The covenant between a reporter and an interviewee

by hexacoto

Bitcoin traders Kolin Burges, right, of London and Aaron, an American who gave only his first name, hold protest signs in front of the office tower housing Mt. Gox in Tokyo on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

Bitcoin traders Kolin Burges, right, of London and Aaron, an American who gave only his first name, hold protest signs in front of the office tower housing Mt. Gox in Tokyo on Tuesday. (Associated Press)

The Story

An article on the Wall Street Journal today on Bitcoins, Shutdown of Mt. Gox Rattles Bitcoin Market, jointly written by Robin Sidel, Michael Casey, and Eleanor Warnock, talked about the closure of Mt. Gox, the Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange, and the lack of regulation of the virtual currency.

In a nutshell, it talked about Mt. Gox stopped all transactions on Tuesday, and that it has been experiencing technical difficulties for months, including a hacking attempt two weeks ago and an alleged loss of almost 750,000 Bitcoins, about 6% of the Bitcoins in existence and valued at $400 million. Overall, it cast a pretty grim outlook on the future of Bitcoins as a reliable trading currency due to its volatility and lack of regulation.

One of the subjects interviewed for this story was Erik Voorhees, a Panama City-based investor of Bitcoin startups, whose mention in the story was:

Erik Voorhees, another investor in bitcoin startups, said he has given up on a stash of more than 550 bitcoins that he has at Mt. Gox. At current prices, they are valued at about $300,000.

“That’s gone now,” said Mr. Voorhees, who is based in Panama City, Panama. “There’s no chance of getting that back now.”

No one knows how many investors face possible losses or how much money is at stake. Mt. Gox has been losing trading volume in recent months to rival exchanges. Efforts to reach Mt. Gox officials were unsuccessful.

Voorhees (whom the author misspelled as “Veerhoos” originally) felt that his quote was heavily misrepresented, and his interest in the matter completely warped. He posted an open letter to the reporter, Casey, on Reddit:

Hello Mr. Casey,

I read your WSJ article today. I feel deceived by you.

You requested to speak with me, so I took time out of my day to do so. We talked for 20 minutes, during which time I conveyed to you my sentiments about the Bitcoin ecosystem and the matter of MtGox’s collapse. My message was unambiguously a positive one. I didn’t focus whatsoever on the personal funds I lost at Gox. Indeed, the impetus for your call was my heartfelt post on Reddit.

Yet, you ignored everything I said. The only quote that you published from me in the Journal’s cover story was “”That’s gone now,” said Mr. Veerhoos, who is based in Panama City, Panama. “There’s no chance of getting that back now.””

Is that really the takeaway you had from our call and from my letter? Is that your idea of journalism? Did I come across with the sentiment of a despairing investor whose confidence has been rattled? It seems you were happy to completely ignore my sentiments, preferring instead to cherry pick the one fact that is least important, in order to paint a narrative that Bitcoin’s biggest problem is that it’s not “regulated.” I didn’t expect you to quote everything I said, but should you not have maintained at least a modicum of fidelity to my message?

I have dedicated my life to building and supporting the Bitcoin project. I don’t give a damn about the money I lost at Gox. That’s not important. What is important is that Bitcoin is resilient and enduring, and will continue to grow and change the world for the better. It is a story of human progress through technology. It is a story of the good seeping into the cracks of a corrupted financial system. It is a story of passionate people struggling against all odds to remedy the calamities brought down upon society from the most potently misguided people and institutions on Earth.

Next time you spend your efforts casting a pall over this cause, please don’t ask me to contribute mine.

-Erik Voorhees

PS – I will be posting this letter openly on Reddit. I will post your reply if you’d like. And if I do, I won’t cherry pick the most misleading points of it, and I will spell your name correctly.

The Ethics

This invites the the question of the integrity of journalists — constrained by word space and the angle they have to push, how much liberty can journalists take with regards to the quotes they get from their interviewees? Any reasonable reading of the article will find not a shred of a positive light regarding Bitcoins, what with lines like:

But the unregulated currency isn’t backed by a central bank, raising alarms about which bodies can intervene when crises arise.

Or:

The Mt. Gox mess hasn’t changed the enthusiasm of Overstock.com, which began accepting bitcoin for payment in January.

It is clear that the authors were trying to push the angle of the unreliability of Bitcoins. However, interviewee Voorhees’ given interview was that of a positive one with regards to Bitcoin usage and its future, according to his post on Reddit. The reporter Casey then seems to have misrepresented Voorhees’ interest by cherry-picking quotes and placing them out of context.

From an ethical point of view, that seems dastardly. I understand that writers have to pick a strong, consistent angle to sell the story, and Casey picked the one about the unreliability of Bitcoins, and had to ensure that the theme is consistent throughout the article. But when the trust in journalists to protect the integrity of given interviews is lost by the interviewees, who will be left to give any more interviews in the future? While not on the same level as Judith Miller refusing to disclose her sources, there is an expectation from interviewees that the journalists whom they have agreed to grant an interview to will no misrepresent them. This is a covenant between the reporter and the interviewee that should never be broken.

One then would also have to wonder about the blame of the editor, who is responsible for making sure the story is as sell-able as possible. In this case, we have not heard back from Casey regarding the decision to cherry-pick Voorhees’ quotes, whether was it his editor that pushed for that decision or was it purely Casey’s. While it is the reporter’s job to do the legwork of collecting the facts and quotes, the editor, who puts things together and rearranges them, is as much a part of the journalistic process as is the journalist.

Interestingly, Chris Lamprecht, known as the first person in the world to be banned from the internet, commented on Voorhees’ predicament.

Erik,

A long time ago, in 1995, I was the first person banned from the Internet, and my case was in the news. An honest journalist once told me something very important that I never forgot. I was asking him if he could include certain things in his article. He said:

“Chris, you have to understand that journalists are not your PR agency. Journalists have their own agenda. They are going to write whatever story they want to, or whatever story their editor told them to write.”

Any honest journalist will tell you something similar. Unfortunately, not enough journalists care about writing an accurate story.

Thanks for being a good voice for Bitcoin.

Truer words never spoken, and an unfortunate but accurate description for what journalists were and still are today. Why do we tolerate such shoddy standards though? It is not as if journalism has to be that way.

The Answer?

Journalism has always been a reader-led effort — not only what the readers want to read, but how they want to read it, journalism has always answered and provided. If readers want salacious content, then salacious content becomes “journalism.” If readers want their content speedy, where the first medium to produce the article is the most efficient, then hasty journalism becomes journalism as well.

And then we proceed to complain about why journalism these days is so poor in content, and poorly fact-checked.

We have to realise that journalism is what we want to read, and until we decide that we want accurate, fair, and balanced journalism, we will always have shoddy, subpar works that obfuscates as much as it tries to tell a story.

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