Just Who Are the Bad Guys?

Is it businesspeople, or journalists who ignore the facts about RFID in pursuit of a sexy story?
Published: December 12, 2008

Our features editor Andrea Linne got a call a few weeks back from a friend who was asked to write an article about RFID for a prominent women’s magazine. Andrea started talking to her friend about the many benefits RFID will bring to consumers, such as helping to keep kids, hospital patients, food and pharmaceuticals safer. “No, no,” said the friend. “My editors want me to do an article on how this is bad for women because it will be used to invade their privacy.”

A couple of weeks before that I got an apologetic e-mail from a journalist who had earlier interviewed me at length about the privacy issue. She said that she had read my site and found my comments valuable and my approach balanced. She wrote a balanced story, but her editors forced her to go back and write how RFID would be used to invade people’s privacy.

Those who are not journalists would be surprised to learn how often this kind of thing happens. It is, in fact, one of the reasons I started RFID Journal. I was sick of working at places where editors either were so focused on getting a sexy story that they ignored or even misrepresented the facts, or they were under pressure to boost circulation so they tried tactics, such as running stories with scary headlines, to get people to read the publication. After nearly 20 years in journalism, I was tired of arguing that if you wrote intelligent, informative articles, you would attract readers. (Most of my editors tolerated me because I was a good, hard-working writer, but most saw me to be a naïve pain in the butt.)

RFID Journal was my chance to do it my way, and I’m pleased that readers have responded to our focus on providing intelligent, balanced—and factual—stories. But I still can’t escape the writers and editors who want to ignore the facts. In the world of journalism, the journalists, privacy advocates, environmentalists and a few others are the good guys and all corporations are the bad guys.

Ironically, most media companies are big corporations that are driven by the same pursuit of financial gain as the rest of us. I understand it plays well in Peoria when journalists attack big companies, but it doesn’t serve the public’s interest. And in the long run, it doesn’t engender trust in the fourth estate. In many opinion polls, people rank journalists are even less ethical than politicians.

The Globe and Mail story I wrote about in my last blog entry was so bad that Ann Cavoukian, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, wrote a letter to the editor chastising the paper for “fear mongering.” She added: “I am a fierce protector of privacy but also believe in describing issues fairly and evenly. What we need is public education about this technology rather than fear mongering. Misrepresenting RFIDs only serves to keep the public in the dark.”

In spite of my frustration, I don’t believe all journalists are incompetent, unethical or stupid. I love being a journalist—my business card says “editor” not “CEO”—and I take my hat off to all who still work hard to uncover and report the truth. I know they are chafing against their editors’ demands for sexy stories as much as I did.