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Media drones

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Peter Funt

Today I am announcing a new venture to grow aspara-berries.

These tasty and nutritious hybrid plants combine the best features of asparagus and strawberries to create a mouthwatering treat.

While I haven’t produced any aspara-berries yet, I do have a website containing maps of actual acreage where the plants could be grown. I’m also tweeting furiously about how my new business is certain to revolutionize farming. Plus, I’m available for print and television interviews.

That said, I wonder if major news organizations such as CNN, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Huffington Post will cover the aspara-berry story - treating it with all the unequivocal seriosity it clearly deserves?

For the answer, let’s look at the somewhat similar case of Joshua Ziering, 28, a San Francisco entrepreneur with a background in marketing, a fascination with model airplanes and a flair for media manipulation.

Mr. Ziering recently dreamed up a company called QuiQui (pronounced “quickie”), and created a cool website.

Rather than having me explain what QuiQui is all about, I refer you to the Huffington Post headline last month: “Drugstore Delivery Drones Are Coming To San Francisco.”

Seems imminent, but is it accurate? Apparently when it comes to today’s “trending” stories, no one really knows, and no one really cares. The Post reporter says she interviewed Mr. Ziering but her story never clarifies that QuiQui is, at best, an idea in search of: funding, a relationship with a pharmacy, clarification of FAA rules and, most importantly, drones.

The article did include a picture of a drone, presumably belonging to Mr. Ziering. But if readers allowed their computer mouse to hover over the image, they would see text explaining that the drone was in fact taking aerial photos in South Africa. 

The report does correctly cite Mr. Ziering’s pledge that QuiQui’s deliveries (if there ever are any) will not include medical marijuana.

But for some, like the International Business Times, such details spoil a great story. Its headline: “Medical Marijuana Delivered by Flying Drones: QuiQui Launches San Francisco Prescription Service.” 

Much is written about lapses in online reporting, usually placing blame on the 24/7 news cycle and a viral spread of factual errors via social media. But what the QuiQui story underscores is a bigger problem: a cut-and-paste approach by desk-bound writers, so eager to generate click-bait, links and re-tweets that they fail to ask the obvious questions.

I asked Mr. Ziering if he was surprised by such lapses. “I think reporters have a difficult time with highly technical topics,” he said. “So many people are unfamiliar with the state of drone affairs that it probably leads to sensationalism.” 

He’s particularly irked that several outlets picked up the erroneous details about marijuana deliveries. “Nobody ever asked me about that,” he stated flatly.

At least the San Francisco Chronicle’s website added a question mark to its otherwise straightforward headline about QuiQui deliveries. 

But its reporter gave seemingly serious attention to a laughable explanation from Mr. Ziering that, “If a toothbrush falls from 20 feet it won’t hurt anyone.”

A CNN business reporter, Richard Quest, interviewed Mr. Ziering at length and never once asked about QuiQui’s financing or probed into whether the business consisted of anything more than a website and a dream.

One of Quest’s questions: “What I don’t understand is, explain what’s the advantage of a drone delivering something versus the mail service?”

I must concede that after speaking with Mr. Ziering at length myself, I’m not sure what to make of his enthusiastic spin on the drone delivery business. All he will say is, “Failure is a completely acceptable outcome, but at least I’ll be the first to do it.”

Clearer than his pie-in-the-sky business plan is the fact that when a story like this comes along, media - particularly online outlets - like to post first and ask questions...well, in this case, never.

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