The Sure Sign of Advocacy Journalism

AppleInsider story “Google has fooled the media and markets, but hasn’t bested Tim Cook’s Apple” is superb example of advocacy journalism. Writer Daniel Eran Dilger is an unabashed Apple apologist, one who has skewered me more than once at his site Roughly Drafted, and AI. As I expressed last week, using Apple as example, there absolutely is a place for this kind of journalism.

Because bias is inevitable. Objectivity is a myth. Point of view limits everyone. Your vantage point, whether visual, cultural, biological, logistical, or whatever other “ical” applied, shapes how and what you write about.

Take two people writing about Washington politics as simple example. The reporter working outside the White House won’t have as much access to people and information, while the one working inside may be influenced by relationships—how he or she feels about them or what’s needed to preserve them. Vantage point impacts how and what writers write about.

That example isn’t about bias, per se, but is related. Perspective and perception are everything in writing, because every narrative requires some point of view. Bias seeps through based on how the writer perceives the things he or she writes about, how he or she choses to the tell the story, and how sources are quoted or summarized—that’s without considering feelings, personality, and social influences.

Then there is writing style, which in Daniel Eran Dilger’s case is quite inflected and assigns motivation, that is taking the position he knows people’s thoughts. Unless a mind reader, he doesn’t.

Probing Perspective
Over the years, some BetaNews readers have accused me of linkbaiting and being too changeable, where with the latter some stories seem contradictory. Both accusations are intertwined because of my writing style. The news staff is fairly small. We don’t have the resources to write about all news from different points of views. But there is always another vantage point, which is one reason larger media organizations follow up breaking stories with others written by several reporters—to flush out the same event from different vantage points. That’s responsible reporting. So when reporting regularly for BetaNews (I don’t currently), I sometimes look at the same news differently.

When writing from various perspectives, I often purposely take a contrary position to generate thought and debate. Punchy headlines hook readers; it’s a tactic tabloids have successfully used for centuries. I also take it upon myself to try and correct the record, because there is so much bad reporting.

One example relates to Daniel Eran Dilger, whom I will refer to as D.E. rather than Daniel Eran, and advocacy journalism. In a September 2013 AI story, under subhead “Exactly the kind of data Joe Wilcox desperately needed”, he asserts that I am “easily impressed by any figures that flatter any company other than Apple, or which appear to cast Apple in a bad light”. Oh yeah, Mr. Mind Reader? Excerpt:

When Strategy Analytics invented numbers suggesting that Microsoft’s Surface tablet had sold 3 million units in the spring quarter, Wilcox uncritically bought it because he desperately wanted good news about the Surface.

Three months earlier, Wilcox had insisted in print that ‘Surface RT sales are quite good, you just don’t know about it’, so with some analyst data supporting what he wanted to believe, Wilcox was ecstatic. ‘Now there are real numbers, and they’re quite good’, he wrote. It turned out Strategy Analytics was wrong and Microsoft’s Surface wasn’t really selling at all.

D.E. assigns motivation, and presents the God “all-knowing” point of view when writing that I “desperately wanted”, am “easily impressed” (by “any company other than Apple”) and was “ecstatic”, none of which is true. Nor is there a flaw in my reporting on the December 2012 story, “Surface RT sales are probably quite good, you just don’t know it“. As previously stated, I like to present contrary viewpoints, particularly when The Echo Chamber of blogs and news stories boom too loud.

Selective Style
I used a different metric to look at Surface RT sales, number per store, since Microsoft sold the tablet through so few retail outlets. From that perspective, based on analyst estimates, RT sales looked quite promising. That is within context of limited distribution, against which most bloggers or reporters measured iPad’s much broader availability. The comparisons are misleading, when pitting sales in 120 countries (Apple) against six (Microsoft)—online-only in five of them.

