The internet is a huge and beautiful world full of facts, opinions, viewpoints, and sources. It’s a goldmine for journalists who need to write a story, and write it fast. But it is not a clear world, it’s more like a hall of mirrors that contains distorted reflections where finding the source of the image is a game of hide and seek.
Speed versus accuracy
The rapid pace of online media has made speed a most necessary evil in journalism. Necessary because if you don’t publish the news first or fast, someone else will, stealing your readers in the process. And evil because, let’s face it, speed makes the details turn into a blur. Speed comes at the cost of accuracy, and before you know it, you’re laying your reliability at stake competing in this news race.
So that’s what it comes down to: speed vs. accuracy. Indeed this isn’t a new debate in journalism. The basic training of every journalist involves working with strict deadlines. Nevertheless, the online world has brought with it a whole new dynamic that makes the speed-accuracy trade-off an increasingly worrisome one. Kendyl Salcito reports on this issue in a post for the Center for Journalism Ethics. People now want to see news as it happens; take for example, natural disasters or major political events like elections which get almost a minute-by-minute coverage. Moreover, news is not just restricted to a few media and publishing corporations. Independent bloggers and local organizers are but a few additions to this field, as are the growing number of individuals on Twitter, who in some situations are the first and only access to what’s happening on the ground. The unprecedented coverage of public uprisings in various parts of the world such as Egypt and Ukraine, would not have been possible to such a broad extent without these individual contributions.
These new players in the field have provided journalists with many additional resources for gathering information and facts. However, the universal accessibility of the Internet also makes it a world replete with deception, rumours, con artists, and even plain lies. The following example shows how easily even journalists trained to be critical, can lose their way in this murky world.
Ryan Holiday, the “expert” con man
Ryan Holiday calls himself an expert on media manipulation. He is of the opinion that it doesn’t take much to hoodwink reporters, and to prove that he created false identities as an “expert” on just about anything. Using the service Help a Reporter Out (HARO), an initiative with the intention of providing an easy way for reporters to gather expert opinions online, Holiday became an ‘established’ expert within weeks, giving his opinion on topics ranging from insomnia to vinyl records, to winterizing your boat (most of these stories have been fixed following the discovery of Holiday’s false identity) Among those taken in were ABC News, Reuters, CBS, and even the New York Times. In Holiday’s own words:
“I knew that bloggers would print anything, so I thought, what if, as an experiment, I tried to prove that they will literally print anything?”
The New York Times journalist, Roy Furchgott, who was among the ones to be conned, mentioned that the opinion given by Holiday was completely in line with what most record collectors would say, and raised nothing to be suspicious about. Moreover, it was hard to imagine somebody lying about something as trivial as vinyls. So he skipped checking the source, and took Holiday’s word on it. The restrictions imposed by time trumped the authenticity of the source in this case.
Whatever happened to Tintin?
The need for reporters and journalists to go out in the field and collect information first-hand has been replaced by the facts coming directly to their desktop. The global nature of news also makes it impossible to be present on the ground as news happens. While earlier, journalists relied on their personal network and direct contacts to verify news, nowadays they operate with a multiplicity of networks and information sources that are unknown and might be veiled by anonymity. It is just as important as ever, if not more, to ensure the accuracy of your information and the authenticity of your sources. Peter Shankman, founder of HARO, makes a mention of how HARO, as well as other online tools, should be subject to the same set of rules that have defined journalism for decades:
“As a journalist, it’s always been your job to do your research and check the source, whether you find that source on the street, on Craigslist or on HARO. If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing your job however you find the source.”
However, I think that the online world is still different. It presents many more ways of being deceived, many more con men such as Holiday or much worse, and a bigger stake given its extensive reach. I believe that we have moved from simpler times to a web of complexity, where it is getting harder to ascertain the reliability of the source, particularly within the confines of the increasing need for speed. Remember the detective-reporter Tintin, whose quest for true stories took him on investigative cases all around the world? The adventurous out-there world of Tintin has now moved online, and we definitely need the Tintin attitude now more than ever. To me that attitude entails constant questioning, critically assessing every bit of information, and a thorough checking of facts and sources.
Speed does not mean we can compromise on accuracy, it means we need to be sharper and better trained to pick up the right trail leading to reliable sources and information, and accurate reporting.
Only journalists who operate like scientific and fearless detectives stand a chance in this world wide wonderland. Or journalists who don’t care about reproducing ghosts and reflections, con artists and half-truths, creating fairytales rather than reliable stories. The choice is up to you.