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Summary:

It would be nice if both traditional and new-media outlets would do a little more checking before they report on something — but how much responsibility do the perpetrators of hoaxes bear for the perpetuation of untruths?

There have been a rash of internet hoaxes lately — including a fake Google protester, a made-up tweet from Paris Hilton and a fictional conversation between a “reality TV” producer and an irritating passenger on an airplane. As a New York Times story points out, most of these were spread by social media and fuelled by credulous reports from a number of media outlets. Media critics have rightly argued that this is a problem, driven at least in part by the speed of online media.

Obviously it would be nice if more media outlets checked such reports before they repeated them. But are reporters and bloggers the only ones with any broader ethical responsibility? What about those who engage in hoaxes? What is their responsibility as members of what Yochai Benkler — of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society — has called a “networked fourth estate?”

A responsibility to correct the record

Elan Gale, a producer of the “reality” TV show The Bachelor, was the architect of the hoax conversation involving a woman theoretically named Diane, to whom he allegedly wrote passive-aggressive notes on airplane napkins as he live-tweeted the entire episode. In a Twitter debate on Monday night that included Tow Center fellow Alex Howard and me, Gale argued that he had no responsibility whatsoever to correct the record once he realized that some people believed his story was true.

Elan Gale tweet1

Elan Gale tweet2

In a nutshell, Gale said he is just a fun-loving writer who enjoys playing Twitter pranks and/or creating what he called “performance art” like the airplane incident, and it’s not his job to point out when people — or media outlets — are taking his words seriously rather than dismissing them as satire. Gale said he assumes that his Twitter followers know he routinely makes things up, and therefore they are “in on the joke.” And what about those who aren’t? They’re on their own.

Elan Gale tweet3

There’s no question that — as Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab put it in the New York Times piece — the fast pace of online media often means outlets wind up simply pointing to things instead of actively trying to determine whether they are true (another reason why I wish someone would expand Snopes into a full-fledged media entity). And it should be noted that it’s not just new media like BuzzFeed: the New York Times itself mentioned the Gale incident on its travel blog, although that post appears to have been deleted.

We are all media now

BuzzFeed says it tried to reach Gale via Twitter to confirm the story, and updated it as soon as it had more information. And there is undoubtedly pressure on such sites to run a salacious piece first rather than waiting to check, since the traffic rewards can be remarkable — as Gawker’s “viral content” specialist Neetzan Zimmerman pointed out during a recent debate with founder Nick Denton on the merits of checking stories rather than just running with them.

But I would argue (and did argue during my Twitter debate with Gale) that since each of us is effectively a member of the media now, whether we like it or not, it’s incumbent on the sources of such erroneous reports to point out that they are engaging in fiction, rather than leaving everyone to their own devices.

Elan Gale tweet4

Josh Stearns of Free Press pointed out recently that the rise of networked journalism requires a new ethical approach, one that applies not just to journalists but to anyone involved in what Om has called the “democratization of distribution.” Part of Gale’s argument is that he is just a joker, and no one was harmed by his story, and that’s true — a fictitious conversation on airplane isn’t a world-changing event, and likely no one’s life was altered by his hoax. But that’s hardly the point.

The larger point is that we are all in this thing together now, this distributed and networked media ecosystem, and we should act like it. That means checking things before you retweet them, and not going off on witch hunts if you are on Reddit after a bombing, and other things as well. But blaming “the media” for getting it wrong is no solution either any more. We are all the media.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Don Skarpo

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  1. Though I dont fully agree with all that you say, but you have opened a very interesting and a new channel of conversation. One which requires for the pros and cons to be weighed down properly before coming to a conclusion.

    And that is the reason why I would like to re-blog your article on my blog.

    Thanks,
    AD.

  2. the “nobody was hurt” argument seems like a slippery slope to me.