Keeping with my headline-style and following up with fresh analyst data on tablet shipments, seven weeks later I wrote “Surface sales suck“. D.E. refers to the earlier story, in July and September 2013 posts, rather than the more recent one, where again I observe constrained retail distribution limits Surface RT and fault the strategy, too.

Selective writing—or memory, if you prefer—is a sure sign of advocacy journalism. The writer has a clear agenda and shapes the story to support it. In D.E.’s case, that also involves pulling down other people, whether analysts, bloggers, reporters, or anyone else who doesn’t support the point of view he presents. That kind of writing style can be effective storytelling in the right hands, and I assume he knows what his regular readership wants.

The Echo Chamber
Where he and I share something in common, or so I perceive, is desire to correct the record. That’s what I assume motivates yesterday’s story, something the dek alone suggests:

Listening to the Google-enraptured tech media’s echo chamber of fears, uncertainties and doubts about the world’s most profitable and successful company, you’d never realize that there’s an incredible bounty of low hanging fruit waiting for Tim Cook’s Apple to harvest, and little but mobile scorched earth left behind Google.

The Echo Chamber bugs me, too. I agree that, recently, negative perceptions about Apple are misplaced, as expressed in my (strangely titled) January 2014 “Apple serves a feast but Wall Street complains there’s no ketchup” and October 2013 “I hate to sound like an Apple apologist, but…” stories. Except for tone and accusations, you will find that both stories makes many of the same points as D.E.’s diatribe, with respect to Apple performance analysis.

The 3,000-word (or thereabouts) story’s tone is conspiratorial—that the news media has longstanding anti-Apple bias. D.E. certainly has applied such Apple motivation to me in the past. But that’s okay. Advocacy journalists add balance where there is little, or none. His story is sure to stir up debate about Apple’s future mobile fortunes versus Android’s and Google’s.

Interestingly, I started writing this post last night, then abandoned. But I awoke this morning to find that Philip Elmer-DeWitt, my recent example of an Apple advocate, posted a quickie about D.E.’s story. “If you like your pro-Apple agitprop straight—right out of the bottle, no ice, no water—Daniel Eran Dilger is your man”, Philip writes. “It’s good Sunday-morning read that will either get your heart pumping or your blood boiling. One or the other”.

Balance the Record
He is right about that. But the context is advocacy journalism. D.E.’s storytelling fits a narrative that supports his point of view. The analysis is not objective, but, as previously asserted, no news story really is. There are varying degrees of objectivity and bias. He is very selective making arguments that support his perspective, while ignoring others. But in doing so, D.E. also makes valid points overlooked in the general blogging or news reporting, like I did with the Surface RT story he accused.

Some examples:

  • “As Apple’s numbers illustrate, the real money in mobile is not paid search (the keystone of Google’s entire business) but in hardware profits”.
  • “Never mind that iPhone 5c has, by itself, outsold all of Windows Phone licensees shipments put together in the winter quarter”.
  • “The Moto X was an incredible failure, selling in quantities not even comparable to Microsoft’s Zune and Surface disasters”.
  • “If Google had actually captured 80 percent of the success in smartphones, it should be reporting a similar percentage of revenues and profits: four times Apple’s mobile performance”.

Let’s quickly review these four randomly-chosen points.

The first: Putting aside that devices have a finite market, as iPod proves, the point that devices generate considerably more revenue for Apple than mobile advertising does for Google is often overlooked in analyst data, blog posts, or news reports.

The second: The news media’s fixation on lower-than-expected iPhone 5c sales often fails to put them in broader perspective. Windows Phone sales do.

The third: The Microsoft device comparisons put Moto X sales in context.

The fourth: D.E. refers to Android’s 80-percent global smartphone market share. Again, the Google-Apple performance comparison offers fresh perspective often overlooked elsewhere.

Still, the story’s tone is antagonistic and accusing, which reveals its advocacy journalism. You can agree or not with D.E. (I do both), but many readers won’t mistake his bias. Will it put them off? I hope not. Conspiracy and antagonism aside, someone has to balance the record.