Towards the end of 2014, I will have been writing about free and open source software (FOSS) for a decade. The realization surprises me, because I am used to thinking of myself a newcomer. More – I still think of myself as an outsider whose criticisms do not apply to me as much as those who might be called colleagues. Under the circumstances, I hesitate to talk about the quality of coverage that FOSS receives, even though honesty forces me to say that much of it is not very good.
The outlook is not completely bleak. There are some FOSS journalists whom I am proud to call colleagues, such as Carla Schroder, with her practical outlook and wicked turn of phrase, or Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls who has been reporting and commenting on technology in general and FOSS in particular longer than just about anyone.
However, for every one whom I admire, there are many others who leave me wincing and rushing to analyze my latest article to check whether I am guilty of exactly the same tendencies that I publicly deplore. Specifically, I see at least seven problems with how FOSS is covered:
A lack of journalistic training: I was lucky to have apprenticed at Linux.com in the days of Robin Miller and Lee Schlesinger. Even though I have no formal education in journalism, they hammered into my head the ethical standards of journalism, teaching me about fairness, conflicts of interest and the differences between reporting and editorializing, as well as a dozen other things I needed to know. However, too many of those writing about FOSS – like most of the computer press in general – have no idea that they need anything beyond a fondness for the sound of their own voice. They don’t know how to summarize opposing views accurately, much less that they have any obligation to try. Nor do they check facts. Readers are the poorer for their failures.
A lack of business and marketing experience: Working in business is invaluable for a tech journalist. Such experience teaches you how far you should trust news releases and how a product is brought to market. Unless you know these things, you are likely to be credulous, accepting information that you should be questioning. For instance, when Canonical announced the first vendor for its phones but declined to say who that vendor was, most FOSS journalists focused on the first part of the news and ignored the second. Only blogger Larry Cafiero, who is a mainstream journalist by day, reached the right conclusion: Without the vendor’s name, the news was the manufacturing equivalent of vaporware and essentially worthless.
An imbalance between writing skills and technical expertise: Like the technical writers who crank out manuals, FOSS journalists come in one of two forms. Either they are people who know how to write, or people with expertise. The result? On one hand, you get well-written articles that tend to avoid technical details. On the other hand, you get expert articles that are so arcane that they might as well be written in assembly language. Too few writers seem to strive for articles that are both well-written and expert in their subject matter.
An apocalyptic outlook: Talking about companies and products, FOSS journalists tend to speak in absolutes. Linux will bury Windows one day, and Android triumph absolutely over iOS. What no one notices, however, is that such Conan-esque victories rarely occur except when you are talking about startups and very small companies. When the companies involved are larger, what you usually see is incomplete victories in which market share changes hand, but most of the competitors continue to co-exist.
Quickie reviews: Once you have experience, writing reviews is easier because you know what to look for. Yet, even then, you need time to investigate. But, instead of taking the necessary time, too many reviews touch on the least important parts of their topics, such as the installation program. Nor do they take the time to look for general tendencies in a new release, simply recording a bunch of random observations instead. Such practices frequently make reviews next door to useless.
Too much fanboyism (or fangirlism): It should go without saying that those who write about FOSS believe in it and see themselves as helping it grow. However, loyalty to a cause should not mean blind acceptance of every vagary. As naïve as it sounds, journalists are supposed to deliver the first draft of history, doing their best to tell the truth even when doing so is inconvenient for the causes they support. They may be diplomatic in their expression of the truth, but they are still supposed to express it. This obligation does not make them traitors, as you sometimes hear; if anything, they are being more useful than those who pretend that no problems exist that need to be exposed.
Encouraging personality cults: FOSS is full of colorful personalities. However, although defining an issue as a battle between a couple of people adds drama to an issue, it usually simplifies and distorts it. For instance, the existence of the armed camps of free software and open source is not due just to the fact that Richard Stallman and Linus Toravalds have different personalities and leadership styles, but also to very different motivations shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Were Stallman or Torvalds to die abruptly, the issues would be no less urgent or influential.
In making these observations, I am not excluding myself. At one time or other, I have probably been guilty of all these problems, and one or two of them, I uneasily suspect, may be habitual with me. In fact, part of my reason for mentioning this problem is to identify them so that I can do more to avoid them.
But in addition to being a writer, I am also a reader. While I know all too well that deadlines mean that articles do not always receive the amount of thought they deserve, I also get impatient with the fact that so few articles about FOSS are worth reading or add to my understanding. Many of us who write about FOSS could do much better than we do – but we are hardly likely to try if the problems are never mentioned to begin with.