Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

Journalism’s trouble with technology

with 4 comments

Coverage of BAE systems’ Future Protected Vehicle programme illustrates how writing on new technologies often falls between two stools

Disclaimer: this article isn’t intended as an attack on the Telegraph or Sean Rayment – this kind of problem pops up in every media outlet all the time, and this was one instance that just happened to catch my eye.

As part of the International Journalism course at City University, I’m taking a technology specialism class with Telegraph Head of Technology Shane Richmond. One of the first topics we covered, maybe even in the first class, was the problem that editors face when deploying their journalists specialising in technology: so many stories, from medical to science to defence to motoring to media, can turn on an understanding of a particular piece of technology, but don’t necessarily fall into the tech journalist’s purview. There’s no easy answer about how best to use the editorial resources available to cover these cross-over tech stories properly, as is illustrated by this story from the Telegraph a couple of weeks ago.

On the face of it, it looks like a no-brainer; have the defence correspondent, who has all the right contacts in the military and the armaments industry, cover the story about BAE’s new tanks. The trouble is that this is almost entirely a story about the technology that will make these tanks different from the ones that have come before, and most notably the E-Ink camouflage they’ll hopefully be benefiting from. If you haven’t been keeping up with the latest consumer gadgets that use E-Ink (a lot of e-readers like the Kindle do) then you might have only the fuzziest idea of what it is and what differentiates it from other display technologies.

E-Ink is useful for e-readers (and for tanks) by virtue of its low power consumption; it only draws a significant amount of power when the information displayed changes. That’s why the Kindle battery has such a long life compared with devices like smartphones or tablet computers; unlike them, it isn’t coping with the demands of big, bright, colourful screens with all kinds of activity going on at the same time. Using that technology to adapt tanks to the local flora is a nifty idea, and I’ll be following the story with interest to see how they develop it (as an obvious question, what happens if the tank is hit by bullets or shrapnel?).

The trouble with the Telegraph story is that the defence correspondent in question, Sean Rayment, hasn’t been keenly following the tech blogs (and rightly so) and so was forced to rely on the press release provided by BAE for an explanation of what e-ink actually is – and the press release somehow managed to get it totally wrong. BAE said:

eCamouflage will allow a vehicle to match its camouflage to its surroundings by using electronic ink – rather like a squid.

This is the helpful-looking simile that later turned up in Rayment’s third paragraph, and unfortunately it’s totally misleading. E-Ink camouflage will probably be more chameleon-like than anything – squids don’t use ink to camouflage themselves, but rather as a screen or a decoy to fool predators about their true position. Tanks do have a system that allows them to use similar tactics, but it’s the humble smoke launcher, which has been around for decades and is well-demonstrated in this clip of a French Leclerc battle tank:

Launching smoke allows a tank to obscure its position after it’s been spotted by the enemy and withdraw to a different one while out of sight. The point of BAE’s eCamouflage will presumably be to make sure the tank doesn’t get spotted in the first place.

This story demonstrates a couple of the problems that journalists are facing at the moment. The first is that as technology infiltrates further and further into all other areas of human activity, having a dedicated “technology” correspondent on a newspaper becomes problematic; either he’s twiddling his thumbs and writing the occasional article about iPads while his colleagues struggle to explain technologies they don’t understand themselves, or he’s got a finger in every pie going and is likely to be massively overworked. I’d propose running tech-centric stories across the tech reporter’s desk as part of the editing process, but that would hold them back from doing their own work; maybe dedicated technology sub-editors are needed? That’s unlikely to happen at a time of shrinking budgets.

The other problem is very closely related to this question of editing and checking to make sure the facts are right. At the moment, mainstream media is so desperate to keep up with the web that their regular journalists are often posting content to the website throughout the news cycle – and it often looks like there hasn’t been time for it to go past another pair of eyes before going out. You can notice on a lot of newspaper websites that online stories often have far more typos, or leftover bits of cannibalised paragraphs, than would ever be allowed to appear in the paper. There’s no easy or cheap solution to this one either, but having the subs come in in the afternoon to edit material for the paper seems a bit outdated when much of the unedited content will already have been read by a big portion of the audience.

Hopefully tech coverage will develop to meet these challenges, but until then readers are likely to be left feeling confused by technology stories journalists weren’t fully equipped to understand.


Written by Tom Barfield

January 18, 2011 at 10:11 am

4 Responses

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  1. Not only do journalists have to research the tech, they have to research the biology.

    Mr Squid

    January 18, 2011 at 10:47 am

    • Nice catch! I had no idea there were squid that could do that!

      I think my point still stands though – that’s not the cephalopod using its “ink” to camouflage itself (unless that’s the vocab people use to describe the camouflage in the video you linked).

      The original story implied that:

      (a) squid use ink to camouflage themselves, when in reality it’s more like a decoy.
      (b) e-ink, and the way it will be used on the tank, bears some resemblance to squid ink.

      neither of which was, I submit, particularly helpful for laypeople trying to understand the tech.

      On the other hand, I probably should have guessed that there’d be something like this in the sea waiting to trip me up… thanks for bringing it to my attention!

      Tom Barfield

      January 18, 2011 at 10:54 am

    • Has anyone done the research on why journalists get things wrong? if you are knowledgeable about a particular subject, you will invariably find in articles written by journos that they have got their facts wrong. I know little bit about the City, and often find the way business stories are written to be completely risible. Classic example is when a top businessman loses their job and there is all that nonsense about how much they are getting paid to go – hey you idiots, the guy’s got a contract, if they’d tried to pay him any less he would have sued and it would have cost even more. One reason for journos getting things wrong is ignorance, another is lack of space to explain a complex issue, another might be bias (political for example), sensationalism, playing to their readers’ expectations, laziness, time pressure. But amongst all of that, a journo should be driven by a hunger for truth and should start every story in the Socratic belief that “I only know that I know nothing” (so I’d better check my facts)

      richard dadd

      January 21, 2011 at 7:29 pm

      • I think you’re describing a bit of an ideal situation there – good books to read on this front are Roy Greenslade’s Press Gang and Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News.

        Essentially what has happened to a lot of media orgs, especially in the last 30 years, is that they have lost significant numbers of staff, to the extent that those who are left are spending the majority of their time filing stories that are cribbed from wire services and press releases, rather than leaving the office and going to talk to people to find out what happened for themselves. Ideally, journalists would all have as much time as they needed to investigate their stories and then they would be checked by sub-editors after they’d been written etc etc. As I mention in the article though, increasingly what they do write (which is often a rush job, if only due to the pressures of understaffing and overproduction) isn’t even edited before getting in front of the public – journalists often post stuff straight to the web without an editor even seeing it.

        I think in the City example there, you’re right in one sense that it’s pointless moaning about severance pay that’s governed by contracts written years ago. There is a broader question about how it ever became acceptable for companies to sign contracts like that with their executives, such that they are rewarded hugely even for spectacular failures – and I imagine the frustration at the legal obligation to pay probably cuts back into the boardroom as well as indignant journos and members of the public!

        Tom Barfield

        January 22, 2011 at 10:15 am

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