Tag Archives: hoaxes

“We don’t care if it’s true” journalism

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?

  1. Take his word for it and write a one-source story that says he’s going to get $1 million, and plug his show
  2. Write a one-source story that expresses a bit of skepticism about whether it’s true but whose headline assumes it is
  3. Wait until after this “show” of his unless you have proof that this story is real or that it’s a hoax
  4. 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.

The Hindustan Times is going to be very disappointed.

Online articles should be corrected

Montreal City Weblog has a post about a story that updated quickly enough that different sources had different versions. The story is about a girl in St. Sauveur who said she escaped a kidnapping attempt. The only problem is she made it all up.

Here’s the thing: The original CBC.ca story is still up there, with no indication that the kidnapping didn’t happen. No correction, no update, no link to a new story.

This isn’t a problem limited to the CBC. While major outlets like the New York Times will put a “correction appended” notice on articles that are updated, most don’t bother. They’ll put up a new story when new developments happen, and leave the old one to be spread among blogs, spidered by search engines and continue to give out misinformation to an unsuspecting public.

Among the news outlets that left original stories up with no indication of corrections or updates:

News outlets that replaced the original stories with new ones saying the kidnapping was a hoax:

The fact that there’s a second list is comforting, but the first one (most of whom simply recopied the Canadian Press story) is still far too long.

There’s no excuse for allowing incorrect and incomplete information once correct information is known. News media (traditional and new alike) have to shape up and fix that fatal flaw if they’re to be trusted to give us accurate information.

Another eBay story too good to be true

Hey, remember that guy who sold a snowbank on eBay, getting $3,550 to donate to charity?

Yeah, it was a junk bid.

I appreciate that journalists did their due diligence and contacted the guy who was selling the snowbank, to determine that 1. He’s really selling a snowbank and 2. He’s really donating the proceeds to charity.

But once again, they seem to take an unconfirmed winning bid as if it’s a completed transaction. And when the bid is ridiculously high after lots of media coverage, there frankly should be an assumption that the bidder isn’t going to pay.

Same deal with the Guitar Hero auction, which sold at 100 times its suggested retail price just because it came with some story of a guy whose son smoked pot. Though the winning bidder in that auction is a long-time account with good feedback, the deal hasn’t been concluded yet so we shouldn’t assume it’s good.

Is a little bit of healthy skepticism (and patience) too much to ask?