The Myth of the Apple Bias

Philip Berne - Oct 27, 2010
The Myth of the Apple Bias

If you work for a Web site that covers consumer electronics, eventually you are going to be accused of two things: having an Apple bias and trying to destroy Finland. The backlash against Apple coverage is exquisite, as far as baseless Internet accusations go. It’s not quite on the level of 9/11 conspiracy nutjobs or the racist and homophobic bigots you’ll find scouring YouTube comments, but it does have its own patterns. Beyond simple bias, I’ve seen numerous Web sites accused of taking actual bribes and payments from Apple. Are these accusations completely without merit? The answer is complicated.

First, let’s talk about why there is actually an Apple bias in the media. Apple probably gets disproportionate coverage compared to other companies. Take the recent announcement about the white iPhone 4, for instance. Apple once again pushed back the availability of the white version of its phone. That’s all. Nothing inside the phone has changed. Nothing was said about fixing the antenna problems so widely reported at launch. But most tech news sites not only covered this story, they’ve probably covered it more than once. They probably cover the white iPhone story every time Apple makes an announcement about it.

Is it news when a company paints a phone white? From a journalistic standpoint, probably not. But I don’t think that sites cover this issue because they are biased towards Apple. They cover the issue because people will read about it. People will click on the link to get to the story. Then, they might see the advertisements on the page. What if one of those ads is for a service that paints your phone white? Or for a competing phone already available in cool colors? You might click on that ad.

This isn’t a bias issue, it’s a capitalist issue. Long gone are the days of the New York Times acting as “the paper of record.” I believe most good Web sites still follow the tenets of honest journalism, but coverage can be equally dictated by the needs of the consumer as it is the needs of journalistic integrity.

If you hate Apple products, or if you think this is a silly news story, you might think this coverage is biased. Indeed, I can’t think of another phone or gadget that would generate such coverage for a single color option. But that speaks more to the iPhone’s existence in the cultural zeitgeist than it does about the writer who pens the piece.

Another way there might be a pro-Apple bias is in comparisons with other products. Take the MacBook Air, for instance. The current version of the Air is an ultraportable notebook computer that costs around $1000, give or take a few hundred. Fully loaded, that machine costs $1800. It uses a notebook chipset and notebook-grade discrete graphics. It costs more than full-powered multimedia notebooks that offer much larger screens, more powerful chips and more ports and features. That’s fine, it’s an ultraportable, and the market for ultraportables sacrifices power and features for extreme portability.

When a site compares a $500 netbook with a MacBook Air, that’s not a fair comparison. Netbooks use ultra low power chips, and usually rely on integrated graphics. They are built small, but netbooks try to cram in as many features as possible in the tiny shell, while the MacBook Air tries to remove as many features as possible to get even smaller. The biggest advance on the current MBAir? The second USB port. I’ve seen netbooks with 3-4 USB ports, and some with integrated optical drives.

This problem is even more obvious with the Apple iPhone. For a long time after the initial wave of iPhone enthusiasm crested, every review seemed to compare the phone at hand with the iPhone. If you want to compare touchscreen smartphones with the iPhone, that’s fair. But even comparing a phone like BlackBerry, with its hardware keyboard, or the raft of inexpensive touchscreen feature phones that Samsung steadily floats with U.S. carriers, is disingenuous.

If Apple is your only point of comparison, it may seem like you have an Apple bias. If the comparison is weak or completely misguided, this only confirms the bias in some reader’s mind.

Still, I’m not sure this is really a bias issue. After all, if I want to use a competitor for an ultraportable comparison, I might use the MacBook Air or I could mention a computer like the Sony VAIO Z series. The point of a comparison is to help your reader relate to the product you’re reviewing. While a certain segment of my readership might be very familiar with the Sony VAIO Z or the Toshiba Portégé R705-P35, I’m sure that many more readers will instantly recognize the Air.

Of course, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. After all, if I constantly go to the Air as my standard for comparison, I’m only teaching my readers about one ultraportable instead of taking the opportunity to expand their knowledge a bit. But is my job to teach my readers, or to help them relate in a way they already understand? That depends on the story I’m writing.

My absolute favorite Apple bias claim, and the one that simultaneously makes tech journalists laugh and cringe, is the claim that Apple is paying off tech sites for positive coverage. This makes me laugh because I know Apple’s PR style, and this couldn’t be further from the truth. I am sure that Apple is not paying off any tech site like SlashGear or Engadget. Apple is not paying David Pogue or Walt Mossberg. Does Apple exclude writers and sites that skew more negative in their coverage? That’s entirely possible, I honestly don’t know. But I’m sure Apple isn’t rewarding positive reviews with cash prizes. Access is its own reward.

Of course, there is danger here. If David Pogue knows that writing positive stories about the Mac leads to more inside access with Apple products, he might be tempted to skew his coverage. I think this is more a problem for less prolific writers, like Pogue. Pogue writes a weekly column for the New York Times. He also writes instructional manuals about Apple products. If Apple cut him off, it might seriously hurt his livelihood. But for sites like SlashGear and other tech blogs, Apple is only one piece of a very large pie. It would never be worth the access opportunities for a site SlashGear to sacrifice its unbiased integrity for an early hands-on opportunity with the next iPod nano, or even the next iPhone.

So, there is bias in Apple coverage, for sure, but that bias is usually in delivering the most popular news to a competitive market. The bias is in favor of earning more readers, and more clicks. If consumers weren’t biased towards Apple products, the Web sites would not seem biased either.

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