    1. Totally agree, Dave.

    2. It’s no more of a slippery slope than “Fire!” in a crowded theater. If I stand up in a crowded theater at the end of a play and yell “That was awesome!” nobody’s going to have much of a problem with it. If I stand up and yell “Fire!” they are. Is that a slippery slope? I don’t think so.

      The argument isn’t “nobody was hurt.” It’s partly that, but it’s also “nobody was likely to be hurt.” One of the main reasons we have laws is so people don’t do dangerous things. What Gale did wasn’t dangerous. If he’d tweeted about the guy next to him having a gun and seeming nervous, that would have been different. The “danger” here was that some news orgs would be embarrassed when they didn’t properly do their job.

      1. More importantly. How you get your pretty faces next to your comments like that? I signed in through Twitter.

  3. For those interested in these questions I also recommend Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive book, especially the chapter on 5 principles of trustworthy media creation, which is available online here: http://mediactive.com/5-0-chapter-5-principles-of-trustworthy-media-creation/

    1. Great suggestion, Josh — and of course Dan is also the one who pretty much invented the term “We the media.” Thanks for that.

  4. Claiming that a person becomes a member of the media when they open a twitter account is like saying a person becomes a taxicab driver when they purchase a car.

    1. In a way, it is similar.
      Think before the advent of the internet, and in some measure today. Professional journalists wrote countless stories they offered to the media for publishing. They chose to print the story, to trust the writer.
      To add to your analogy, sure, if I get my driver license and paint my car yellow, I could take people around and play the cab driver.
      Every twitter user “could” be a journalist, but that doesn’t mean they’re reliable or trustworthy (are tabloid writers journalists?).
      If Buzzfeed picked it up and they looked like idiots, then that’s their fault entirely.
      That’s the reason why people bought newspapers instead of relying on gossip and rumors, and also the reason why the professional news media will explode back into action after this slump.

  5. Mr. North,
    “The media” didn’t merely trust professional journalists.
    They trusted in a process of verification by which the reporter was transparent about the work: where the information came from and how it was gathered. Publishers trusted in a professional structure of editors and copy-editors and proof-readers who shared a goal of timely accuracy, facts in context and most importantly, of accountability, as expressed in by-lines, mastheads and other anti-anonymity measures.
    For more on these issues, I invite your shoulder to the wheel known as News Literacy, which is an effort to educate consumers of information to think about reliability.
    Many former journos, current journos and civic engagement types are working to fill the void left when civics was gutted from the national curriculum.
    News Literacy teaches critical thinking, using each day’s news as the textbook and addresses many of the issues raised in this post.
    Checkitout at centerfornewsliteracy.org and thenewsliteracyproject.org.

  6. This will speak to those involved and who use social media (just about everybody). Reminding them to always check and cross reference their sources and to not be so gullible. Good post.

  7. Andy Kauffman was a member of the media the moment a camera was pointed at him. Context matters!

  8. When ever an important news story breaks, everyone rushes to their favorite cable news channel for details, some on the left, others on the right. For true understanding of an issue will always be hard to find, so a little of each is wise…just hope you can stand the stage make up if a women is reporting…

  9. The problem- as all trained investigative journalists know- is that fact- checking costs time and MONEY. And in in this new world both are in very short supply, as is the likelihood of a freelance journalist still making a living. As in music, good, curated, journalism can be hard to find. The downside of ‘free’ is that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. So a torrent of rubbish music and a torrent of rubbish ‘journalism’ is what we get. You can’t have it both ways.

  10. The idea that a comedian or “content creator” should denote that what they’re saying is fiction or a parody is absurd. Comedy’s job is not to tell you that it’s comedy. If it does, it’s doing it wrong. That would be akin to James Cameron coming on screen every five minutes during “Avatar” to say, “Now remember, this is all just pretend, okay?” Onus is on media to fact check and keep public hysterics in check through solid reporting. What this issue does highlight, however, is just how desperate the 24 hour news cycle has made media outlets for any content they can spin as “news.”

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