The Viral Infection Sapping Journalism’s Lifeblood

“We assume a certain level of sophistication and skepticism of our readers,” said John Cook, editor in chief of Gawker, according to a December 10 article in the New York Times. In an increasingly dumbed-down media world, it’s refreshing to hear a leading industry figure speak up for the intelligence of his audience.

Unfortunately, the comment was made to defend his own site’s inability and/ or unwillingness to vet everything it reposts.

The Cook comment came in an article titled “If a Story Is Viral, Truth May Be Taking a Beating.” The Times piece focused on something familiar to anyone who spends any kind of time at all getting their news online — which means just about all of us these days. A lot of what you read is either flat-out untrue or highly specious. And far too much of that dubious content is indiscriminately passed along — not only by blogs that solely “aggregate” the work of others but also by online news sites that generate their own reported stories even as they repost or link to (often with generous summaries) postings on other sites.

What’s new to me in the Times piece is the way in which several high profile editors defend what is clearly problematic journalistic conduct. The article points to three recent stories that were either fake or embellished — a Twitter posting about a colorful outburst aboard a Thanksgiving Day flight, a letter to Santa Claus said to have been written by a child in which an link for a desired Christmas toy was scrawled in crayon, and a woman’s essay about her life of poverty, which the author eventually conceded was, in the Times’ words, “impressionistic rather than strictly factual.”

The woman’s concession came only after she pocketed $60,000 in donations from readers moved by her plight. That’s money she told the Times she has no intention of returning, even as she charged that people are using questions about her veracity “to avoid talking about the issues.” Few issues facing American society are less seriously engaged than poverty, that is undoubtedly the case. But in a political culture where genuine efforts to combat poverty and its root causes face backlash and cynicism regarding the deservedness of those government and other institutions could be helping, the woman might consider how a story about the impact of economic inequality that goes viral online but is later debunked further debases the quality of public debate.

According to the Times, the poverty essay was highlighted on Gawker as well as the Huffington Post. Gawker’s Cook said, “We are dealing with a volume of information that it is impossible to have the strict standards of accuracy that other institutions have.” Cook’s one hell of a salesman for his product.

Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post, which also reposted the airline fracas and the phony Santa letter stories as well as the poverty essay, said, “If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views. That’s a problem. The incentives are all wrong.” The Times story doesn’t make clear if Grim is diagnosing a systemic problem in the media world or half-assedly defending his own site’s behavior, but if the incentives are “all wrong” he has a job title that would seem to put him in a position to force a serious conversation about that issue at HuffPo.

BuzzFeed, it would appear from the Times reporting, picked up on only one of the three stories mentioned, and a fairly innocuous one at that — the faux account of a holiday on-board customer meltdown. Still, its news director, Lisa Tozzi, is quoted saying that highlighting something of this sort is merited because that “is where our readers are living. Our readers are seeing all of this stuff and I feel like there’s an expectation that we are reporting on the culture they’re living in.”

The Times quotes Joshua Benton, who directs the Harvard University Nieman Journalism Lab, getting to the very heart of the problem here. “You are seeing news organizations say, ‘If it is happening on the Internet that’s our beat.’ The next step of figuring out whether it happened in real life is up to someone else.”

When Gawker’s Cook smugly says he counts on his readers being “sophisticated” and “skeptical,” he’s really saying “reader beware.” He’s not willing to do the job of a journalist, so they should expect to pick up the slack.

So why turn to journalists at all? Cook’s posture feeds a public cynical even in the face of good journalism, which can draw its own critics among those hostile to basic truths being told — whether people in power or a much larger group of citizens who are either complacent or apathetic. The work being done at the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, which employs some of the most talented and dogged reporters around today, is hurt when shabby standards are applied to some portions of their sites and defended publicly by editors who certainly know better. The business model that gives a pass to such practices could well hold the seeds of these organizations’ demise.

And the work of every journalist is devalued when industry standards sink so conspicuously to a level where if it sells, it runs.