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Report! Don’t Repeat Rumors!

The Paper

I don’t know if Google is strategically realigning its social network, nor if that is reason for Vic Gundotra’s sudden departure from the company. Google+ is, or was, his baby. But I do know what is irresponsible reporting, and there is plenty of it among tech bloggers and journalists. TechCrunch leads the pack, but the real offenders are those who follow along—news gatherers who repeat rather than report.

Following Gundotra’s April 24 departure announcement, Alexia Tsotsis and Matthew Panzarino posted at TechCrunch: “Google+ is Walking Dead”. The headline is compelling and clickable and would be worthy of praise if not for the anonymous sourcing. The story claims major reorganization that reduces the service’s role: “Google+ will no longer be considered a product, but a platform…Google+ is not ‘officially’ dead, more like walking dead”.

The bloggers cite no sources, but quote them anonymously. As such, their story cannot be completely trusted. Good journalists extend their trust in sources to readers. But there is no source of record here about a service that plays pivotal role in Google’s broader product strategy. They do quote a company spokesperson giving a fairly clear denial, rather than the squirmy non-denial too common when there is something to hide.

With just the littlest searching I found a comment from Google+ chief architect Yonatan Zunger, which isn’t the least bit ambiguous: “The TechCrunch article is BS. Google+ isn’t going anywhere, I can promise you. :-)” I haven’t done any real investigating about the social network’s future, but just this little bit is reason enough to question the anonymously sourced story and for any credible blogger or journalist to do some original reporting. At re/code, Liz Gannes and Mike Isaac do just that. They also cite multiple anonymous sources, whom they communicated with.

But what I see more commonly is something else: Blogs and news sites sourcing TechCrunch instead of doing their own reporting. Among them: ArsTechnica, BGRBusiness Insider, Droid Life, Fast CompanyTime, and The Vine.

I have complained about blogs and news sites sourcing another’s anonymously sourced stories for years, and it’s a major topic in my recent ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers. Now we have a score of stories and rampant social shares that turn rumor into accepted fact. No responsible news gatherer should re-report the TechCrunch story. Do your job, journalists!

Feeding the Beast
Not surprisingly, the TechCrunch story is hugely unpopular on Google+, where my stream floods with lambasting posts. These people should really stop, or at least bitch without linking. You might observe that I don’t link to the TC story. Search, if you’d like to read it.

Whether or not TechCrunch’s reporting proves accurate,  a story like this one ultimately is about pageviews, not credibility. Bloggers and reporters who source TechCrunch rather than gather their own sources are irresponsible on a second count: Seeking to ride pageview coattails rather then give readers reliable, trustworthy information. Me-too stories spread misinformation—or do until there is credible sourcing. Links to TC feed pageviews and reward what is sketchy reporting, if not irresponsible (again depending on sources’ legitimacy).

People pointing out problems with the TC story or others sourcing it also feed pageviews if linking back. So no matter the legitimacy of the reporting, TC generates mountains of pageviews and attention. Both are good for the site, but bad if for anyone who believes that TC hasn’t reported responsibly. Controversy is great news for TechCrunch.

From news gatherers sourcing another’s reporting comes something else, which posting to Google+ Jason Falter observes:

TechCrunch can write a flimsy article with no facts and then EVERY other tech site starts using that as if it is ‘real’ information. That was yesterday. Now, all the bloggers start using information from those flimsy articles that were printed yesterday and decide to speculate on what it all means. Basically you have bloggers speculating on things from an article that has no merit on a site with no credibility.

I wouldn’t say TechCrunch has “no credibility” but agree that any post citing the TC story lacks credibility.

Jason laments, and oh do I agree: “I really wish there was a tech site that was pure journalism. No speculation based on biases. Various sides to each story. Integrity of the writer. We just don’t have that anymore in tech news, hell we don’t have that in news period”.

The Columnist
Yesterday, on Google+ I complained about Mike Elgan’s Computerworld story “Why the social networks are falling apart“. He writes: “The chatter in Silicon Valley is that Google will keep Google+ going, but invest more heavily in Google+ as a platform, rather than as an all-purpose destination social network”.

I wrote: “He cites no sources for Google’s Plus platform plans. ‘Chatter in Silicon Valley’ is no source at all, so I assume he accepts TechCrunch’s anonymous story as gospel. If TC or the ‘chatter’ is wrong, that’s mighty big misinformation to spread”. Today, he responded, and the exchange is quite revealing. I let you decide how.

Mike’s first comment:

You wrote: ‘I assume he accepts TechCrunch’s anonymous story as gospel’.

Please don’t assume. The TechCrunch story is unnecessary to my thesis. The fact is that Google has backed off on product integrations for months. Google used to announce several new G+ integrations per week. How many have they announced this year? Since the YouTube integration, there has been hardly any. This is an obvious, provable, known fact.

The point is that dis-integration for Facebook and Twitter is to follow the Google strategy, as I say in my piece. Google has apparently recognized that fact that integration is not necessary, and in fact it isn’t. Google has many places from which to harvest personal data and many places to expose users to personalized advertising and integration benefits this in no way. The secret sauce, as I point out, is the unified privacy policy.

