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Summary:

When news shows rely on “viral” videos for their programming, without bothering to even try and verify whether they are real or not, all they do is push their viewers towards the original source of that content.

If the rise of social media — and specifically the explosion of “viral” content on networks like Facebook and Twitter — has done nothing else, it has certainly given mainstream media plenty of “user-generated content” to add to their dwindling repertoire of journalism. Almost every newscast seems to include a video of cute animals or some other clip that is making the rounds on the social web. Unfortunately, no one seems to care much whether any of these videos are real or not, and that is a very real problem.

The New York Times has written about one recent example of user-generated content gone bad: namely, a video clip of a baby pig “rescuing” a hapless baby goat who is trapped in the pond at a petting zoo. Within hours of the clip being posted to YouTube last fall and subsequently shared on Reddit, it had appeared on The Today Show, NBC’s Nightly News, Good Morning America and dozens of other channels — and why not? It was incredibly cute, and had a feel-good message of the kind that morning shows in particular enjoy.

Of course, the video turned out to be a clip from a new TV show, which the creators manufactured and then uploaded as a kind of viral-marketing ploy. Not only did the baby pig not “rescue” the baby goat, but the producers of the show had to spend hours building an underwater track to even get the pig anywhere near the animal — and in the end they had to use a trained pig, after the one they were originally planning to use showed no intention of going into the pond.

Does it matter whether these clips are real?

As the NYT piece notes, when NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams introduced the video clip, he said he “felt duty bound to share this” with the audience, and added that he didn’t know whether it was real or not. Is that enough of a disclaimer to absolve a media outlet of responsibility for figuring out whether something can be verified or not? Many would argue that it is not. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute compared it to “a form of malpractice” for journalists (McBride has more on that in a blog post about the incident at Poynter).

Obviously, part of what shows like Good Morning America do is pure entertainment — in other words, not journalism by any stretch. But clips like the baby goat rescue show up on programs like The Nightly News as well, and the hosts rarely say anything about whether a clip is real or not. In some cases, these videos come right after a news report about something serious. How are audiences to know when something is “just entertainment” and therefore hasn’t been checked?

In another recent incident, a video purporting to show a golden eagle snatching a small child from a park went “viral” on the social web and showed up on a number of media outlets. It too turned out to be fake — the creation of some hard-working students in a computer-generated imagery course at a school in Montreal. The students deliberately chose something that seemed almost believable, based on “urban legends” of such incidents in the past.

We need to be careful what we amplify

Interestingly enough, the clip was debunked within hours of being uploaded, by another young programmer with some expertise in computer-generated imaging (as well as by other outlets such as Gawker, which pointed out obvious signs others could have noticed). But as with many corrections in a digital age, it took longer for the truth to propagate than it did the original video — and many of the outlets that shared the original didn’t bother to update their audience with the facts.

Om wrote recently about how one of the key responsibilities of journalists in this new age of “democratized distribution” of information is to pay attention to what they choose to amplify and what they don’t, and incidents like the baby goat video bring that home with a vengeance.

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? It isn’t. And if traditional media continue to imitate their online competitors like BuzzFeed or Reddit without adding anything of value, then they will likely find that audiences are happy to go to the original source of that content rather than relying on the TV news to find it for them.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Donskarpo

  1. Reminds me of Walt Disney’s operating philosophy of the “plausible impossible.” Nice piece, Mathew.

    1. Thanks, Terry. Yes, I think that was brilliant of the students who created the eagle video to base it on a half-truth to make it more believable. Too bad none of the outlets that shared it bothered to do the kind of homework Kelly McBride mentions in her Poynter post on it.

  2. It’s definitely one thing to show these videos as entertainment, but to have a news organization broadcast something like this and then use “we don’t know if it’s real or not” as a disclaimer, is pretty bad for media business. Reporting is meant to get to the truth…so do that! Wouldn’t it be so much better if these news orgs dug into the how and why videos like these are faked, and then ran that story? Thanks for a good read!

  3. Mathew,

    On one hand you extoll the virtues of crowd-sourced “journalism”; are at the head of the baying masses calling for journalism to rely more on twitter, youtube, Facebook or blogs and then, whoops, mainstream media is duped by pranksters. What’s it going to be because there really isn’t a happy medium?

