Fellow travelers, part 2: FOSS journalists, and the separation of topics and personal beliefs

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 26, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

As I write, I am receiving the occasional email about an article I wrote yesterday called "The Mono Mystery That Wasn't." The article debunks two ideas: that an SD Times article has disappeared from the Internet, and that Miguel de Izaca, in talking about how Microsoft's restrictive patent practices have handicapped .NET, has suddenly reversed his opinions. Unlike de Icaza, I don't support the use of .NET in GNU/Linux, but some of the emails landing in my Inbox today assume that I do, and take me to task with varying degrees of politeness.

This is another of the assumptions that free and open source software (FOSS) journalists face any time that they write anything more than a narrowly technical article (and even then, you'd be surprised at some of the reactions). Just as developers sometimes miss the fact that FOSS journalists are concerned with more than promoting or supporting their work, so other community members often assume that what journalists write about reflects what they think about the subject.

Some community members may also denounce journalists for their alleged beliefs -- often accusing them of holding views that are almost the exact opposite of the ones they actually hold.

The Single Story Fallacy

The trouble with these conclusions is that they are usually drawn from a single story. Since 2004, I have written at least 800 stories. I write 16,000 to 25,000 words of journalism every month, and the efforts to fill those words, to say nothing of my restless wish to explore unfamiliar things, can lead me to some strange and diverse places. At times I feel like Saruman studying the history of Sauron on behalf of the White Council (and we all know what happened to him), but I figure that part of my work is reporting back to readers on places they either haven't gone or else are unlikely to go.

At other times, I develop a suggestion made by a reader precisely because it is a topic that I never would have generated for myself. I may work on an idea chosen or suggested by an editor for much the same reason, and because diplomacy or a looming deadline encourages me to go along with it.

Still, if you focus on a single article, you could get some strange ideas about my opinions. Depending on the story, you could easily decide that I was a free software supporter, an open source supporter, or even a proponent advocate of proprietary software, a GNOME-hater, a KDE-detractor, or an advocate on one side or other of half a dozen other issues.

In addition, depending on what baggage you bring to the story, or how strong your ability to read in context are, you could easily reach conclusions that have more to do with you than with me. How else could readers (as they have done with several times) see both pro-Microsoft and pro-Free Software Foundation sentiments in the same story? The contradiction seems more likely to be in the readers than in the story or me.

Leaping to Conclusions without Parachutes

Then, just to complicate matters, the belief or interest reflected in a story may not be the one that readers assume.

For example, in the case of "The Mono Mystery That Wasn't," my interest in the topic has nothing to do with Mono or de Icaza. Although I have written about Mono a number of times, I don't use it, and I don't think it should be used on a free desktop until the patent encumbrances on .NET are removed. Nor am I comfortable with de Icaza's interactions with Microsoft. I do consider de Icaza a friendly acquaintance and someone who is often misrepresented, but, were I guided by my opinion on Mono or his chosen work, I would not have written the story.

However, not only is Mono, pro or con, is a popular topic, but I also have a belief -- unfashionable in this post-modernist age -- in discoverable truth. The rumors about the SD Times story sounded dubious to me, and the reporting proved itself sloppy, so I became curious and found out what actually happened.

My satisfaction in the article does not lie in the fact that it promotes Mono (it doesn't), or that it might embarrass people who are not exactly friends of de Icaza or me (it should). Instead, it lies in my conviction that I discovered at least a working approximation of the truth. That, I believe, is what journalism is supposed to be about.

Of course, some times, my interest is more selfish or pragmatic. I may choose a topic because it gives me a chance of completing a story by evening, or -- very occasionally -- because I owe an editor a story and don't have a better topic.

But the point is, readers can never be quite sure why a writer chooses the topic that they do. True, if writers repeatedly return to a topic, you can be more confident that it interests them. For instance, looking at Carla Schroder's body of writing, you can legitimately conclude that she is a feminist. In the same way, Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols appears to have an abiding interest in the problems of Windows security. Some articles, too, are clearly meant as comment pieces -- like this one -- so a direct connection between the story and the writer's beliefs unquestionably exists.

Yet, in any other circumstances, assuming a direct connection between a FOSS article and its writer's beliefs is rash. Unlike amateur bloggers, journalists are not always inspired by their passions -- or, when they are, those passions are ones that rarely occur to most readers.

Taking tours through lives

The American fantasist Harlan Ellison used to refer to such assumptions about him and his work as "taking a tour through my life." He clearly hated such tours, and few writers of any kind are likely to be completely comfortable with them. Some rant about them, and most go through periods in which they avoid reading comments so that they can focus on new work instead of becoming annoyed by reactions to published pieces. Many would probably agree with Ellison's comment to the would be tour-guides: "I don't know you, and you don't know me."

Personally, I wouldn't go that far. Tours through my life are part of the price I pay for doing work to which I am committed. They are the dark side, I sometimes think, of the accessibility to others created by the Internet, which is something that I wouldn't want to be without.

All the same, I suggest that readers resist the temptation to always see the writer in the story. By all means, agree or disagree with what it says. Express your opinion in language that is as emotional or colorful as you like. But don't assume that a single story tells you a single thing about the person who wrote it.

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