Introducing a new, semi-regular column on media matters.
In the last issue of the Current, the staff here suggested resolutions for various San Antonians to consider as they head into the new year. I have another one: In 2014, we will stop falling for hoaxes.
When I say ‘we,’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘you,’ readers, although that would definitely help the situation.
I mean ‘us’ as in the media. You know, the people whose job it is to purvey what Carl Bernstein would call “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
This year more than any other, I’ve been astounded by the volume of false news reported by otherwise reputable sources. It bubbles up from who-knows-where and seeps into social media channels. All it takes is one legitimate—hell, even semi-legitimate—news source to pick it up, effectively putting a match to this menace and creating an inferno that burns through digital, television and print outlets if left unchecked. Take some of the bigger fires of the year: the outrageous shorting of a tip by a bigoted couple because their server was gay (a story made-up by the server, turns out); the spread of the knockout game (widely disputed by several police departments); and the latest one, that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un assassinated his uncle by feeding him alive to 120 hungry dogs (this one is exceptionally difficult to disprove, but many regional experts have expressed strong doubts). Not to mention even sillier stories—the Thanksgiving airplane passenger Twitter spat, the twerking fail video—that, while not even pretending to be serious journalism, nevertheless made it onto some news sites.
Like most problems, this one has several interconnected causes, and some of the roots are rather old. Partisan politics and biases, reporters’ tendency to behave more like lapdogs than attack dogs, the desire to inflame typical incidents into alarming “trends,” a shameful lack of global awareness, etc.
But there’s another, much more pervasive reason: pageviews. You’ve probably noticed a proliferation of blogs that aggregate other news stories (a near daily feature on Slate and Texas Tribune) and blogs that piggy-back off already reported news (see: Gawker and its related sites). We at the Current have certainly engaged in both these tactics. While there’s the earnest effort to give readers access to the widest variety of news—whether it contains original reporting or not—there’s also the fact that just linking to hot, trending stories on the web or using them to spin-off your own take will generally result in a pageview gain for both the original story and the re-posting entity. Currently, pageviews drive most media’s digital revenue strategies, so expending very little effort to get a massive pageview payoff seems pretty attractive and everybody wins.
Until, of course, you pick up the wrong story. The fake one. Then, everybody loses. In the rush to capitalize on pageviews while these stories go viral (call it digital media’s FOMO—fear of missing out), there’s little effort to fact check, and we bloggers and editors tend to give the original reporter the benefit of the doubt as far as veracity is concerned. Worse, in the rapid pace of 24/7 news, once a site unwittingly becomes involved in reporting on a hoax, the follow-up “mea culpa” blog can quickly fall by the wayside.
This all leads me to worry that the never-ending quest for pageviews could accelerate the erosion of journalistic standards that’s already permanently altered the media landscape. Or, as Slate’s David Weigel tweeted last year: “I’m beginning to think that dumb internet hoaxes that drive traffic when we cover them are the future of journalism.”