Counterproductive Online Journalism

It is said that rejection is just the things you say to yourself everyday, except said by someone else. To a failed writer, this balance of rejection is firmly in the court of the rejecting editors encountered to date at this stage, but the maxim is similar in the world of Web 2.0. Blogs, comments, forums, social networking, it’s the stuff you say in your head, except communicated as text, but the difference is it’s unlikely you would say them to anyone’s face (at least not sober).

However, this caveat is often used to somehow dampen the impact of the internet. It’s just the internet; no one takes it seriously do they? Well, do they? As the print media will attest, we’ve changed forever how we get our news and opinion. As technology like smart phones and the new generation of iPads become inseparable from our hands, so the internet becomes the basis for our information. Those who scorn blogs for their highly agenda driven information ignore that the traditional media has had to mirror this to survive. That is the greatest proof of just how important Web 2.0 has become in shaping and influencing society.

With the advent of blogs as a news source, if not the main news source for many, journalists can no longer look at their blogs and features as a “hobby”. The old view of “it’s just the internet” is no longer a valid argument for relaxed journalistic standards. While a journalist has many competitors out there and the instantaneous nature of social networking mean a “scoop” is a brittle thing where weeks and months of work can be scooped by some tool on twitter, if the revolution is to be lasting and worthwhile, those standards of journalism (built on 400 years of print media) must be transferred over into all writings.

When Chris Mooney, an individual of significant journalistic experience, let confirmation bias corrupt every journalistic ethic and promoted a fabricated anecdote as the smoking gun in his whole theory of New Atheist Battle Royal, do we say: “it’s just a blog” or “it’s just the internet”? The problem in the case of Mooney (and other online journalists) is that they want their blogs to be read and they want their blogs to be viewed with a sense of respectability and credibility. This isn’t a blog about the daily habits of his dog, this is a blog on a scientific webzine written by a science journalist purporting to present factual information.

It’s always easy to judge with 20/20 hindsight, but there are grievous sins a journalist should avoid (or at least not get caught doing) and if journalists wish their online writing to be as respected and credible as their print, then they must apply the same ethics to their blogs as to their copy.

 “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, its essence is in the discipline or verification” (Kovach and Rosenstiel.)

The greatest failing of most online journalists operating today is the failure to remember or even know this core belief, largely because it is counterproductive to their own writings to do so. What’s the point in having a view, promulgating that view and selling that view when the truth ends up contradicting something you wrote with passion only hours before? The first obligation of a journalist has become the first obligatory disposable principle of Web 2.0. Like changing a diaper, the truth is necessary and essential, but it’s preferable if someone else is lumbered with the dirty work.

However, the real virtue of this principle is that you have to exercise all due care to verify the truth. It’s a cliché, but early on in every journalist’s training is the statement “if your mother tells you she loves you, you’re sceptical”. Everything written and everything stated should be the truth (or as close as thorough prudent checking will allow).

Parallels are drawn between this case and other such journalistic failures. Putting it simply: there is no comparison. Even the much more controversial Breitbart case isn’t comparable. While the content and the context of the Breitbart case are more emotive, Breitbart was approached by someone with a story and he decided to run with it without any verification. Mooney’s failure is an even greater breach of these principles. He wasn’t approached; there was no flower pot on the balcony and meetings in car parks. Mooney took what is the written version of a vox pop and elevated one individual comment to a story and categorically stated it was the truth.

As was very quickly shown, Breitbart could have verified his “story”, but Mooney didn’t have a story to verify; there was no story until he decided one person’s comments were more worthy of elevation than any other. That’s not journalism, that’s not even on a par with celebrity gossip, it’s taking the equivalent of a conversation overheard on a bus, making a story out of it and presenting it as the truth.

Mooney claimed the anecdote was “Exhibit A”, the smoking gun; by that virtue he owed it to everyone who read his work and those implicated by the anecdote to verify it is true. By his own admission he didn’t.

It was only after others expressed concern at the anecdote that he did some checking. By then, the damage was done.

The Egg Shell Skull Rule

Whatever is at the heart of Mooney’s general reasoning and whether you agree or disagree, what is implied in his “Exhibit A” is that journalists, authors and commentators are responsible for what people, their followers, do or are influenced to do with their words. This point can’t be argued with and there have been serious concerns with some media agencies regarding “incitement”. However, how far does this extend in Mooney’s case? While it may be true that his tea and cake approach to atheism isn’t likely to cause riots, the use of Exhibit A was to state that there was an actual example of people being harassed by the supporters of Dawkins, Myers et al. Why run with that repeated lie if it wasn’t to confirm his views that Dawkins and Myers should be somehow accountable for their follower’s actions?

