Journalists Must Expose, Not Perpetuate, Bogus News

Who knows how much bad information travels around the Internet on any given day. But when professional newsrooms become part of the problem, misinformation elevates from an annoyance to a danger to democracy.

In the past two weeks at least four Internet hoaxes have come to light that can be traced back to professional journalists deliberately creating false information, failing to vet their facts or passing along information that is clearly suspect.

It’s an old problem for journalists with a few new twists. Old, because we’ve always had to be vigilant for the scam, whether the wild story or the fake obituary. New, because newsrooms with reduced staffs and increased workloads seem more vulnerable to frauds.

Earlier this week The Vanderbilt Hustler published a silly little piece of satire about a university health department-sponsored bonfire where swine flu victims can burn their clothing, books and other items that might be contaminated. The school has had dozens of swine flu cases since the semester began. The City Paper in Nashville and the Drudge Report repeated and linked to the nugget as if it were real. Student Jesse Jones’ original story, clearly satire, was printed on page 6 of the student newspaper’s Aug. 31 edition. The City Paper ran a correction at the bottom of its story.

On Aug. 26, a man stood by a busy street near Washington, D.C. with a placard stating, “I cheated and this is my punishment.” The story of the supposedly adulterous man went viral after Fox 5 WTTG-TV in Washington, D.C., reported it and dozens of news outlets repeated it, including KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, MSNBC and London’s Daily Mail.

Turns out it was all a hoax, staged by a local radio station intent on duping journalists. Fox 5 reported that it was bogus, yet failed to mention that its own journalists were the spark that lit the story on fire. (The NBC affiliate in Washington couched its reporting, though, and later declared, “We so called this one.”)

Earlier this summer, the New York Daily News reported a great story about a rapper who forced her label to pay for her education, including a Ph.D. at Cornell University. Alas, Slate reported Wednesday, that too wasn’t true.

And of course you were expecting a “Michael Jackson is alive” Internet hoax. But who would have thought that journalists would be behind it? CNN reported that German television broadcaster RTL is behind the video. RTL was trying to show how fast Internet rumors can spread, a spokesperson said.

If you examine the anatomy of a hoax, three clear places emerge where professional newsrooms must rise to their duty to vet every piece of information they pass along.

Creating the information. Whether information is created with malice, by misguided intentions or by journalistic malpractice, newsrooms should have systems to prevent them from publishing inaccurate information. Even before the cheating husband scandal was revealed, The Washington Post reported that the story was suspect.

Believing the information. Hoaxes only work when gullible people believe them. We must build a society in which a critical mass of people have the skill and confidence to call certain information bunk, whether it’s the latest Bigfoot sighting or continued speculation that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen.

Being a news editor is a real skill, one that we are losing as we tighten belts in professional newsrooms. Rather than firing all the news editors, we ought to have them write about how they sort and screen stories, looking for holes and assessing credibility. We’re all news editors these days, sorting through our e-mail accounts, Facebook updates and Twitter feeds, trying to figure out what’s real, what’s relevant and what’s important.

Passing it along. The cult of novelty is upon us. The speed at which information can be passed along (hastened by social media) has created a world in which everyone wants to be the guy who says, “Hey, look at this!” Regardless of how many journalists have been laid off, or how much you must boost your Web site traffic, professional newsrooms have to resist the urge to descend into this morass.

One of the imperatives of journalism has always been to prevent the spread of bad information. That’s more important now, with so much bad information being created and passed around faster than ever.

It’s bad enough to be deluged by chain e-mails and Facebook updates with suspect information. Hoaxes aided by journalists (unwittingly or not) carry more credibility and travel faster and farther.

If professional journalists fail to maintain the controls to prevent hoaxes from taking root in their work, they may find themselves in a world where all information is suspicious and all citizens are cynical. That will be dangerous for democracy.

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