Friday, 4 December 2009

The black screen of death and media reporting

There is a brilliant article on zdnet that goes into the alleged Microsoft 'black screen of death' fears with Windows 7 that plagued Microsoft last week.

The article is a fascinating dissection of the way that an ill-judged and inaccurate article by a security firm spread like wildfire over the Internet, media and newspapers. Over a couple of days Microsoft suffered a great deal of bad publicity, only for the firm that released the statement to admit that the problem was not Microsoft's fault, but was caused by malware on the affected systems.

It smells like a well-planned, deliberate attack on Microsoft. The original article was released on the Friday, and IDG picked it up and released it on their tech websites just in time for the Monday morning after-holiday rush in the US. What was worded in the original article as 'Black Screen woes could affect millions on Windows 7, Vista and XP' became, on many websites: 'does affect'.

As the article says, IDG (who published the article on Monday morning) was not following the story, but leading it. This happens all the time in the media, and it is simply not good enough.

Microsoft had scorn poured over it throughout the media, for something that was fundamentally not its fault, whilst IDG got many hits to its website (many articles referred to it as the originating website, not the security firm). The security firm has increased its public visibility, but has suffered a major embarrassment. IDG wins, and Microsoft loses.

This reactive, inaccurate reporting is happening all the time at the moment. Any reputable media organisation should be morally obliged to check on original sources and weigh them up when writing articles. Instead, they repeat rumour and (in this case) ill-founded 'research' as fact. Worse, instead of copy and pasting the story, words get altered in the process (e.g. 'could' to 'does'), and the original source lost.

At a time when science is being wounded by the 'Climategate' scandal, the media needs to take a step back and take a firm look at the way it reports the news.

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