Imprecision in Journalism: How the iTunes MiniStore was Reported

With the recent kerfuffle over the iTunes MiniStore and privacy, I have written several articles about the issue, been interviewed by a number of web and print media, been interviewed for podcasts, and invited on a national business channel to discuss the issue. This issue annoyed me from the beginning: the fact that iTunes was both sending personal data to Apple and other companies without warning users, and the fact that iTunes was displaying “recommendations” (that is, ads) when users were not “in” the iTunes Music Store.

But now that Apple has corrected this problem, what really annoys me is the level of journalism I have seen about the problem. From mistakes to clueless writing, from minor technical errors to stupid comments from writers who clearly no nothing about technology (and probably cannot read very well, since I and others have very clearly written about what the iTunes MiniStore does), these errors are legion.

So, here’s an overview of some of the statements I have found that are incorrect, and, in some cases, border on incompetent. Tell me how journalists can get something so simple so wrong…Nick Farrell, writing for The Inquirer, said the following: “There were claims that you had to be a computer expert to know how to switch the data collection facility off, which many of its users are not.” Nick, show me where anyone said that you need to be a computer expert to click a button or select a menu item… Do you run iTunes at all?

Many articles, including this one in the LA Times, an editorial to boot, said things such as, “Besides, Apple said, it didn’t store any of the information it received.” This comment makes me snicker. My friend Rob Griffiths, who wrote an article about the iTunes MiniStore shortly after I published mine. Griffiths received an email from a high-level Apple official to this effect (that Apple was not storing information), and added the following update to his article: “…an Apple official told Macworld that the iTunes MiniStore feature does not collect any information from users.” But at no time did Apple issue an official statement about the iTunes MiniStore. Media comments, such as those mentioned by the LA Times, suggest that this is the case, but they are simply relying on a comment from a journalist about an email he received. Sigh.

Louisa Hearn, writing for The Age in Australia, explains how the MiniStore displays a warning, but goes on to say “Although the MiniStore is turned on by default for new customers, a pointer at the bottom of the playlist page allows them to switch it on or off.” This one is interesting. The article includes a screen shot which shows the Turn on MiniStore button, but this journalist seems to think that the MiniStore is on regardless of this button? The button turns it on, not off, as the button says.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company), in an article about the iTunes MiniStore, repeats another fallacy that has spread, showing that their journalist didn’t do any fact-checking. “The software scans a user’s existing downloads and recommends new songs to buy,” the article says, which is blatantly false. The iTunes MiniStore only sends information about songs that users click. This suggests that iTunes is sending information about users’ entire libraries. You get an F, unnamed reporter, for this one.

PC Magazine took a different tack. In this article, they tried to sound like investigative network journalists, using advanced forensic techniques to get to the bottom of the question. Journalist Oliver Kaven says such wondrous things as, “Here at PC Magazine, we began dissecting the issue, one IP packet at a time.” Ooh, like CSI but with computers, right? He goes on to say, “We found that this can be prevented by minimizing the MiniStore application or by playing songs from a play list.” Hmm… He didn’t need a packet analyzer to find that no data was sent, but at least he was checking the facts. I reported this, saying, “However, when the MiniStore is hidden, iTunes does not send these requests. You can therefore protect yourself from Apple’s prying eyes by simply hiding the MiniStore,” as did several other web sites. However, “playing songs from a play list”? That’s not entirely correct. What he should have said was that the MiniStore only sends data when you click on a song. If you double-click a song to play it, iTunes sends information about that song, but not about subsequent songs in playlists or albums. Guilty of over-exaggeration, and of a minor error, PC Magazine tried to turn this into a detective story.

What surprises me in all this is that some of these “major media outlets”, such as the CBC or newspapers, have reported this issue with more errors than most bloggers. Not that I believe in the Easter bunny, especially given recent scandals at top-tier newspapers like the New York Times, but I would have thought that these media had better structures in place for fact-checking, and that the journalists are more qualified. This said, the above examples are only a handful of negative ones; there are many more, but a majority of the stories I read about this issue were correct.

2 thoughts on “Imprecision in Journalism: How the iTunes MiniStore was Reported

  1. Well, its probably well known by now but it goes something like this…

    email arrives:

    iTunes Mini Store – user privacy?? would like it up in 5 to 10. can it be done?

    Unfortunately journo’s arn’t given the luxury of 2 stories in 72 hours anymore.

  2. Well, its probably well known by now but it goes something like this…

    email arrives:

    iTunes Mini Store – user privacy?? would like it up in 5 to 10. can it be done?

    Unfortunately journo’s arn’t given the luxury of 2 stories in 72 hours anymore.

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