A week or two ago, a story broke regarding a security upgrade in Windows. In the race to scoop the story first, facts were not checked, the validity of the story was based on a blog post at a security company.
Ed Bott @ Ziff Davis covered it in What the “Black screen of death” story says about tech journalism.
Even TechCrunch falls into this with a spoofed Eric Schmidt joins Twitter. Post first, ask later. Rather than correct the incorrect article, let it run for the adviews.
Since the introduction of the Internet, journalistic accuracy has dropped substantially. While spell-check should eliminate most of the errors, typographic errors occur frequently. The number of journalists that get your and you’re confused or their and there is staggering. Tribune Media, CNN/Turner, ABC, Fox and MSNBC are not immune. Associated Press, Reuters and United Press International remain news leaders with accurate, verified and grammatically correct articles. With the downturn in paper journalism, competent writers have been replaced with less expensive writers that are more interested in the number of bylines they can generate than the quality of their work.
To test a theory, a mock-up of a Facebook Beta application, a ruse posted on a few news sites with corroborating evidence and a ‘hot tip’ to two media outlets resulted in 31 different locations picking up on the post, 2700 or so retweets and precisely one site validating the facts.
The first site it was posted to, Hacker News, suspected it was fake almost immediately. However, they missed the significance of the names chosen, the times that the other comments were posted and the sequence of names. Hackers indeed. A spoof post about a hamster falling into the LHC stayed within the top 210 posts for almost four days before enough ‘news’ displaced it.
In the end, it took a security person from Facebook to post and the thread was subsequently killed. Did Facebook violate someone’s privacy to get to the bottom of this? There sure wasn’t much red tape for the Facebook engineer to peer into someone’s profile to get to the bottom of it.
TheNextWeb suspected something was amiss and updated their post throughout the day clearly indicating the updates. Martin Bryant contacted me via email to ask quite directly whether the information was true. This is good journalism.
I suppose most of the sites that ran the story are just pulling RSS feeds from somewhere with no editorial oversight. A trusted syndicated source could distribute a hoax fairly widely and the remnants would be available on the web and search engines for years.
Do sites knowingly run with incorrect headlines in search of ad dollars associated with a hot story — hoax or not? Three sites that picked up the story clearly wanted the the hysteria and hype to drive adviews.
In the end, the glut of news available at our fingertips means that the overall quality of news has diminished. Is there a solution? With automation moving at breakneck speed, it is a problem we’re going to have to deal with for quite some time. Even Google’s news site presents stories without any editorial control and would be a difficult, but not impossible vector to exploit.
Peer reviewed news isn’t the answer as so many sites have proven and editorially controlled sites contain bias no matter how independent they claim to be.
Want to design the killer app of 2010? Fix news distribution.