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TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism

The TechCrunch/Last.fm controversy has been all over the net over the weekend, and there’s not much that I can add to it factually. The one thing I will say, though, is that TechCrunch has behaved irresponsible: not so much for the original story – everyone gets it wrong sometimes. But when you get it wildly wrong like this, what you don’t do is use weasal words to try and cover up the fact that you’ve got it horribly wrong. For example:

“From the very beginning, I’ve presented this story for what it is: a rumor. Despite my attempts to corroborate it and the subsequent detail I’ve been able to gather, I still don’t have enough information to determine whether it is absolutely true. But I still don’t have enough information to determine that it is absolutely false either. What I do have are a lot of unanswered questions about how exactly Last.fm shares user data with the record industry.”

In a word, this is bullshit. It’s Daily Mail-style journalism, posing a statement as just “asking questions”. And even when Schonfeld got a detailed statement from Last.fm on exactly what data it gives to record companies (answer: no more than they could get just by looking it up on the public Last.fm site), he doesn’t retract the story.

TechCrunch got it wrong, and instead of retracting the story and apologising, it’s trying to wriggle out and say “it’s only a rumour”. Sorry, but that’s bullshit. And please, please, I hope no one brings up that old chestnut of “it’s only a blog, we don’t have to adopt proper standards for reporting”. The moment you can have a serious effect on a company or individual, you owe it to the world to be sure of what you say.

One thing though: This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”. The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.

UPDATE: One of the great things about the web is that companies can put their own take on a story across well. And Last.fm has done this very nicely indeed, in the pithily-titled post “TechCrunch are full of shit“. As one of the commenters on the original TechCrunch post put it, “Mr Arrington, this is why you get spat at, yeah? Is it starting to make sense now?”. Stronger than I’d say it, but still understandable…

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