Monday, January 26, 2009

A Newspaper without Writers

I suppose I should be pleased to see the Los Angeles Times trying to improve its abysmal Internet coverage, but the fact that the newspaper so rarely breaks a real technology story can be disheartening to longtime subscribers like myself.

Often what runs in the paper are stories that are weeks or months old, which generally represent summaries of reports or accounts of cybercrime trials. Almost never do they spot a trend in online culture first, much less encourage any serious reflection about the cultural impact of the hardware and software that we use every day. Instead, far too frequently, the newspaper highlights hackneyed stories about cyberpredators, cyberbullying, identity theft, piracy, and mass susceptibility to moronic Internet memes. Sadly, this trend that has only gotten worse since recent rounds of mass firings cut the newspaper's professional writing staff.

Yes, "Greatest Internet threat to teens may be teens themselves" avoids the sensationalism of much of their coverage, but it is still sort of embarrassing to read. Let's just take a sample paragraph, which presents the main "news" in the article, almost two weeks after the New York Times covered the issuing of the same report:

In an authoritative report almost a year in the making, a Harvard University-led task force on Internet safety, ordered by the nation's attorneys general and meant to expose the full extent of the danger, found instead that kids trading gossip, photos and plans on social networking sites such as MySpace are relatively safe from adults cruising online for sex with minors.

I won't even get in to what's wrong with prose like "authoritative report," but to think that the reporter thought that the Berkman Center at Harvard "meant to expose the full extent of the danger" shows a kind of comical naïveté about what that institution represents and how one might, as an academic, grant a proposition legitimacy for purposes of argument before setting out to demolish it methodically by means of empirical proof. Although the story doesn't stoop to the level of "Facebook journalism," it presents no additional commentary from the researchers in question about their reflections about the study, which is only cursorily summarized, and follows this summary with summaries of other studies from the predator-panic era with little attempt at coherence in characterizing the report's significance.

The article also links to tips for "Tightening Internet security for kids" promoting the same predator panic that the Harvard report explicitly debunks. I could not believe that the advice came from the same reporter and was dated on the same day as the accompanying news story, unless a) the reporter has multiple personality disorder or b) the reporter suffers from short-term memory loss involving the paragraphs that she herself has recently written, as well as reports that she herself has read and cited. It even links to advocacy pages for a local parent paranoia group.

At the same time, Newport Beach Internet safety coach Suzanne Stanford has launched a lobbying effort for federal legislation requiring sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses with Congress. Stanford calls her proposed bill the Parents Against Predators Act ( "It's obvious that it needs to be a federal law," Stanford says.

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