Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story about James Oppenheim, technology editor for Child Magazine . Mr. Oppenheim was recently invited to a Texas TV show to talk about the latest tech toys for kids. One of the gadgets he touted on the air was Kodak’s “My ABC’s Picture Book.” He also recommended gizmos from Atari, Leapfrog, Mattel, Microsoft, and RadioShack.
According to the Journal , Mr. Oppenheim and his TV hosts neglected to mention one thing: Those companies had all paid him to mention their products on the air. Mr. Oppenheim later went on NBC’s Today show and touted the same Kodak product (though the company did not specifically pay him for that mention.)
I’m sure plenty of you hear a story like that and say, “Well, duh.”
It’s a sad fact of writing about technology that some of our readers think we’re on the take. Or, to put it less bluntly, many of our more cynical readers think our business interests are too closely entwined with those of the companies we cover for us to be completely trustworthy.
Which helps explain the reaction we received to a review in our April 2005 issue. The product was the database app Panorama. The writer was a guy we’ve worked with several times before. We’ve been happy with his previous work, and he’s a database developer by profession, so he seemed ideally qualified to write the review. He did, we published the results, and the letters started pouring in.
The chief complaint in many of them: That the guy we’d hired to write the review makes his living working with FileMaker, Panorama’s chief competitor. It's true: Anyone Googling on the author’s name would find out that he runs a company that develops databases using FileMaker. He’s also taught classes about the program.
Does his background disqualify him from reviewing a rival product? We obviously didn’t think so—in fact, it’s one of the reasons why we hired him. We stand behind him and (with the exception of one relatively small factual error that we’ll be correcting in a future issue) we stand behind our review.
But, at the same time, I can understand those reader complaints. We could have been more up-front about who our reviewer was and where he was coming from.
Much as we might sometimes wish it, our reviews aren’t written by robots. They’re written by human beings and informed by their authors’ particular experiences and perspectives. Can we be completely, scientifically objective in evaluating software? Of course not. But we can be as fair as humanly possible.
And we can also be more transparent. That’s why, starting in our June 2005 issue, we’ll be providing short biographies of the authors of all our major reviews. (We’ve already added one to the online version of that Panorama review.) That way, you’ll know who our reviewers are and have some idea about their qualifications and perspectives. If our reviewer is a FileMaker user, so be it: That experience (which I suspect he shares with many of his readers) can inform his review. But you should know about it up front.
I think most of you are savvy enough to take that information and adjust your reading accordingly. With guys like James Oppenheim running around, it’s the least we can do.