Dave Itzkoff of the NYTimes asked me last week to look at a 30-second video of a cute little pig rescuing a cute little bleating goat that was somehow trapped in a pond.
My first reaction was: fake. Yet several news organizations, including “NBC Nightly News” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” had shared the video as a demonstration of a heartwarming moment that had gone viral.
Here’s how I concluded it was fake (and they could have too):
- When you see a video like that, your first instinct is to ask questions, like, “What was trapping that goat in the water and how exactly did the pig help free the goat?” “Where did this happen?” You immediately want more context. So I went to the original YouTube posting, where I expected to find a short paragraph answering these questions. But there was nothing there except these sentences: “Pig saves goat who’s foot was stuck underwater at petting zoo. Simply amazing.” Hmm, that’s suspicious. If you’re really cynical, the grammatical misuse of “who’s” for “whose” is suspicious too.
- I wanted to know a bit more about jebdogrpm, the user who posted this video. So I clicked on his profile. But all I found is this one video. Jebdog joined YouTube Sept. 18 and posted this video on Sept. 19. So clearly this profile was created for the sole purpose of posting this video. Strike two.
- So now, with two strikes against it being real, the only way I could justify suggesting this might be real was if I had some sort of contradictory evidence. So I messaged jebdogrpm to try and get more information. He didn’t respond. Itzkoff told me that at first, the only queries jebdog (Nathan Fielder, star of a new show at Comedy Central) got were from journalists asking for permission to use the video. Eventually Fielder stopped answering queries. If anyone did ask him for more context, he never responded. When the guy who uploaded the video won’t talk to you, there’s another huge red flag that this is not meeting standards of verification.
Comedy Central has provided a video explaining the hoax:
Here’s what I don’t get: If you’re a journalist and you’re interested in a piece of viral video, shouldn’t your instinct be to learn more about it? At the very least if you share it provisionally, without verifying it, wouldn’t you also share what you were doing to verify it, rather than just saying “we don’t know if this is true”?
This work is part of the new role for professional journalists in a transformed information environment. Before the Internet, journalists created and distributed much of the information that entered the marketplace of ideas. But now, lots of people do that, including guys from Comedy Central who stage fake goat rescues.
Journalists move up the information chain. Instead of just creating new information, now they are sorting through the information that’s already out there, adding context, verifying facts, saying what it all means.
Newsrooms that just pass along information because it’s cute, or viral, or intriguing — without saying what it all means — debase themselves and their role in democracy.
Related: “If all a media outlet is doing is sharing the latest video from Reddit or a tweet from a celebrity, how is that adding anything meaningful to what viewers can get elsewhere?” || Best practices for online verification | How to verify content from social media in real time