Critical Reporting and Its Challenges

As technology reporting takes on issues of culture, economics, and politics, the line between reporting and criticism is blurring. And as readers gain increasingly detailed and direct accounts of events, writers are doing more to provide context and analysis to the news, pulling coverage away from conventional reportage toward explainer journalism and critical interpretation.46 Reporting and criticism today are rarely mutually exclusive. This makes it necessary to place technology coverage on a spectrum of criticality, which recognizes that even straightforward reporting plays a role in guiding public attention and agenda setting.

Still, reporters doing critical work on the technology industry and Silicon Valley face many challenges. Access to sources within companies is tightly controlled, and without a large publication or an established relationship with PR, writers can be discouraged by boilerplate marketing responses. Conversations with engineers are often on background, and details from visits to tech campuses languish under nondisclosure agreements. Writing for Nieman Reports, Adrienne LaFrance observes, “Some of the world’s most powerful companies end up dictating a startling degree of coverage about them—because reporters often rely solely on information released by those companies, and, with some key exceptions, get few opportunities to question them.”47

Rose Eveleth thinks companies like Apple and Google increasingly make this basic reporting work as hard as possible: “Apple and Google are masters of grooming reporters to do what they want, and provide access only to folks they think will make them look good. Access has always been a bargaining chip, but I think these companies are much more media-savvy than they used to be, and I think they’re realizing not just how to exclude reporters they don’t like, but how to feed and encourage reporters they do like.”48

Very few writers are given privileged access within tech companies. Writing for Backchannel on Medium and in his books about the company, Steven Levy chronicles interesting Google stories, but arguably maintains his close relationships within the company because of his overall optimistic outlook on what technology is capable of.

Other writers are publicly taken down or even threatened for their critical coverage. Referencing the Peter Thiel Gawker case, technology reporter for The Guardian Nellie Bowles writes, “After six years as a reporter in Silicon Valley, I’ve found that a tech mogul will generally call anything unflattering I write ‘clickbait’ and anything flattering ‘finally some real journalism.’”49 Indeed, Uber executive Emil Michael suggested he would put money behind opposition research about journalists to dissuade negative coverage in response to PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy’s piece on Uber’s sexism and misogyny.50

Meanwhile, publications struggle with critical stories as their access to readers is increasingly mediated by the tech companies themselves. The Tow Center’s Emily Bell has noted how “news publishers have lost control over distribution” and the “inevitable outcome of this is the increase in power of social media companies.”51 Adrienne LaFrance summarizes the tension: “Powerful companies like Facebook and Google are major distributors of journalistic work, meaning newsrooms increasingly rely on tech giants to reach readers, a relationship that’s awkward at best and potentially disastrous at worst. Facebook, in particular, is also prompting major newsrooms to adjust their editorial and commercial strategies, including initiatives to broadcast live video to the social media site in exchange for payment.”52

Where might critical reporting about Facebook be published if publications must rely on Facebook Instant Articles and the vicissitudes of the News Feed to reach audiences? John Herrman reiterates, “Any industry sufficiently powerful to absorb the fourth estate is worthy of its scrutiny . . . Tech is taking control of the story, including its own.”53

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