Checking It Out  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   October/November 2004

Checking It Out   

News organizations need to be more careful in handling inflammatory stories based on unconfirmed Internet sources.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


Fake blood, a vegetable knife and a video camera. Pulling a prank on the media shouldn't be so easy, but it was bound to happen.

Early on the morning of August 7, four versions of an Associated Press story reported that video of a San Francisco man being decapitated had surfaced on the Internet. The story appeared on several news Web sites. MSNBC.com even sent a breaking news e-mail alert: "Web site shows beheading of American in Iraq."

Within hours the video was revealed to be a hoax, an experiment produced in a Bay Area garage by three amateur filmmakers who wanted to see how fast and far it would spread. The outcome exceeded their wildest expectations and put two major wire services, and several of their subscribers, to shame.

Someone should have smelled a prank. There was no record of the man identified on the tape traveling in Iraq, no mention of such a trip on his personal Web site, no record of anyone by that name having been captured, no militants seen on camera and no indication of the location or time the tape was made. Yet both the AP and Reuters reported the beheading as fact. The video had been on the Internet since May but caught the media's gullible eye when it appeared on a radical Islamic Web site that has been a reliable source of information and hostage video in the past.

In a San Francisco Chronicle article published the next day, AP Deputy Managing Editor Tom Kent agreed that early versions of the story should have included a disclaimer that the information had not been independently verified. But how much uncertainty can a caveat cover?

Within the next week, the AP reported three more purported beheadings based on images and video found on militant Islamic Web sites. In the first case, a Bulgarian truck driver who'd disappeared in Iraq in late July, there was strong evidence--the recent discovery of a body--that the video was real. Within days the Bulgarian government confirmed the story. The other two cases involved still pictures of a man identified by the host Web site as an Egyptian spy working for the U.S. government and video of an unnamed man identified on tape as a CIA agent. These materials may turn out to be real, but at the time of this writing no confirmation or supporting evidence had been reported. In the AP's August 11 story, a U.S. official said no CIA employees were missing.

Stories with so much emotional and political impact that arguably advance the agendas of both terrorists and hoaxers underline the reason for confirming before reporting. Unfortunately, the media seem to be growing less cautious as pranks and rumors become more abundant.

In the rumor category is Matt Drudge's February "scoop" that major news organizations were investigating a possible affair between Sen. John Kerry and an intern. The rumor eventually was dismissed and no major news outlets published the story, but in the days after it first appeared on drudgereport.com, several news organizations--mostly local TV stations and a handful of foreign newspapers--couldn't resist repeating it.

The pressure to report during the rumor stage is heightened by the Web's hyperactive self-publishers. Before the Internet, there was no way for stories to reach a broad audience without passing through the media gatekeepers. Today, people assemble their own news reports from both traditional news sites and independent Web publishers. According to a survey conducted in May and June by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 24 percent of Internet users have searched the Web for particular news stories, photographs or video that media outlets had decided not to cover.

That means the public can see what news organizations aren't reporting, or not reporting yet. It might make journalists nervous that they're being scooped, or that they appear to be burying a story or sitting on it too long. So they go with the rumor, which lends credibility and visibility to the story, which eventually is debunked through actual reporting. That's a backward, irresponsible way to do journalism.

It also undermines the crucial role news organizations need to serve. The new generation of self-directed newsgatherers should have the opportunity to sort information into two categories: what the self-publishers are reporting, and what the journalists are confirming. Traditional media may not be the gatekeepers anymore, but they can provide a refuge of reliability.

This is the wrong time for journalists to shrug their shoulders and accept that some misinformation is bound to slip into news reports, or to relax fact-checking practices, or to use the race to publish as an excuse for carelessness. The way for established news organizations to stand out among the cacophony of voices on the Internet is by demonstrating that they offer what the self-publishers don't: reliability. And if that means some stories will be "out there" for a few hours or days while journalists investigate them, so be it.

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