Yet, Mooney is very quick to play the Pontius Pilate when it comes to his own words. Whoever the origin of the lie is, Mooney has effectively discharged the exact same responsibility he expects other commentators to be held to by claiming, falsely, that he was hoaxed. Being somewhat generous with English and admitting that Dawkins and Myers can be a little “forthright in their views”, Mooney elevated one person’s lie to be the sole feature of that post, then went on to publically “thank” the individual in a separate post for their “story”. What responsibility does Mooney take for elevating this individual’s story and all that followed?

It’s not an open and shut case just how far journalists are responsible and even though the potential for an incitement charge exists, it is extremely rare. For example, a much worse case of media incitement happened in the UK when the News of the World whipped up paedophilia paranoia by publishing the details of known “sex offenders” and like something from the Simpsons, the good people of England (in this case) went on to carrying pitchforks and attacking the home of a “paediatrician” (based upon all paedophiles have brass plaques on their doors stating what they are).

Hardly comparable to promoting one small lie as Mooney did, but that’s not the point here, it’s the consistency in Mooney’s argument. The reason for “Exhibit A” was that it confirmed his view that getting hot under the collar in a book or a blog will incite the readers of that to go out and cause mayhem in the parish church hall. The reason for his unquestionable belief in “Exhibit A” was that he believed it backed up his notion that Dawkins and Myers must take responsibility for the words they produce. Yet when it comes to his words, no such responsibility is forthcoming and that’s the point: you can’t argue for one and refuse to accept your own responsibility when it happens to you. Well you can, but you have to be a politician to get away with it.

The Hoax to End all Hoaxes

Except that it wasn’t a hoax at all. In the same way that if I heard someone on the bus chattering away about some libellous gossip and I pass that on (note: I always pass on libellous gossip overheard on the bus), if I’m caught in passing on a lie, I cannot claim to be hoaxed. Here’s how hoaxes work: generally someone comes up to you with an unbelievable scoop, chance in a lifetime, Pulitzer Prize stuff, you listen to them and go back to your editor. After some general whoops and pats on the back, some checks are made as to the veracity of what is being claimed as quietly as possible. You feel happy enough, hand over the money, run the story, get caught out within a few hours, you get sacked, the editor resigns and the newspaper is forever tarnished with the reputation of the hoax.

How hoaxes don’t work: you read a comment on your own blog among the hundreds of other blogs. Think to yourself, that’s exactly what I said would happen! Viking New Atheists, raping and pillaging their way through small community religious meetings. I must run with this. Then a few hours from filing the story and after hearing a few people saying it sounds a bit dodgy, you check up on who the individual was (though not their story). Happy that when the person confirms to you they are actually a person with a name a couple of legs and a head, you sit back, job done. When it’s all shown to be a lie, you deny the lie for a while, say that even though the individual is a bit of a cad, it could be true somewhere in the world, but just not in this case. Then when it really becomes obvious that you really did fail as a journalist, say you were hoaxed.

There was no hoax. To say it was a hoax is to put all the blame on the individual’s anecdote Mooney identified and quoted all by himself. Mooney is transferring full responsibility onto the person he’s having the good grace to protect below.

Like Woodward and Bernstein I’ll take the name of the source with me to the grave

Some honourable journalists have chosen a prison sentence rather than name a source. And rightly so; the source may have come forward with news that, if they were identified, could put their livelihoods and lives in danger. In order to protect them and all future sources, journalists are told to keep their mouths closed at all costs. Those who don’t, those who confess all, are ostracised from the journalism community.

So on paper, it’s an honourable thing Mooney is doing. He’s sticking by his man and for the sake of the poor soul, he’ll keep his name away from publication. But, “he” isn’t a source and it is another attempt to legitimise and defend the egregious failure of “Exhibit A”. By calling him a source, Mooney is trying to pretend he was approached with the story: that’s what sources do, they come to you. But by Mooney’s admission that never happened, Mooney quoted a lie without even a single effort to verify the claim. 

There are other aspects preventing Mooney from naming the individual, like internet privacy, but they’re a legal matter and nothing to do with ethics. It’s perhaps even more galling that an attempt is being made to hide behind journalistic ethics despite the obvious and blatant disregard for all the other ethical aspects of journalism.

The name of the source isn’t important. How likely his story was to be true isn’t important. The fact is it wasn’t true; that’s the end of the matter. Even if it was true, that’s irrelevant because Mooney ran the story without even checking if it were. How many other posts of his have suffered from this same lack of checking? How many other blogs on Discovery are subject to the same lack of editorial standards? How many other bloggers on Discovery are permitted to publically admit they ignored the first tenet of journalism without apology and retain their status within the magazine?

Forget the smokescreen of who the individual was who recounted the anecdote. Forget what he then went on to do with this sudden and public confirmation of his position in society. The fundamental failure, the first failure was on Mooney; everything that followed came from that single solitary lack of consideration and responsibility that is with anyone purporting to be a journalist.

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