Originally published 09/11/2015
Journalistic integrity has been blurred in the enormity of the digital world. For each word you’re reading as many as 30,000 unique Google searches, 3000 Tweets and half-an-hour of YouTube video are made, published or uploaded. This intense flow of content is fuelled by a demand for more: more information, more entertainment and more speed in delivery; and like sardines caught in a net journalism has been swept up in the commotion. With greater demands on journalists and outlets come greater opportunities for errors to be published, for journalists to cut corners and publishers to cheapen the value of their websites to increase revenue. Implications range as far as individuals being falsely accused in the media and errors being introduced into reports to the overall value and quality of journalism dropping. It needn’t be this way. If news publishers recognise they control the online platform and not vice versa, journalism’s online future can be hallmarked by reporters going greater lengths to clarify stories, a higher quality of overall work and greater professional integrity.
In the aftermath of the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings, the name “Sunil Tripathi” became popularised as a suspected bomber. His identity spread across the internet, starting at Reddit before making it onto news websites. Not seen by his family for over a month, Sunil’s identity as the mastermind behind the attack which killed six and injured 264 quickly took root in worldwide news. Ahead of three other suspects identified through a crowdsourced investigation, Tripathi quickly became the media’s lead man.
In reality, Sunil wasn’t linked to the attack. In fact, he’d committed suicide weeks prior in a different state. The media’s other suspects: a Saudi man, a Moroccan man and a man known only as “Mike Mulugeta”, were all unconnected to the attacks; Mulugeta never even existed – the name was fabricated on Twitter before going viral. But for a short period, at least, a number of high-profile publishers ran these allegations as front-page stories. But why did this enormous ethical blunder occur? Because journalism’s culture has changed. The rush to become the first outlet to publish news – even differences of minutes – has taken over, and has resulted in an increase in rumours being published as news, or at least publishing rumours as unconfirmed on the front-page of a website. In this instance, which is one of many cases of misinformation being spread as news every day, Sunil Tripathi was the final victim of the bombings. The overriding fault is that of a failure by publishers to recognise they control when news is published and that they aren’t any longer confined by deadlines harking back to the age of print. Online news must still be timely, but even more so than timely it must be accurate.
Having news websites which take extra time to verify stories and ensure they aren’t publishing false allegations, Joseph Fernandez, head of the Curtin University’s journalism school says, will decide which publishers survive and which do not in the coming years. “I don’t know about whether the public forgives. If people have come to trust you and you betray that trust you lose,” he says.
But where was the Tripathi and co. misinformation sourced from? Increasingly the popularity of forum-based, crowdsourced investigations has made its way into mainstream digital journalism. Message boards like Reddit have become sources of publicly-collated information, but it’s important for journalists and publishers to recognise the limitations – and risks – associated with relying too much on message boards for information. Explaining the timeline of the Boston Marathon bombings media blunder, Lalit Kundani of NewAmericaMedia.org explains,
“After the FBI released photographs, [former school peer Kami Mattioli] Tweeted that Sunil resembled Suspect 2. When Reddit user ‘Pizzatime’ … confirmed that Tripathi looked exactly like Suspect 2, a subreddit (forum) devoted to the bombings confirmed it was Tripathi,”
“Within minutes, collages of side-by-side comparisons were posted on the web comparing Tripathi to Suspect 2.”
And that is where journalists came in, picking up the story and running as fast as they could with it. The New York Post even ran a picture of two suspects (later dismissed as uninvolved in the attack) as their front page. How rumours on a message board became front-page news in a matter of hours is the result of journalism’s move away from solo investigations and toward crowdsourcing, in this case running the unconfirmed allegations of anonymous forum users. But running forum hearsay carries with it an incredible vulnerability for the journalist to publishing mistakes or lies. Reporters must get back into being investigators, and not as collators and re-publishers of message board verbatim.
