Trying to fit a square ‘news peg’ into a round hole

Today, l received a call from a BBC producer – I’ll leave out which BBC outlet – who wanted to discuss a story on the next generation internet. It was loosely based on an Associated Press story that Japan was going to fund research for new network technology to “replace the Internet to tackle growing quality and security problems”. The producer said that the US Congress had so far not funded such research, and that Japan was the first government to fund the research for what she initially called ‘Internet 2’.

I said, no it isn’t. The Internet 2 project in the United States has been up and running since the mid-90s. She countered that Japan was the first government to fund such a project. No, it isn’t. The NSF in the US and CERN in Europe have been funding similar work for years. And last I looked, the NSF was a US government agency so to say that the US Congress hadn’t allocated specific funding might be true, but to say that no such government funding exists in the US is false.

The AP article itself – at least the one that I found on the International Herald Tribune site – was really poorly written with some basic factual errors, but all it would have taken was a quick Google on ‘internet 2’ or ‘next generation internet’ to uncover a number of such projects, either proposed or already in place. CERN built the first intercontinental 10-Gigabet ethernet WAN in 2005. And really, some would say that the next generation internet is already being deployed in the form of IPv6. The Chinese CERN has been touting their IPv6 project since 2004. And the project that Japan is talking about sounds eerily familiar to the Global Environment for Networking Investigations initiative announced in 2005 and again funded by the NSF.

After a while, the producer admitted that she didn’t know about all of these things and didn’t know much about the story, but just wanted to have a discussion about what the next generation internet might look like for consumers.

This happens in tech news all the time: A story comes up which is not news to anyone in the industry, but is news to a producer with no background in tech. That’s fair enough. It’s a specialist subject and it can take time for stories to acquire interest to the non-tech literate, but what really put me off taking part is that the producer had done so little preparation apart from reading a really brief AP story.

The problem is that this isn’t isolated to technology coverage. I know that as a journalist, we’re mostly generalists and are called on to report on a wide range of topics. But a quick internet search and some basic research can give most journalists what they need, and it would have most likely made this producer aware that there was ‘no there, there’. It was a flimsy ‘news peg’ based on a lot of inaccurate information.

In the end, I declined to take part in the dicussion. It made me really uncomfortable that although her facts were wrong, that she still wanted to run with the segment. I know she’s got 24 hours to fill, but this is a point of ethics. No journalist should be setting up a piece based on a flimsy premise or, worse, false information.

These kind of false discussions happen quite often. As a matter of fact, I am tired of the media being a controversy-creation industry. Suw and I have written about it in terms of technology or science coverage, but this also happens in social and current affairs journalism. But hey, why let the facts stand in the way of a good story?

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