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Is Yellow Journalism the New Color of Content?

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Over the past week or so, two of our industry luminaries have reverted to an old style of journalism where you sensationalize events through the way you present the facts. This isn't a simple case of taking a contrary viewpoint to elicit controversy, but a reporting of facts in such a way as to denigrate the company being discussed.

First and most unexpected was Michael Arrington's reporting of Twitter's hack problems – a hacker got access to more than 300 documents from inside Twitter, including some proprietary information that shouldn't have seen the light of day. It was newsworthy, and TechCrunch milked it into numerous articles.

But they crossed the line by publishing the documents and commenting on some regarding the company's future plans. The company was presented naked, like the pictures of the female ESPN reporter that were posted on the Web. Except, there was a backlash over Erin Andrews' pictures and video, which were pulled from the Web.

The TechCrunch information is still online, but I refuse to link to it. TechCrunch can't claim the story needed to be given such a detailed and commented presentation a la the Pentagon Papers (where national secrets were published during the Vietnam War to disclose government errors and problems).

Twitter is hot right now, and these stories were guaranteed to get maximum exposure for TechCrunch. Ironically, yet a touch shamefully, Twitter was used to distribute the stories. Sadly, yet realistically, there must have been people at TechCrunch smiling over that.

The second story that showed another aspect of "yellow journalism" was Fast Company's slamming of Jamba Juice for using what they portrayed as another company's artwork in one of their ads.

We know that Robert Scoble is the king of self and profitable promotion. I guess this could be the answer to the FTC's investigation of review blogs that people gain financial benefit from. Just use sensationalism to spike traffic and replace the lost income with increased CPM revenue.

The satiric headline "Has Jamba Juice's Controversial Ad Just Pureed Its Billion-Dollar Dreams?" got a lot of attention. Not only was it seen by a lot of online readers and linked to by other blogs, but the controversy even had a short-term impact on the stock price.

They fell prey to conversation on Twitter and grabbed the controversy without doing a lot of research before pushing out the story.

The comment "Given the whirl of controversy online about Jamba's new ad campaign being a ripoff of the work of cult cartoonist David Rees' Get Your War On series" was, in reality, a case of using the same public domain clipart. The story headline and slant suggested there was plagiarism involved and that the error could seriously impact the company's future.

Maybe the ad agency should have been aware of its prior use, but it wasn't the catastrophe Fast Company made it out to be.

There seems to be a trend in being sensational lately, and not just by the lesser bloggers and reporters. Yes, online competition is fierce, what with the battle to break news in such a fast medium. But there should be some responsibility -- especially from people seen as major sources of accurate information in our space.

The argument newspapers make about the unprofessionalism of online news generation only get serious support when these types of stories are presented by industry leaders.

Michael, Robert... you don't need the money. The Web has been kind to you. It's time for you guys to give a little back and show the rest of us how responsible online reporting should be done.

Chris Boggs Fires Back

Great points, Frank. This sort of journalism should be described for what it is, not for the reaction it causes.

Interestingly, the Internet has magnified this type of writing and editorial style. In the "old days," although lots of this stuff existed, it was spread across a large and diverse geography and reader base, making it far less visible.

Today's journalists, as a result of the far more expansive reach they enjoy online, should be more careful in what they report. Usually, these controversies are brought to a close when the truth is discovered through actual primary research. Often the author and publications ends up getting egg on their faces as a result of inaccuracies.

The problem is the idiots that automatically retweet or blog about some "news" without verifying the truth. That snowballing danger, due to the nature of the Internet, isn't going anywhere soon.

The good news is that sites like snopes.com exist, for those who want to verify if something is true or false. Although snopes has in the past primarily been a great tool to help prove to idiots that e-mails are lies, this could become more useful to those wanting to check the authenticity of a new story. I just hope that our community continues to ridicule and vilify those who print the wrong news, or add a non-factual sensational element to any story.


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