Reporters or Copy Machines

November 20th, 2014

One quick way to pad content in an online or print publication is to publish someone’s press release. Sure, it may be adapted slightly to create the veneer of original reporting, but at its heart it’s just someone’s publicity spiel.

It may come from a politician, a government agency, a company, or any individual. But a press release is still a press release. It is not necessarily the truth, and is often just a sales pitch.

Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a press release, and getting coverage is the goal, but does that mean that the media should print them with little or no changes? What about some background perspective, second opinions, alternate points of view? What about a few terms and conditions, such as “reportedly” or “allegedly”?

So there are numerous published reports touting the improved performance on an iPad 2 or iPhone 4s with the iOS 8.1.1 update. This is an important issue, as using those devices felt like slogging through mud after installing iOS 8, at least according to numerous users. Ars Technica even ran their own application and startup launch tests that confirmed the slowdown, although it varied and was sometimes barely noticeable. But even a fraction of a second might mean the difference between the perception of snappy and lagging. The long and short of it is that it didn’t appear that anyone with the oldest supported devices should be considering the iOS 8 upgrade.

That may be one a key reason why the adoption rate is lagging, but the higher space requirements were probably more important. On a 16GB device it may be impossible, and it would have been nice if Apple took an early proactive stance and reminded users who encountered a warning about not enough space when attempting an in-device upgrade, that there’s always iTunes. They do it now at Apple’s site and in emails to customers.

Enough of the digression.

Before writing this article, I ran through dozens and dozens of reports about the iOS 8.1.1 update. I did learn something not indicated in the terse release notes, that at least 500MB of storage was being saved on at least some devices. That may be the difference between being able to install the update or being forced to delete your stuff first to make room.

But what about that promise of a performance boost for the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S? Is the promise real or just a claim?

You can’t really tell from most of the articles I read. Regardless of the source, and some major news outlets copied the information directly from those release notes, it doesn’t seem that reporters were actually inclined to put the claim to the test. While I wouldn’t presume Apple is lying, they have been known to exaggerate. Even if there is a performance boost, it may not be enough to approach that of the iOS 7 experience. It may not even be consistent.

Meantime, one other article quoted some anecdotal reports from users on Apple’s support site indicating a genuine speed up. While far from scientific — and one’s imagination might color a subjective reaction — it is encouraging. If the trend continues, iOS 8.1.1 may indeed be the magic bullet to allow older hardware to perform reasonably well.

At least Ars Technica, having tested the original iOS 8 upgrade and found it wanting in terms of performance, repeated those tests with iOS 8.1.1. Unfortunately, a new set of benchmarks failed to demonstrate much of an improvement. These results serve as a huge indictment against the quality of all those articles that accepted Apple’s claims without putting them to the test.

So reporters should have followed traditional practices, phrasing their articles carefully so as not to imply a set of facts that were not confirmed. They should have inserted such qualifiers as Apple “promises” or “claims” performance improvements. That would make it clear to readers that the statement hasn’t been tested. Instead, the story was ran as if it were true without meaningful comment.

That’s not journalism, not even close, and don’t expect any retractions.

So as far as I’m concerned, I think that significant claims from a company with commercial interests should be put to the test, particularly if they impact a customer in a noticeable way. Yes, some results might reveal fine differences in specs or performance that most people don’t notice, and it would be appropriate to provide an appropriate explanation so you know what to expect in the real world.

True, such shoddy reporting isn’t confined to the tech business. In the world of mainstream journalism, quoting someone’s political speeches without providing balance or perspective is common. Sometimes the effort to offer balance is extreme or lazy. So an alternate viewpoint is presented, even when that viewpoint carries no logic or facts behind it, but the reporter is off the hook. They’re being fair to everyone by taking no sides and abandoning common sense.

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