There was a really good article in the New York Times today that talked about the agony (or not) that many news outlets experience when trying to take advantage of a story that is picking up so much steam that any mention of it will boost their page views – even if it seems too good to be true.
I mean, if I pitched a fit on a plane and someone bought me a drink, I’d stop complaining. Mile high beers aren’t cheap.
Essentially, the article highlights some of the more recent hoaxes that took the world by storm over the past few weeks and outlines the conundrum that modern reporters face when fact checking the “news”, interviewing both modern-day journalists as well as some of the individuals who perpetuated the more recent hoaxes that went viral. The hoaxers claim they were never asked to verify facts by anyone in the press, which I only partially believe. Not one journalist figured it would be a good idea to DM Elan and find out if he actually did what he tweeted? We’re really going to take tweets at face value?
Then again, I can actually believe no one asked. With site visits, page views, time on site, bounce rates, retweets, and 5 million other KPIs ruling the day when it comes to advertisers and monetizing the Internet, the faster you can post a story that you know will drive eyeballs, the better. We don’t all wait patiently for the 6pm news anymore to get our news update of the day, nor do we wait until the paperboy tosses our newspaper in the general direction of our front porch in the mornings. If I want to find out what’s going on in the world, it’s really just a click or two away. Having news at your fingertips 24/7 is no longer a privilege, it’s a right.
In fact, today I saw a resume in which an individual bragged about writing approximately 500 news stories a day. That’s right. Five hundred. Now, I don’t know if I fully buy that, but if that’s true then that person isn’t putting a whole lot of thought or investigative journalism into each dispatch. They’re taking information already available, trying to make it seem as though they didn’t copy it word for word, and put it out on the web for all to see. You think there’s really time for that person to verify a source if she has 499 other stories to write that day?
The easy thing to say is that journalists are lazy and need to do better. Man, where’s Walter Cronkite when you need him? There’s too many Ron Burgundy’s running around! I believe we can all do better, and as much as we don’t want to admit it … we’re all a little lazy in our own ways. But let’s think about this for a second. Sometimes, people go through extraordinary lengths to conceal their hoax. I remember when I worked for my college’s newspaper, The Setonian, and in my senior year we covered a story that seemed supremely outrageous. Outrageously awesome. I don’t remember all of the details, but it had to do with students living off campus, boxes, and vandalism. It was something crazy – but we did our due diligence, went to all of the sources, checked our facts, and made it a front page story. We even devoted our collective opinion section of the paper, The Voice, to this story. Lo and behold, not long after we patted ourselves on the back for some good old South Orange, NJ investigative reporting, those same students came forward and admitted that they completely made it up. On purpose. To screw with us. And while not long after our advisor was taking us to task over screwing up, we felt like we did everything right. We live in a society that’s apparently “innocent until proven guilty”, so when we get the same take from everyone we speak to (yes, we talked to more than just the students who were allegedly “victims”), we usually believe it.
So what’s my point? Besides never trusting college students, there are always going to be hoaxes. There will always be stories that go viral that are completely made up. People will retweet them, share them on Facebook, Instagram, whatever the social media platform du jour is on that particular day. Understand that the need to get content out faster is never going to go away – that’s just our new reality. But leading publications, news websites, and news channels need to take the lead here and stand against this garbage. They usually have the staff to turn things around quickly, much more so than the mom and pop shop websites out there. They need to adamantly refuse to cover stories until they have verified the facts – what’s another half hour or so? Getting to be first to write about a story is largely dying, since things get posted instantaneously now. Sure, there’s still something thrilling about it, but if you ask any reputable journalist, they’d rather be right than first.
If you can be right and first, then hats off to you. But if you have to choose, choose the truth. Choose to be right. It may not win you the page view battle today, but it’ll earn you subscribers for days, weeks, months, and even years to come.