Even as the media continues to take Facebook to task over its fake news problem, many parts of the news business are doing their best to undermine their argument that they should be considered more trustworthy.
On Tuesday evening, a video of a female cyclist responding to cat calls from workers in a van by chasing them and pulling off a wing mirror was picked up by the media, after being posted on a Facebook page and attracting millions of views.
Most outlets including the Sun, The Mirror, Mail Online and the Huffington Post reported it as fact without even mentioning the source.
The Independent also covered it, saying the source of the video couldn’t give any more details, while the Telegraph mentioned it came from viral creative agency Jungle Creations.
The Evening Standard even went as far as suggesting there could be concerns about its authenticity, though not until the 14th paragraph of the story. And the quote they included from Jungle Creations co-founder Paul Beiboer was particularly revealing. “We couldn’t verify its authenticity, but we don’t think it’s fake.” So the people providing the video couldn’t even confirm it was real.
As my colleague Elena Cresci has pointed out, there were lots of reasons to suspect the video was a hoax. Yet not a single publication has yet responded to a question about whether they tried to independently verify whether it was real before publishing.
And inevitably, it looks likely that it was staged. More than 13 hours after publishing the video, the Sun updated its story. The original headline read “AT BRAKING POINT Female cyclist hits back at disgusting catcaller who asked her if she was ‘on her period’ as she RIPS OFF van’s wing mirror”. The updated version removes the last few words and adds: “– but was it real?”
That was because the Sun had tracked down a witness who claimed the whole thing was staged. Well done to the Sun for finding him (assuming, of course, he turns out to be real), but that doesn’t excuse the fact they – and at least half a dozen newspapers and more online outlets – were prepared to report it as fact without checking it.
Other sites have since begun updating their articles, some of them footnoting their article explaining their changes. Viral Thread subsequently removed the video from their Facebook page.
This is not a new problem. The pressure for clicks has pushed many news organisations to take an increasingly lax attitude to checking whether a great story is made up. And once it turns out to be a hoax, they just put up another story “revealing” that it was a fake and hoover up more clicks. Remember the “giant” rat? There are almost no financial penalties for this behaviour in ad-based, audience-scale-at-all-costs publishing. Much as with Facebook, fake news means easy clicks, but some of the media seems unconcerned when it’s on their own sites.
In the long run this kind of behaviour will further undermine the media as a whole. When our trustworthiness is being questioned so throughly, when our reputations are being attacked on a daily basis, the news media needs to be more careful than ever that it doesn’t mislead people. Unfortunately, it seems that a large swath of the UK’s media have no intention of applying the basic standards required to ensure they don’t.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010