Imagine, for a second, that you’re working in a newsroom and this guy you’ve never heard of walks in off the street and says someone’s going to give him a million dollars for no apparent reason. Imagine that, when you ask for proof of this, he says he won’t reveal the name of the person who’s going to give him the money, but he has a signed notarized letter from a lawyer promising the cash. But he won’t show you the letter, or even give you the name of the lawyer who prepared it.
But don’t worry, he says, all will be revealed at this show in a few weeks that he’s selling tickets for. You see, he’s a comedian.
What do you do?
- Take his word for it and write a one-source story that says he’s going to get $1 million, and plug his show
- Write a one-source story that expresses a bit of skepticism about whether it’s true but whose headline assumes it is
- Wait until after this “show” of his unless you have proof that this story is real or that it’s a hoax
- Tell him to get lost until he can show you the cash
Meet Craig Rowin. He’s a comedian who asked for $1 million on YouTube, then later posted another video claiming success. Stories have been written about his claim, and he’s been interviewed many times, including by Mark Kelley on CBC. All the while, he has refused to provide any concrete proof that he will actually receive a million dollars.
Some of the stories about this (including Kelley’s interview) have expressed skepticism, others don’t bother. And these aren’t just the “blogs” and “Twitter” that those snobby professional journalists decry. It’s ABC News, Forbes, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News (with three bylines!) and the Daily Mail (okay, I probably shouldn’t put “Daily Mail” and “professional journalists” in the same sentence).
Meanwhile, you have Gawker, which heightens the skepticism enough to call this “clearly identifiable bullshit”. But that’s just their gut feeling, they don’t actually have any proof that it’s a hoax.
There are also, to be fair, plenty of news agencies that haven’t touched the story, particularly news wires like Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.
For the record, I have no idea if this story is true or not. It’s possible it’s all a giant hoax to get media attention. It’s possible that it’s a trick – maybe it’s in Zimbabwean dollars or it’s a chocolate bar called “one million dollars”. It could be that he’s getting $1 million but it’s all part of some elaborate marketing campaign. Or maybe some random gajillionnaire actually just saw a video online and decided to give a random stranger a million dollars for no reason other than he asked for it.
Whether Rowin’s story is true isn’t relevant. What matters is none of these journalists knows if it is or not. None of them have enough proof to satisfy even themselves, much less their audience.
And they don’t care.
Why? Because it doesn’t matter. For far too many journalists, news isn’t about getting it right anymore, it’s about entertainment. Even if Rowin’s story is a giant hoax, it’s still mildly entertaining because it’s a funny story. And for TV journalists, there’s the added benefit of video. Many things that shouldn’t be news stories end up on television newscasts for the sole reason that there’s video available for them.
If Rowin’s story turns out to be a giant fraud, we’ll see some follow-ups saying so. Some may even take it a step further and do analyses, about the power of YouTube to propagate a fantastic story, or about how gullible people are. But we probably won’t see many apologies or corrections. The journalists didn’t lie. They didn’t say for certain that this guy received a million dollars (except in their headlines). They just said he said he was going to receive a million dollars. And that gets them off the hook.
In the end, whether the news gets this story wrong won’t change anything major. Nobody’s going to make a life-or-death decision based on whether this guy gets this money. Nobody’s going to quit their job or ruin their lives over this. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.
The only potential casualty here is the credibility of professional journalism. Thankfully, there’s not much left of that to lose.
UPDATE (Feb. 4): What a shock! It was all a hoax. The news outlets who reported on it as fact, though, are running follow-ups instead of corrections.