OPINION: When Tech Reporting Goes Bad

by David D. Menzies

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- The headline is intriguing: "Rise of Fingerprint Scanners Raises Security Questions" and the outlet is reputable: a major metropolitan area's National Public Radio (NPR) station. The description posted underneath the archived audio file continues to excite: "Fingerprint recognition technology is replacing passwords in smartphones, key fobs and many other consumer products. But how safe is it? Unlike resetting a password, regaining control of biometric data can be complicated." A review of the five-minute report, however, shows a reporter trying desperately to get his interview subject, the CEO of an international biometrics company, to give him the answer he wants despite the facts supporting a completely different conclusion. The result? A muddled mix of a misleading headline, unsupported assertions and an interviewee unnecessarily on the defensive, none of which moves an important technology discussion forward. Unfortunately, this is becoming an all-too-common situation with today's mainstream and industry media as outlets struggle with shrinking revenue and small, overworked staffs full of young, inexperienced journalists without the background or time to understand the technology they are reporting about.

The aforementioned situation was easy to see coming, at least from a public relations practitioner standpoint. I can personally vouch for this because weeks before this interview aired (and was published online) the NPR station actually contacted a client of mine asking for an interview on the subject of fingerprint tech security. After talking with the producer, I got the impression that he might have an agenda in mind as he wasn't listening to my feedback correcting him on several assertions he had on the subject. I talked with my client company, shared my concerns, and set up an informational phone call -- not an actual interview -- between my client and the producer to see if my concerns were valid. The feedback on that discussion was similar to my impressions of the producer, and we did not actively pursue this particular media opportunity. Apparently, the producer did find another subject to interview who was not so concerned about the line of questioning not matching the facts.

If you listen to the interview, the reporter tries again and again to get his interviewee to support his generalized, some might say sensationalized premise. To his credit, the interviewee does not take the bait, but still does not take the opportunity to fully debunk the subject altogether. Had he proactively and aggressively done so, the title of the piece could have changed to: "Security Measures in Place as Use of Fingerprint Scanners Rises" and the description more along the lines of: "Fingerprint recognition technology is replacing passwords in smartphones, key fobs and many other consumer products. But how safe is it? Pretty darn safe, according to an industry expert." Of course, a headline like that is not "click bait" and doesn't support the reporter's initial assumption, that fingerprint scanning technology is easily spoofed.

As this CEO and his company are now tied to this report for all eternity (or as long as the internet continues to chug along), he might think twice about doing an interview with a reporter who has no substantive technology background pitching a flawed premise. That said, beggars can't be choosers; as previously mentioned, newsrooms all over the country are contracting, with reporters covering multiple beats, many of which they have no background in. The reporters themselves are younger; your average news operation just can't afford experienced journalists, so they have to rely on younger up-and-comers looking to build their resumes who'll do the work at a lower salary. Many of these reporters are quality people who engage in the proper due diligence and research in their pieces, but many are not. It's pretty much a crap shoot, to be honest, which often results in widely spread news reports with erroneous or misleading information, spreading false assumptions about new technology which can impede its acceptance and growth.

Inexperienced reporters aren't the only ones doing a disservice to technology news; sometimes well-respected industry outlets fall prey to situations resulting in flubbed articles. Staying in the biometrics realm, a recent industry trade publication reported from a tradeshow on a fingerprint scanner manufacturer demonstrating how smartphone fingerprint scanners can be easily spoofed by a fake fingerprint, and how theirs prevents this from happening. Unfortunately, the piece simply reports on the manufacturer's demo as fact without engaging in any meaningful Q&A about the specifics of the demonstration, such as:

Does this work on every smartphone fingerprint scanner? (Here is my smartphone: try it on this to see if it works.)
How easy is it to produce a fake fingerprint?
How many cases of spoofing are reported?
If this is such a major issue, why do all smartphones have fingerprint scanners?

The reporter doesn't quote any industry statistics or information, nor does he interview any other fingerprint scanning companies for his piece to either back-up or argue against this company's assertions. Why? The reporter apparently is reporting from an international tradeshow with multiple competing companies, there should be resources available on-site. Or maybe he did talk to them, and they debunked the theory altogether thus making the article moot and making the news outlet miss out on multiple click-throughs and online advertising revenue. Maybe he was too busy covering the show and had to file his article on a tight deadline. There truly is no way to know for sure, but the damage is already done: a statement on a technology has been made public for thousands to read, without any corroborating information or opposing points of view to ensure that the statement is true or not.

Fingerprint biometrics is not the only technology that is being given short shrift by mainstream and industry tech reporters. There are literally hundreds of new technologies entering our daily lives that carry with them important issues surrounding identity management, security, privacy and accessibility. Unless mainstream media outlets and industry trade publications get a sudden influx of cash to hire and keep experienced, quality journalists, it is up to us as consumers of the news to look past the headlines and carefully consider the nuances of each piece we're reading.

- David D. Menzies is an award-winning PR consultant, former newspaper editor, and editor/publisher of CarolinaTechNews.