Back in March 2007 I received an email from a friend telling me about the plight of Eric Volz. If you remember, he was sitting in a Nicaraguan jail accused of murdering his girlfriend. Although this bit of news happened to be true, I was initially unconvinced and it took me a fair amount of time to figure it out. I chronicled this episode on my blog in an article entitled, “Searching For News.” The thesis was simple, we live in the information age and unbranded information, even if received from a trusted source may not be true.
“Now we are entering (some would argue that we have been in one for a decade) a world where emails from friends with seemingly real news stories and seemingly real references may be casually passed along and consumed as facts. We’ve always trusted our friends as good sources of info. We’ve grown up (even the digital natives) in a world of trusted news brands — why shouldn’t we be conditioned to believe what we read if formatted like news, is, in fact, news?
This is just the beginning. UGC as video content has made all the news this year, but the real story is just bubbling under the surface. The moulin of user generated news is about to seep under the branded news glaciers we believe will never melt or fall into the sea. Let’s just hope the melting ice doesn’t redraw the map to the point where we won’t recognize the coastline.”
In recent weeks there has been an inexplicably high amount of misinformed news … seemingly more than normal. While this is nothing new (Remember Jayson Blair?), the nomination of a relatively unknown politician as John McCain’s running mate has spurred all sorts of unsubstantiated rumors; from the baby factor, to drug use, drunk driving, guns, political kick backs, affairs, the list goes on and on. It would make a good soap opera but for the fact that the story is too trite and the characters are too stereotypical.
First, there were blogger accusations that Mrs. Palin had covered up her daughter’s pregnancy by claiming it to be her own. Some claimed that four-month-old Trig, who was born with Down syndrome, was Bristol’s baby, not Sarah’s. As we all know, Bristol is five-months pregnant, which debunks this rumor. However, the rumor hasn’t evaporated and there are certainly thousands, if not more, who still believe Sarah was covering for her daughter.
It’s not just bloggers getting in on the action, “real” reporters (whatever that means) can’t get enough either. So much so that the fine folks at Bloomberg have hosted several rather comical, absurd articles in the past few weeks. First was their inclusion of the Steve Jobs obituary on August 27th. . While it is commonplace for major news outlets to pre-write obituaries of famous people, Mr. Jobs opened his speech at Apple’s “Let’s Rock” event this week by proving he was not dead. If that’s not bad enough, Bloomberg also had a hand in publishing the Sarah Palin drunk driving report, which, it turns out, isn’t true. It was her husband, Todd, who was arrested for a DWI, 22 years ago. .
In a similar instance, a 2002 story from the Chicago Tribune on United Airlines filing for bankruptcy was mistaken as new by Income Securities Advisors Inc. and subsequently picked up by Google News and, you guessed it, Bloomberg News. The story effectively tanked United Airlines stock, causing a 76% drop in share value. All this just two years after United emerged from bankruptcy protection.
One of the most popular of the Sarah Palin stories, and there are a handful of good ones, is the infamous American flag Bikini/AK-47 photo. This photoshopped masterpiece spread through the web like wildfire, so much so that CNN reporter Lola Ogunnaike commented that Palin “looks good in a bikini clutching an AK-47, but is she equipped to run the country?” Too bad it’s not the Governor and it’s not even an AK-47!
Another piece of Palin intrigue was the open letter written by Wasilla, AK resident Anne Kilkenny, who has supposedly known Palin for years. The letter highlights Sarah’s rise to power and her actions along the way. Kilkenny is objective, and honest in her assertion that she herself has sparred with Palin in the past, specifically over the banning of books in the town library. This letter was picked up for publication by The Nation, The [Illinois] Daily Journal and the Anchorage Daily News. But, as with the Eric Volz story, I received an email about this letter from a friend in Upstate New York who told me that he had received it from two different people that morning. Were his sources credible? Was this letter real?
My imperfect solution was to check the letter out on urbanlegends.com and snopes.com. They said the AK-47/bikini pic was fake, the list of banned books was fake and the letter from Anne Kilkenny as partially true. The open letter from Ms. Kilkenny, a lifelong Democrat who supposedly attended every city counsel meeting during Palin’s first year in office, was even featured as part of an article in the New York Times. Partially true?
We media professionals have slid down the slippery slope of journalistic integrity much farther than I could ever have imagined. Some of our most trusted news sources are using User Generated Content as source material and have no more ability to check their facts than average Internet users do.
Mistakes happen, UAL was serendipitously taken out to the woodshed and their share price with it. It could have happened to anyone. But having a CNN reporter think, for a second, that the picture of a woman in a bikini holding a rifle could actually be Governor Palin and reporting it as such is truly inexcusable for a professional news organization. Anyone with a minute of training could tell you that the weapon was not an AK-47 and that the picture was most likely “fun with Photoshop.”
In these times of ubiquitous communications tools, video production, audio production and graphic arts capabilities, it is incumbent for professional news media outlets to exercise above average judgment and demonstrate a higher standard of editorial decision-making. Otherwise, it will all just be noise.