First, let me get "journalistic bias" out of the way: In my experience, the only journalist a reader considers completely unbiased is one who agrees totally with his or her point or view. So let's assume that, to most readers, most journalists are biased in some way. I have often found myself accused of bias in different directions by different readers of a single article, so please excuse my cynicism on this topic. I come by it honestly.
Now on to the meat: There is a tendency in all areas of journalism to spend too much time covering what I call "manufactured news," a category in which I place all press releases, political debates, press conferences, and statements by official spokespeople of any kind, including the craggy-faced senior firefighter every large fire department has around whose sole job is to look good in front of a burned-out house on the nightly TV news.
Pumping out manufactured news is easy for reporters, most of whom aren't paid nearly as much as programmers or sysadmins despite being under constant deadline pressure, especially if they are writing for Internet media. Corporate spokespeople are always happy to say something glowing about their companies' products and services. Groups like the EFF and EPIC have agendas they love to push, and sympathetic though you or I may be to those agendas (note the bias here!) repeating their spokepeople's public statements is not real reporting.
So what is real reporting? In the case of advocacy groups, I believe the most important coverage should be of the advocacy process itself, preferably told from the point of view of people in the group doing the actual work. From this perspective, the person selling EFF tshirts at a trade show is a valid interview subject. He or she is exposed one-on-one to trade show attendees' views of the EFF. Do different trade shows (i.e. LinuxWorld and Internet World) attract attendees whose views of the EFF differ? Is one crowd more likely to buy EFF shirts than the other? Does one group tend to subject EFF shirtsellers to vicious harangues, while the other says things like "keep up the good work" most of the time?
This could make an informative article that would not necessarily be biased either in favor of or against the EFF, and the preceding paragraph also points out a wonderful (and underutilized) feature of the World Wide Web as a reporting medium: that instead of explaining the EFF or even mentioning that the three letters stand for "Electronic Frontier Foundation," I simply linked to their Web site so that readers who already knew about the EFF weren't forced to scan a boring explanation, but those who hadn't heard of it could instantly find out all about it, straight from the source.
I believe links are underutilized in online reporting, especially by the so-called "straight" press. Stories on the New York Times Web site, for example, tend to be almost or entirely link-free, which has always bothered me. I love the fact that, with a few keystrokes, I can insert a link in a story that will send readers directly to the source of my background information This allows readers both to check my work and to go beyond my few words and do their own in-depth research if my story interests them in a particular subject, and since getting readers interested in subjects they might otherwise not have thought about is one of my main personal goals as a writer, I tend to use a lot of links in my online stories.
By using links correctly and profusely, even manufactured news can be made interesting and informative, but I am still against it in general. Press releases and other announcements often contain potentially important tech news, but I would just as soon run them in their entirety, clearly labeled as press releases or announcements -- which is how we do it on NewsForge -- rather than regurgitate their content in bylined stories. By doing this, we're assuming our audience is smart enough to tell the difference between promo copy and real news, and I feel this is a safe assumption most of the time. And by running press releases as press releases, we are then free to put our own energy into researching and writing "real" news, which is a rough and time-consuming job at which we are only partially successful so far, but working hard to improve at every day.
The biggest problem we are running into with the idea of trying to bring "real reporting" to Linux and Open Source is that most coverage of this area has been closer to fanzine-style hagiography than journalism until now, and anyone who tries to write anything that might be considered even slightly negative about any Open Source or Free Software icons is instantly slammed, even if their reporting is totally accurate. I stepped into this problem big-time about a year ago on Slashdot, when I did a small writeup on a minor potential hole in the GPL's coverage of ASPs. Flameville! How could a non-programming ignorant schmuck like me dare to say anything even remotely non-positive about the great Richard M. Stallman? Hundreds of comments and emails echoed this refrain, but Stallman himself didn't seem to take my short article as any kind of attack; indeed, some of the work now going into GPL3 is designed to correct the very deficiency I was slammed so hard for having pointed out.
Part of the trouble in converting the former "Gosh! Golly! Ain't all this Linux stuff wunnerful" cheerleading that passed for Open Source news coverage for so long into truly unbiased reporting is that many people in the "Open Source Commumnity" (which is really a whole bunch of different so-called communities, not a single monolithic group) haven't grasped the fact that the revolution is over and we/they have won. It is a similar position to the one in which the Italian Communist Party found itself when it started to win local elections in the 1950s; it was easy for the Communists to criticize the Mayor and City Council from the outside, but when they got into office themselves they suddenly found that they were the ones getting criticized, and they had a rough time learning how to deal with all that negativity, especially when it came from publications they had considered "friendly" while they were out-of-power underdogs.
I'm not saying that all Open Source and Linux news is or should be negative, but that there is going to be some bad mixed in with the good. Stocks prices for Linux companies currently suck, for instance, and that's valid news, just as reports of huge first-day gains for Linux IPOs were big news a year or so ago. Burlington Coat Factory and eMusic adopting Linux for big-time enterprise applications is big news, but if a company that turns to Linux later decides it would be better off with Windows 2000 or a proprietary Unix instead, that is news, too, and deserves just as much attention as an Open Source success story. And those of us who write any of those stories, whether positive or negative, are going to get flamed for "bias" every time we say anything either "good" or "bad" about what we cover, and if we try as hard as we can to avoid coming to any kind of conclusion at all, or even from quoting others' conclusions, we will probably get crucified for being wishy-washy or some such.
But like it or not, and despite yow-yowing from GPL believers, GPL haters, Microsoft bashers, Microsoft boosters (yes, there are still a few out there), die-hard Apple fanatics, Amiga lovers, *BSD believers, and all rest of the people who follow tech news closely and have something to say (usually rather loudly) about the way it is written, coverage of Linux and Open Source will gradually mature and become more even-handed, as will all coverage in the computer trade press, because tech news is gradually becoming interesting enough to the world at large that it is starting to get the level of journalistic attention that, in the past, was reserved strictly for "important" subjects like politics, business, sports, and movie star love scandals.
Robin Miller (aka 'Roblimo') has been a professional writer and editor since 1985. His work has appeared in hundreds of print publications and on dozens of high-profile Web sites. He is currently editor-in-chief of the Open Source Development Network (OSDN), owner of freshmeat, Linux.com, NewsForge, SourceForge, and a number of other tech-oriented Web sites.