What a pig, a goat and an eagle can tell us about the decline of traditional media

If the rise of social media — and specifically the explosion of “viral” content on networks like Facebook(s fb) 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.

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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).

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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.

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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