Crowdsourcing can be a great help to the investigative process for journalists and publishers, but basing entire stories on them without giving the proper consideration or clarification only risks damaging the reputation of an outlet if and when they turn out to be not entirely correct. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Karl Bernstein didn’t bring down the Nixon administration by reporting the words and allegations of every person who cared to comment on the Watergate scandal; Nellie Bly didn’t uncover chasms within 19th century British mental health asylums by reporting public perceptions of the system, and instead went undercover and investigated personally. “Inadequate fact-checking and inaccuracy are not unique to journalism but that does not make it excusable for journalism,” says Fernandez. Crowdsourcing has great potential: in 2009 The Guardian effectively harnessed the power of crowdsourcing, asking its readers to sift through 700,000 documents of parliamentary expenses to identify any improper claims, resulting in the resignation of over 20 sitting parliamentarians. But large-scale reliance on crowdsourcing should be used sparingly, or at least should be used with great considerations of the risk associated, and should complement a report and not drive it.
On top of this, “clickbait” culture helps drive the issue. Clickbait has a fantastic ability to bring in visitors who may not be interested in regular nine-to-five news reports. Anything that is lewd, lascivious, salacious and/or outrageous (to borrow a line from Seinfeld) can and is thrown onto news websites to increase network traffic. But for the industry, clickbait-style articles risk damaging the reputation of individual publishers and journalism as a whole. To emphasise how big this style of reporting has become, taken from the front page of just one popular online news site are the articles: “Kanye West reportedly spends more than $700 a day on his hair”, “Daniel Craig was a young sex machine a former lover reveals” and “Sam Frost admits she wet herself during a Bachelorette date with Michael” (just three examples taken from a single website). These articles may increase network traffic, but their prominence alongside genuine news has long outweighed their newsworthiness.
As a means of bringing viewers to a website clickbait can work wonders, but it can also work to damage the reputation of an outlet. Emily Shire of The Daily Beast states “the short term gains in unique views [from clickbait] may cost news sites in the long run.” The biggest stories of 2014 included the Russian annexation of Crimea, the declaration of independence by Islamic State, the Ebola crisis and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 – all genuine news stories. It may sound unimaginative, but the alternative to clickbait – and best way to increase revenue – is to produce genuine, thought-provoking news. The New York Times, long heralded in the highest regard for journalistic integrity, recently announced its one millionth online subscriber – all without resorting to clickbait headlines and articles. Clickbait undeniably brings traffic to a website, but the biggest stories remain those that are hard-hitting and well researched. Resorting to celebrity gossip, or reporting conclusions made by unauthoritative online forum users to increase network flow and income neither helps the reputation of online journalism or online publishers.
While the internet offers journalists the opportunity to deliver news immediately and harness the power of crowdsourcing, with greater reach come great responsibilities for news publishers. Journalists and publishers must ensure they can verify allegations before publishing, and control the medium instead of being controlled by it. Crowdsourcing can help propel an investigation, but journalists must be wary of relying too greatly on anonymous forum users and their oft unverified conclusions. Forum users are generally not trained media professionals and do not share the same considerations journalists must when publishing news. Rather than publishing allegations as quickly as they can write them, journalists should prioritise considering all the facts surrounding the allegations before submitting articles. Perhaps the user is correct, but it’s still best to check and use your own reasoning. Maybe you’ll conclude the missing student probably isn’t a terrorist. Fernandez says “it is better to be late and credible rather than quick and wrong.”
Journalism’s 500-year history prior to the internet shouldn’t be succeeded by a culture of lazy journalism. Investigations of political corruption should trump stories about celebrities and their sex lives; stories covering political change should outweigh celebrity break-ups; and reports of human rights abuses should outweigh quizzes which claim to determine “Which TV Brother Should Be Your Brother In Real Life?” All too often they don’t. For publishers, avoiding tying the masthead’s reputation to such fluff will only serve their reputation well – and that of the overall reputation of online news – for the future. In the time it’s taken you to read this feature, as many as 45 million Google searches will have been made, 9 million Tweets will have been sent and 7500 hours of video uploaded onto YouTube. The digital community’s size and demand for content should embolden the resolve of editors and journalists who wish to maintain journalistic integrity through the profession’s unclear future. Sunil Tripathi and people like him are too often wrongly targeted by the media; it’s time for online news publishers to take responsibility for what they publish online.
The sooner outlets recognise this and return to existing for the sake of creating good news, the better off online journalism will be.