In the first Industry section of the 2023 CMC Crypto Playbook, the ACJR analyzes the major crypto media coverage this year, and the role of mainstream and crypto journalism moving forward.
Molly Jane Zuckerman, co-founder of the Association of Cryptocurrency Journalists and Researchers, content lead at CoinMarketCap
If you asked any crypto journalist at the beginning of the year what they thought the biggest story in crypto would be, they’d probably have a hard time deciding between the revelations over the identity of The DAO hacker who made off with $11 billion in crypto, or the revelations over the identities of Bitfinex hackers who laundered $4.5 billion in crypto.
With hindsight, these two explosive stories breaking just a few months into 2022 now seem to have pretty accurately predicted the tone for this increasingly bizarre year of crypto. Crypto journalists and researchers have faced the difficult questions of explaining relatively complex technologies (algorithmic stablecoins, anyone?) to a wider audience than probably ever before.
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Before we analyze any of this year’s later (but quite important) coverage of what we now know is definitely the biggest story of the year — FTX’s collapse and Sam Bankman-Fried’s fall from grace — we must first pay homage to the aforementioned hacker story that first astonished crypto in 2022.
In the second, more recent investigative win for crypto media in 2022 was Ian Allison’s story in Coindesk that uncovered Alameda Research’s balance sheet, finding that it held mainly FTT tokens. The truths that this story uncovered have set off a domino series of company collapses that we probably haven’t seen the end of yet, including liquidity issues with crypto lender Genesis, part of Coindesk’s parent company’s portfolio. Allison’s story not only continued to prove that crypto trade publications can break big stories, but also that they are perfectly able to break big stories that could end up hurting their own parent company.
While I’m not saying that there was necessarily vocal doubt before in mainstream media that crypto media could break a huge story, Shin’s incredibly detailed investigative piece and Allison’s industry shaking revelations definitely proved that crypto journalists can find and write stories with importance beyond crypto-native platforms.
(Note: I will use the term "mainstream media" here quite liberally to lump in general trends in coverage for ease in this short piece.)
Crypto — Just a Quirky Niche?
The next big story in the start of the year was coincidentally another unveiling of the identities behind a previously unknown hacker — Ilya Lichenstein and Heather “Razzlekhan” Morgan were charged with laundering roughly 25,000 BTC that were stolen in an anonymous 2016 hack on crypto exchange Bitfinex. This crypto story was again covered extensively in mainstream media, due to both the extremely large amount of money involved and Razzlekhan’s easily mockable amateur rap career.
But one should take note of traditional media’s continued portrayal of the alleged crypto money launderers' oddities, long after the public forgot about the duo. Even though this story broke back in February, Vanity Fair only published an in-depth portrait of the two alleged criminals in September, eight months after the arrests were made.
The coverage of crypto as weird and niche is good when the stories being covered are actually strange and niche (like the initial reporting on Razzlekhan’s rap lyrics and the never-ending coverage of Elon Musk DOGE tweets), but it becomes a problem when crypto stories get bigger and more serious, and outlets get stuck in the rut of still giving them the “oh, so quirky!” treatment.
Does Mainstream Media Really Get *Everything* Wrong
Beyond what some see as a refusal to take crypto stories seriously, another recurring issue that arose in 2022 with crypto story coverage is accuracy. Did 2022 bring more crypto-savvy journalists into mainstream media (MSM) outlets, or is crypto still seen as a strange niche that doesn’t require a specialized journalist to cover, leading to unfortunate inaccuracies in MSM reporting?
One battle this year over reporting accuracy occurred on Twitter (as these battles tend to do) between The Defiant’s Cami Russo and the WSJ’s Jon Sindreu. Russo, a former Bloomberg journalist who has a book out on DeFi and launched a DeFi trade outlet, tweeted her frustration with the WSJ’s coverage of the Celsius collapse. Her issue — WSJ journalist Sindreu implied that Celsius’ bankruptcy highlighted deficiencies in DeFi, while Russo maintained that Celsius is the antonym of DeFi, a custodial lender that merely provides liquidity to DeFi lenders. A potentially tricky discernment and subsequent public argument that left both Russo and Sindreu feeling like they were correct.
Beyond the DeFi vs. CeFi and algorithmic stablecoin coverage debates, where many crypto users believed that mainstream media failed to deliver nuanced enough reporting into decentralized finance protocols like Terra, the biggest issue that the crypto space has had with mainstream crypto coverage has been what Crypto Twitter widely sees as the “soft” treatment of Sam Bankman-Fried.
Many rather vocal crypto enthusiasts have taken to the social media network to complain about mainstream media coverage’s “whitewashing” profiles of SBF with what they see as strange angles (like his political donations, inability to follow through on philanthropic promises, and the “mistakes” he made, rather than the “crimes” he committed). Crypto media has also received flak for its own, often flawed coverage of SBF before the FTX fall as well.
2023: What Lies Ahead
As the FTX story continues to unfold and the aftershock of Luna’s Spring collapse is clearly still going to be felt in the new year, crypto journalists and researchers are the obvious candidates to help mainstream media better understand how to cover cryptocurrency and all of its idiosyncrasies.
The ACJR already tries to be a resource in this way by inviting traditional media to our Off the Record sessions on burning crypto issues and explaining how crypto journalists see the stories. Ideas have been tossed around among our group about running workshops on blockchain forensic analysis and mentoring young journalists interested in crypto in the future.
The stories to come out of the crypto industry this year were truly explosive, forever changing how mainstream media will now cover cryptocurrency. Crypto coverage is now way beyond simple market pieces about Bitcoin going up or down or op-eds about why crypto is really dead this time — journalists from all types of publications are instead having to grapple with stories that start in the crypto industry and expand outward to the traditional financial markets, the U.S. government, foreign governments, hackers and beyond.
2023 will hopefully be a year with less crypto war zone reporting, but at the minimum, it will be a year where the mainstream media will now find it necessary to include the crypto beat.
There is a place for crypto media to become the source of truth for a wider group of people than ever before, while mainstream media works through the growing pains of having to take a new industry seriously.