Monday, May 18, 2009

How P2P Reporting Exposes Media's Ignorance

With news stories about copyright becoming increasingly common on the major media services of the world, it’s clear that a lot of mainstream media doesn’t understand the laws, or facts regarding copyright. If the media can’t report it accurately, are people, and more importantly politicians, getting the wrong idea about things?

The ‘digital revolution’ has re-jigged a lot of the media hierarchy in recent years. A lot of specialist news media outlets have popped up (we’re one of them!) and they’ve taken a lot of the tech reader-base from mainstream media. They’ve also put things back though, as there is more research done into fringe topics, which can develop into big stories (like Comcast’s sandvining) or people get involved with news in ways they haven’t before (as has just happened at the Consumerist, with a pair of Domino’s delinquents).

However, in a rush to cover these increasingly technical or specialist stories, that turn out to have a major impact, many media outlets are left in a quandry. Do you license and reprint an article, do you write a short piece leading to a specialist site, or do you attempt to write your own story? For most outlets, licensing is impractical, or too expensive. A leader piece covering the main elements and linking to a more detailed article is only really an option for online news sites, so the majority of media is left to try and rewrite. Trying to write an article, though, on a subject you don’t know can lead to problematic and inaccurate reporting though (or to being taken in by blatantly false figures/claims in press releases)

Sometimes errors can be elementary, and come from rushing to research and write. A classic example is in this article from Claremont College’s magazine, where the writer mixes tracker, and torrent; overall though the article reads like a summery of our past spectrial pieces. Perhaps a better example of how things can go wrong is when people with little knowledge on a subject attempt to guide people. Take this Sync piece from last month – it is riddled with inaccuracies and shows little understanding of the subject, right now to the authors assumption that when you’re downloading, you’re not uploading, and that you have to leave a file in a folder to share. Which these things are true of classic P2P protocols, they’re not true for bittorrent (and we won’t even go to the recommendation of BitComet, or the claims of popularity (our research has shown less than 5% of clients in use are bitcomet, and the number is dropping).

Of course, sometimes the tech sites get it wrong too. A few weeks ago, Gizmodo published a piece called “How to use Bittorrent like a Pro”. Amongst things the article advised were the basics like port forwarding, but they also advised not seeding, using bluetack’s lists, and private trackers where possible. We won’t go into the conflict of ‘don’t seed’ and ‘use private trackers’ and certainly not the (useless) bluetack lists, but the writer is at least man enough to admit when he’s wrong, and edited the story after someone clued him in on some of the biggest errors.

Of course, there’s some that just can’t be helped. Worse, as well as often being the most clueless of people, they’re usually the final authority on the news publication. Case in point is Phil Bronstein, until recently editor of the San Fransisco Chronicle, now editor at large of Hearst Newspapers. Last week, he appeared on The Colbert Report, to bemoan newspapers and their declining circulation, often for the reasons given above. However, despite having worked in newspapers for over two decades, he has a poor understanding of copyright, as evidenced in this clip.

If that’s an example of how well his newspapers research their articles, perhaps that’s why people are moving away from them. Worst of all though? His Chronicle office was all of 3 blocks from the offices of Bittorrent inc. – I’m sure they’d have updated him on copyright law if he’d bothered to ask, or it’s a short hop to Stanford, where someone could have filled him in. Of course, there are also those that just want to distort a story, to make ‘good copy’ – nothing’s going to help them.

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