May 6, 2004

On local TV news, it's a Windows world

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

The Sasser worm has made headlines not only in tech media but almost everywhere, including television. Most of the better Internet and print news media point out that it only affects Windows computers (specifically those running 2000 and XP), but my local TV stations don't seem to have picked up the distinction between "computers" and "Windows."I watched half a dozen local (Tampa and Sarasota, Florida) news shows Sunday and Monday, and while they all had stories about Sasser, not one mentioned the fact that it only affected Windows -- and only certain version of Windows -- or that other operating systems exist that aren't subject to Sasser or any of the other Windows worms and viruses that have become so popular in recent years.

I have never seen a local TV news story about Linux, Unix or Mac. I can't even recall these operating systems ever being mentioned on a local TV news broadcast.

Remember, TV is where a majority of Americans get their news. And when we watch TV and hear things like, "...computer worms and viruses are a fact of life, and to avoid problems like this, all of us have to take action every day," TV viewers are left with the unspoken assumption that Windows -- the operating system attacked by virtually all recent worms and viruses -- runs all computers.

Linux may now be an established part of the enterprise computing scene, but in the public's eye it barely exists.

In virus and worm stories, TV newspeople usually mention that you should install patches and virus protection software, and possibly even use a firewall if you have a full-time Internet connection, but I have never heard one say you can make your computer immune to all popular worms and viruses by switching to Linux, Mac or another non-Windows operating system.

I don't think this is the result of a hidden Microsoft plot, but the result of constant PR dunning combined with the fact that over 90% of all computer users do run Windows, which makes it easy for a TV news person who doesn't know much about computers to assume everybody runs Windows, and that Windows problems are simply part of the computing (and Internet) experience, something we live with because there is no alternative besides going back to manual typewriters and hand-held calculators.

Doing something about the problem

After the last Sasser story I watched, I called the station and offered myself up as an "expert" for future computer and tech stories. I have no idea if they'll ever call me back, but the last time I did this, some years ago in Baltimore, I ended up as a weekly fixture on the area's most popular morning show, so offering to be a source of computer expertise for TV reporters is certainly worth a try.

This is something you can do, too. I've met many TV reporters over the years, and not one of them knew anything about computers beyond how to find the "Start" button. The funny thing is, in a way this doesn't really matter; reporters don't need to know things as much as they need to know other people who know things.

But when all the computer experts a reporter knows are Windows people, that's all you're going to see on the news.

The way to break this pattern is to contact TV and newspaper reporters and editors (and TV news producers, who are that medium's equivalent of editors) and offer to share your computer expertise with them. I would not suggest coming across as a Linux, open source or free software zealot, but as someone who is generally knowledgable about computing and the Internet. If you own or work for a computer or Internet-related business, hold a CS degree or are studying CS, say so. This makes you a better expert than someone who just calls up and says, "Yo! I know computer stuff!"

If you own a computer-related business, you can do more than get a few words about "Linux" or "open source" on the air. You can almost certainly get your company's name mentioned, either verbally by the reporter or as a title on the screen when they talk to you. This is valuable free promotion for your business. And all it takes is a few phone calls to local news media to (perhaps) make it happen.

Not every phone call to every TV station news department is going to result in an on-air appearance, nor will every fax. And faxes are often the best way to communicate with journalists; they carry more weight than email, and unlike phone calls they can be passed around and discussed -- and saved until a story that needs info the faxer can provide hits the wires.

But if enough people like you and me call and fax enough news media, especially local TV stations, some of us will eventually get pro-Linux and pro-open source stories out to the public -- and maybe we'll even have a little fun doing it.

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