    Fortunately the music industry seems to have finally hit its stride again after years of losing money and the hopefully the newspaper industry will shortly follow and we can stop having a debate about crowd-sourced “journalism.”

    1. David, I have definitely encouraged the media to use alternative sources for journalism, but I’ve also written repeatedly about the need for real-time verification of the kind Andy Carvin does — not the casual use of content without caring where it came from or what it is supposed to represent. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Mathew, in the rush to be first and not be scooped by a competitor, how would you counsel the “old media” to verify in real-time (for example) the tweet from the local Pakistani about the black helicopters during what turned out to be the bin-Laden raid?

        That guy was hailed for scooping the old media when in fact he had no idea what was actually going on.

      2. In those kinds of cases, it’s almost impossible to verify that kind of information unless you are on the scene or have inside knowledge, so the bar is a lot higher — certainly a lot higher than a video on YouTube.

  4. Typical…. take the baby out to the park. Where the hell is the hero pig when you need him.

  5. To play devil’s advocate: is what we’re seeing really the decline of traditional media, or just a veil being lifted on poor fact-checking? Even pre-Internet, it was common practice (at least on a local level) for news programs to end a newscast with a ‘kicker,’ which as often as not was some kind of quirky animal video clip sent in by viewer X. Who knows how many of those videos were staged or fake, or whether the news program even asked?

    1. That’s a good point, Lindsey — gullible media perpetuating hoaxes has always been a problem, maybe it’s just more obvious now.

  6. While we’re bashing the old media (yet again), where is the righteous indignation for those who post these fake videos in the first place?

    While these two examples caused no harm, think about the clown who tweeted the false info about flooding on Wall Street during Hurricane Sandy — that bit of fakery could have put lives in danger if first responders had chosen to brave dangerous conditions to react to the false report.

    But thank goodness we all have a First Amendment “right” to perpetrate such tom-foolery . . .

  7. The pig and goat video was not made as a viral marketing ploy. It was a part of a larger segment, and it was released, with no promotion, simply tonsee what would happen. Just FYI.

  8. I completely agree with Lindsey. I seriously doubt that new media is the source of the problem, it is just a source for that problem to be amplified. There has been a drastic fall in the trust in media overall for a while and modern technology has not only made it easier for the old outlets to fall into that trap more often, but has enabled a whole population of online people across the planet to recheck what those outlets are saying. I also think it is part of the reason for the decline in income. As more and more people are offered other sources of information, they no longer need to trust in the traditional sense, they can get information for a half dozen different sources, reducing the risks inherent in a single source. Of course not everyone does this, but in the internet it is the general tendencies and the effect of the masses that matters, as opposed to a few individuals who decide what to show you.

    @txpatriot: while I agree that creating such a video and actually saying “this is real!” would be a serious breach, simply creating such a video for entertainment (which is what youtube is mainly about) certainly is not as much of an issue. I do not go check out the top videos of youtube because I want to know what happened in the world today, or to find out what new developments have been made in science… and I treat any video with a heavy dose of skepticism, while being happily entertained all the while. Official news outlets are expected to show what is actually happening in the world, and most people watch/listen/read with very little skepticism.

  9. I completely agree with Lindsey. I seriously doubt that new media is the source of the problem, it is just a source for that problem to be amplified. Modern technology has not only made it easier for the old outlets to fall into such traps more often, but has enabled a whole population of online people across the planet to recheck what those outlets are saying. I also think it is part of the reason for the decline in income. As more and more people are offered other sources of information, they no longer need to trust in the traditional sense, they can get information from a half dozen different sources, reducing the risks inherent in a single source. Of course not everyone does this, but in the internet it is the general tendencies and the effect of the masses that matters, as opposed to a few individuals who decide what to show you.

    @txpatriot: while I agree that creating such a video and actually saying “this is real!” would be a problem, simply creating such a video for entertainment (which is what youtube is mainly about) certainly is not as much of an issue. I do not check out the top videos on youtube because I want to know what happened in the world today, or to find out what new developments have been made in science… and I treat any video with a heavy dose of skepticism, while being happily entertained all the while. Official news outlets are expected to show what is actually happening in the world, and most people watch/listen/read these outlets with very little skepticism.

  10. Tripe is tripe: does it really matter whether it’s manufactured or naturally-occuring? The real issue is the descent into pureed news and current affairs rather than whether a pig was trained to rescue a goat.

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