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There’s been a lot of attention paid lately to some pretty egregious errors by major media outlets — including Rolling Stone magazine, with its much-disputed tale of a college sexual-assault case — and every day it seems there is another hoax photo that requires debunking. So overall, media accuracy has probably gone down a lot, right? I don’t think so, and neither does former Reuters media critic Jack Shafer.
In an interview with Digiday, Shafer — who was recently let go by Reuters — was asked what he thought about the errors by Rolling Stone, which failed to interview the accused rapists for its original story, as well as other recent hoaxes like the high-school student who supposedly made $72 million trading stocks. Despite being a “veteran media critic,” here’s what Shafer said:
“It’s easier to discover and take apart a faulty story. It takes one guy like Richard Bradley to point out the inaccuracies in the Rolling Stone story. That really wasn’t possible 30 years ago. There weren’t as many independent voices. I don’t think it says anything about the state of journalism today.”
As Shafer notes, our ability to fact-check, verify names and dates and telephone numbers and find other useful information — the “bedrock of news stories,” as he calls it — has never been as strong as it is today, thanks to the internet and online databases and Google and other search tools. “If you could get a ruler and measure news coverage, news coverage has probably never been more accurate than it is today,” Shafer said.
Fact-checking is easier
If a story requires input from an expert of some kind, that too is much easier to produce than it has ever been, he argues: “In pre-history, if you wanted to find an expert in pharmacology, you might have to ask around, call a few universities. It was more time-consuming, and because it was more time-consuming, you wouldn’t be able to reach a couple of authorities on deadline.”
I think Shafer is right: it’s easy to focus on the hoaxes, whether it’s the high-school stock trader or a picture of snow falling on the Pyramids, but the reality is that these fake reports are far more likely to be challenged than they have ever been — just as plagiarism is also easier to spot than ever. And there are a host of fact-checking services at work on all kinds of news stories, including Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins with Bellingcat, as well as Grasswire, and even Twitter on a good day.
In some ways, I think our ability to spot and fact-check and spread the news about these kinds of things makes it seem as though they are happening more often, but in reality they used to happen all the time in the past — it just took a lot longer to figure out the errors or the hoaxes, and they never got as much publicity as the original stories did. Journalism may be far from perfect, Shafer said, but “it’s superior to that of 30 years ago.”