“According to Bitcoin, there are more than 13 million units of virtual currency around the world.”
TIME should be embarrassed to have the above phrase, which is absolutely nonsensical, appear anywhere on its site. And yet, somehow it managed the double whammy of including it in both text and in a video within an online article addressing the recent Consumer Finance Protection Bureau report on virtual currencies titled, “How Bitcoins Could Put Your Finances at Risk.”
Bitcoin is not a company or a body of people, it is a software protocol – it cannot be anthropomorphized. Therefore there is no “According to Bitcoin.” That’s a bit like saying, “According to Gold there are 171,000 tons of the precious metal in the world” or, “According to Email there are 144.8 billion electronic messages sent daily.” It’s a complete non-sequitur.
Sadly, the above blunder is none too surprising. As Om Malik recently explored in his blog post “Silicon Valley & Parachute Journalism,” the mainstream media (MSM) is currently enamored with this shiny new tech thing and as a result insists on “thrusting journalists into an area to report on a story in which the reporter has little knowledge or experience.” Malik writes:
From Vanity Fair to Elle magazine, suddenly everyone is parachuting their people into Silicon Valley… to work on technology stories…
A great magazine story when not breaking new ground is supposed to take what has been reported in the past and move the story forward. In this case, the writer Stein it seems didn’t really know the subject or understand or didn’t really care about trying to understand the deeper issues.
It was an opportunity for what is normally a fine business magazine to tell the real story — and not sex it up with a cover of stereotypes.
In this case, TIME didn’t dedicate a whole cover to the bitcoin story. And yet in just 188 short words and an accompanying 1:20 video, the aging publication managed to make it painfully clear to any educated reader just how inadequate its understanding of bitcoin is. It’s not just the (unnamed) author, but also his editor that should be held accountable for this blunder.
For the bitcoin and broader crypto-currency ecosystem, which is desperately seeking to educate the public, not to mention regulators and the traditional finance industry on this emerging technology, blunders like this are truly damaging. As shown by the tone deaf BitLicence regulations proposed by the New York Department of Financial Services, a misunderstanding of bitcoin by those in power can have potentially disastrous real world consequences. The same could be said about the media, as demonstrated by the NewsWeek’s irresponsible reporting in its attempt to identify bitcoin’s creator Satoshi Nakamoto.
Sadly, TIME is unlikely to devote a second thought to this throwaway piece of “journalism.” It should be damaging to the publication’s credibility, but as explained by the “Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect,” subject matter experts who notice inaccuracies in reporting around their domain are somehow able to forget that fact when reading reporting on other subjects.
Like so many things on the Internet, this article is a powerful reminder not to trust everything you read. When it comes to technology reporting, don’t just consider the source, consider whether the source knows the first thing about tech. It also wouldn’t hurt if the publication were less than 20 years old.