racing to get the scoop on each other. This, it seems, is the lesson that some online news sources have absorbed: go faster, not deeper. But the opposite, I think, is a more valuable use of journalism online. It doesn't take any skill to do coverage fast--just a subscription to a press release service and a quick hand on the copy and paste. But expertise and a reputation for accuracy are what draw eyeballs. A couple of hours extra won't change that.

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