Andrew McLaughlin, in his excellent dismemberment of the BBC's report on the "IPv4 address crisis", is observing not a random piece of sloppy research, but the success of settled policy.
That policy, pursued by public relations companies serving information technology and telecommunications (IT&T) companies, is simple to sum up: "identify, support and encourage technically ignorant journalism".
It centres around the most valuable word in the lexicon of the public relations firm: "placement". Placement represents the success of the campaign, and the best placement is the one which most faithfully puts the campaign's aims in front of the most eyeballs, with the least departure from the script. To an expert, the BBC IPv6 story looks like a failure of journalism, which it is.
But to an editor of 16 years' experience, as I am, it also looks like a triumph of placement. It may embarrass the BBC (I doubt it, because victims of placement are wont to hide behind the defence that journalists can't pretend expertise), but those who placed the story will be proud of their success even if the story is debunked.
Placement is an end in itself; not accuracy, nor objectivity, which although requirements of good journalism are enemies of placement.
Caltech's Fast One
Look, for example, at the Fast TCP Website at Caltech. There are ten citations, proving how successfully Caltech's public relations group "placed" a story about its Fast TCP research.
Nearly every one of them is bad journalism; nearly all swallow the myth that Fast TCP is going to let users download DVDs in five seconds — words drawn directly from Caltech's hype-ridden and misleading press release.
The story was a placement triumph: from National Geographic and BusinessWeek, both of whom can be presumed "TCP/IP-ignorant", through to Nature (prostituting its peer-reviewed status for a fast pickup from a news wire), hype won the day. The Register and Space.com grasped the 'real story'. Everybody else got it wrong; but Caltech wanted placement, got placement, and is proud of its success, even when the journalist was ignorant.
To understand how placement took primacy over mere accuracy, ask the old lawyer's question: who benefits?
The PR companies benefit, because they're paid to place. With coverage (column inches in print, eyeballs on the Web) as the metric, public relations firms have created a feedback loop: more and better coverage comes from the least critical journalists. So those journalists are favoured when there's an agenda to promote, and are handled according to well-established processes.
Companies benefit: the market is more receptive if it's prepared by favourable press, and so are investors.
Analysts benefit: a well-informed and critical press is a competitive threat to the analyst. Like vendors, analysts want their names in the newspaper in the most favourable light — and most include press citations in their incentives.
Placement as a Process
A smaller and younger IT industry ignored the rules of placement. Vendors, managed by technologists, sought out media who understood their products. Twelve years ago, Sydney boasted four specialist IT public relations companies, with "multinational" PR restricted to the likes of IBM and Microsoft.
Throughout the 1990s, the IT sector was fuelled by the Internet and the Year 2000 bug. "Big PR" followed the money and taught it a process developed to sell pharmaceuticals, and the information landscape changed.
Here's a rough outline of the process:
a) Publicise the disease;
b) Agitate for action;
c) Announce the cure.
In this process, it's fundamental to keep the product out of the campaign until the third step. Impotence, not its cure, was the focus of the pharmaceutical industry's campaign for years before regulators okayed Viagra for sale. Experts — arm's length in theory, paid-for in fact — were "placed" in the media to teach journalists and the public about the devastating impact of impotence. In step (b), funds were provided to self-help and advocacy groups; governments were petitioned to help sufferers cope, and to take the disorder seriously in their public-health funding.
Then, and only then, was the miracle pill announced.
Media ignorance helps the process along. A sceptical press might seek out other experts, might look for other voices. An informed press might spoil the process entirely by looking behind the curtain and discovering the true nature of the Wizard of Oz. A diligent media might learn that there's a new wonder-drug behind this new advocacy.
The wealthier the IT industry has become, the more the IT press has been a target of the same process. We've been sold a variety of diseases over the years: the Year 2000 bug; the skills crisis; "traffic doubling every 100 days"; the imminent threat of cyberterror; the "smart warrior" and the suitcase pulse bomb; the virus which would bring a bloodless end to the Iraq war; the other countries threatening our technological lead; the competitor doing a better job of putting computers in schools; the lack of a silver bullet…
The process also exploited a shift in purchasing power. By teaching executives that IT was their job, Y2k created a lucrative audience without the skills to assess technology. This new audience devalued technical information ("does it work?") in favour of financial ("how much does it cost?"), which downgraded the credence given to informed reporting.
We might hate it: but an uncritical and ignorant press is more fertile ground for "placement" than the critical and informed.
Some even revel in their status. Abandoning accuracy as the basis of thir job, some journalists consider their role to be promoting technology to their general readership. To quote a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald's (now discontinued) Biz-Tech section, in response to criticism of inaccurate stories: "Once you've lost your general reader, what's the use? Instead of presenting a new point to a new audience, you're only arguing details with a few well-informed geeks."
Journalists, in other words, subscribe to the placement process as well; they can be made to think it's more important to show the pretty toys to their readers than to seek facts and tell the truth.
Back to the BBC
A key characteristic of the "placement" story is its conformance to a template. If you want to discover stories which owe a debt to placement, look at what they share. Common features point to a common strategy.
With one search, I found a CNET story published in July with quite startling parallels to the BBC story:
This identifies the stories as placement pieces, very likely written with the same "backgrounder" document to hand, distributed by a vendor's PR, and followed up with a phone call to make quite sure the journalist understands just how real the crisis is becoming.
Placement backed booms in dotcoms, telecoms, the Internet and biotech. Journalists know when they're part of a 'placement'; abandoning their responsibility to research facts, they debase themselves and harm their readers.
By Richard Chirgwin, Editor, CommsWorld Magazine
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Minds + Machines