Dylan’s Desk: “Tech journalist” doesn’t have to be an oxymoron

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The tech business deserves a better press corps.

By “better,” I don’t mean “friendlier.” I mean journalists and bloggers that treat technology with the same serious and critical eye that is (or should be) afforded to presidential candidates and Fortune 500 companies.

The tech industry and the entrepreneurs behind it are busy rebuilding our world, in profound and often unanticipated ways. The impact of the technologies we use today will have far-reaching consequences. Google, Facebook, and Apple are massive profit-making (and job-creating) businesses, but they’re also changing the way we live our lives, interact with each other, express ourselves, and think about the world.

Just try to remember life before Google, or (if you’re a bit older) life before email. Or mobile technology: Seemingly overnight, we’ve all been given pocket oracles that can guide us to any destination, keep us in touch with all of our friends, and answer any question we may have. It’s no surprise that people on the streets of the city or in subway cars are all hunched over, staring at little blue squares of light, where before they were reading books, window shopping, or staring vacantly into the middle distance.

You can’t cover those changes adequately just by being a cheerleader for the tech industry or for entrepreneurs. But you also can’t do justice to those stories if you don’t, on some level, appreciate how earthshaking these changes are, and how much creativity and opportunity is being unlocked through tech innovation and entrepreneurship. In other words, you need a combination of enthusiasm and skepticism.

Most of all, you need some principles.

There’s a reason the public holds journalists in only slightly higher esteem than bankers. Over the past decade, we haven’t had a very good track record at sticking to our principles of seeking the truth, and reporting it.

Weapons of mass destruction? Made up, and newspapers published tenuous pretexts for war almost as quickly as the White House came up with them. The mortgage crisis? Foreseeable, but somehow almost every major business reporter missed it. Climate change? Yeah, journalists were still trying to give both sides of that “debate” equal time for a long time after the science was settled beyond a reasonable doubt.

In tech journalism, many of us jumped way too enthusiastically onto the dot-com bandwagon, only to watch it evaporate like a summer daydream.

But more recently, we’ve done better. For example, it’s worth holding Apple accountable for allowing iOS apps to upload users’ address books without letting users know they’re doing it, as VentureBeat and other tech blogs have done. Staying on top of Facebook’s ever-changing privacy policies has also been a worthy endeavor, especially now that the service has over 845 million users and reaches into many corners of the web with its buttons and badges (including on this site).

And it’s also worth reporting when and how the IPO market doesn’t serve the interests of ordinary investors. Applying critical analysis to much-hyped public offerings, like those of Groupon, Zynga, and Yelp, is something tech journalists can and should do.

For VentureBeat’s part, we’re trying to avoid conflicts of interest while providing fact-driven news, intelligent commentary, and informed context with every story. Our approach is laid out in VentureBeat’s public ethics statement. No, we’re not perfect, but we make an effort to talk to sources, verify facts, and provide honest, informed context whenever possible. And if we make mistakes, we correct them.

Most of us journalists don’t match the purity embodied by legendary New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, who won’t accept so much as a drink of water during the events he covers, much less a few million dollars of seed funding. But that’s a model worth aspiring to.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Tobias Naumann

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