I recommend that you read my piece again, because it appears that you didn’t really read it carefully.

My reply:

I read the piece very carefully, and you clearly miss my point. What authority is Silicon Valley ‘chatter’ as source for Google’s plans?

Sourcing is necessary to your thesis because of TechCrunch’s anonymously sourced story, your analysis’ timing, and the number of other blogs or news sites sourcing TC without doing any reporting of their own.

Stories about Google+ de-integration that are based on nothing more than TC claims, chatter, or speculation are an echo chamber of potentially damaging misinformation. For example, if I were a media brand looking at Google+, I’d reconsider based on the rumors repeated so much as fact. That’s the kind of damage irresponsible reporting inflicts.

Journalists have a responsibility to their readers and subjects the present information as factually as possible. That starts with sourcing. Who at Google says Plus is be de-emphasized? Credible sourcing is the element missing from every report I’ve seen claiming changes ahead.

Regarding your assertion: ‘The fact is that Google has backed off on product integrations for months’. In what alternate universe?

Google+ is one piece of Google’s integration strategy. Surely search matters more? And integration continues, or does, for example, Hangouts and SMS integration not count? I just flipped the switch on that one today. Google Now is a recent resident to the toolbar on my Chrome OS laptop.

If you like, I can compile a list of recent integrations in another comment. They won’t be hard to find.

Mike’s second comment:

‘Chatter’ is shorthand for: 1) solid reporting from some of the most credible publications in the world; 2) analysis by longtime Google watchers; and 3) information told to me personally.

Regarding the solid reporting:

Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304788404579521900703666932

The Financial Times:

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/0992d9b2-cbdb-11e3-9f27-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2zqGt8Qic

TechCrunch:

http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/24/google-is-walking-dead/

Also: You suggest that my observation of what is clearly true (that Google has radically reduced the rate of new product integrations) is a fantasy, uh, I don’t know what to say about that other than to challenge to list the integrations that have happened this year.

I don’t know what Google Now has to do with anything. We’re talking about Google+ integrations with other Google properties.

The problem here, Joe, is that you have a belief that you’re trying to defend, whereas I am trying to represent and analyze the facts.

My reply:

Let’s start at the end, since I am stunned by statement: ‘The problem here, Joe, is that you have a belief that you’re trying to defend, whereas I am trying to represent and analyze the facts’.

I defend nothing, if you refer to Google+. I am no fanboy. But I am an advocate of responsible reporting.

Your ‘chatter’ doesn’t represent facts to analyze. You give links here in comment for your ‘chatter’ but no source in your Computerworld commentary, where it matters.

I am a long-time advocate against the kind of sourcing you engage in here. Sourcing some blog or news site that uses anonymous sources is lazy and disrespects readers. One of the major reasons rumors run rampant among tech sites is this kind of sourcing.

Here’s my first primer on responsible sourcing from 2010: http://www.joewilcox.com/2010/03/22/the-difference-between-blogging-and-journalism/

Excerpt for this instance:

‘Using a single source is often careless. Referring to another blog or news source as single source is reckless. Reporting news based on a single, anonymous source is negligence. Good journalists are mindful of their sourcing, particularly those sources who aren’t identified. One rampant problem: The increasing number of unnamed single-sourced blog posts or news stories that seemingly countless other blogs link to. Gossip and rumor runs amok masked as news. Let me clear: Just because everybody is saying some true doesn’t make it that way. It’s my observation that most rumor posts remain uncorrected when later proved to be wrong’.

Are you a journalist, Mike? If your answer is no, then I needn’t push the point.

Mike’s third comment:

The fact that people in Silicon Valley (i.e. ‘chatter’) are talking about Google keeping Google+ going, but investing more heavily in Google+ as a platform, rather than as an all-purpose destination social network, is a fact that I’ve witnessed myself in person, on blogs, on podcasts, and other places. It’s not a controversial point.

Or are you willing to state for the record that this chatter is not taking place?

(That the chatter is based mostly on the three extremely reputable publications, each of which had multiple sources, is beside the point. The chatter is happening. I referenced the chatter.)

Mike’s fourth comment:

Also: Your blog posts makes a distinction between ‘journalists’ and ‘bloggers’, but no distinction between ‘reporters’ and ‘columnists’. My piece is a column, not a news story. As someone who has worked for many years as a reporter, many as a columnist and many as a blogger, I know the difference. I’m wondering if you understand what columnists do and how they do it.

My reply to both:

The chatter is what? From Google? Have you spoken to reliable sources from Google who say what’s happening? If so, why don’t you source them? Your column would gain greater authority. Street chatter could all come from people reading the same things online—like the TechCrunch story or scores of other people citing it.

Mmmm. What does a columnist do? Please answer that question about yourself. I presume that as someone who worked as a reporter, you apply the same standards of responsible reporting to writing columns.

I didn’t purposely single out Mike. His story just happened to be one that piqued my attention, mainly because of “chatter” as sourcing.

I will update this post if we have any additional exchange.

Editor’s Note: Photo is from movie “The Paper”, when the reporters confront a cop, asking him to confirm a story.

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