from the stop-and-think dept
You might have seen a week or two ago how everybody absolutely freaked out after a Rolling Stone article falsely reported that Ivermectin overdoses were causing massive congestion at Oklahoma hospitals. In reality, the truth wound up being something substantively less than that (Mathew Ingram at Columbia Journalism Review has a good breakdown here). The whole mess began after a local news organization published a story that was misinterpreted by a bunch of national outlets who “aggregated” and repackaged it. The screw up was then picked up in turn by conservative commentators eager to point out that the press was specifically out to get them.
But that wasn’t true either. These kinds of aggregation screw ups probably happen a hundred times a day. They usually involve a bunch of click-hungry sites amplifying a story without bothering to check if the original story was true (in the case of the Ivermectin story, countless outlets, including MSNBC, didn’t bother to even read the original interview with the local doctor). These screw ups aren’t necessarily malicious, they’re just representative of a broken U.S. ad-based press for which speed, inaccuracy, and inflammatory headlines make more money than measured, sometimes boring, often complicated truth. As Mike discussed, confirmation bias plays a huge role in the whole mess.
But it really can’t be reiterated how often this kind of cock up happens without the level of breathy introspection that accompanied the Ivermectin/Oklahoma error. For example, this week it wasn’t particularly hard for some hoaxers to release a completely fake press release (using GlobeNewswire) stating that Walmart had partnered with the cryptocurrency Litecoin. Countless journalists and news outlets leeched onto the press release and wrote elaborate stories and hot takes, without a single one bothering to confirm that any of the facts in the release were true.
They weren’t, and everybody in the chain, from GlobeNewswire to a long line of outlets, had to apologize about screwing up so badly. Reuters was one of several news outlets forced to withdraw the story, then try and pretend it never happened:
“GlobeNewswire is owned by telecommunications company Intrado. It issued a ?notice to disregard? the original release at 11:18 a.m. ET.
A number of media organizations, including CNBC, sent headlines on the announcement. Shares of Walmart had little movement on it. Litecoin was down about 2.2%, according to Coin Metrics.
GlobeNewswire said that a fraudulent user account was used to issue the release.
While everybody makes mistakes, basic journalistic norms involve asking the company or person you’re writing about for comment. Even doing aggregation (which can serve an important function of adding context to other peoples’ stories, especially if you know more about the subject than the poorly-paid 22-year-old who originally wrote it) involves doing some research, or at the very least developing a good gut instinct to ferret out stories that don’t feel right or aren’t properly supported by any evidence. In this case, bizarrely, even the Litecoin Foundation appeared to have been taken it by the hoax…about its own product:
“Litecoin tweeted the press release from its official account at 9:50 a.m. ET. CNBC?s report on the what turned out to be fake was published five minutes later. In a statement Monday afternoon, the Litecoin Foundation said a social media team member ?was a little too eager and shared the story from the Litecoin Twitter account. This was quickly deleted and we have taken steps to correct future issues.”
The Rolling Stone Ivermectin story got a lot of media play because partisan pundits leaped on it as proof positive that it was evidence of unfair bias against conservatives. But the real culprit is the advertising-based media ecosystem that prioritizes speed and headlines over substance, depth, truth, and sometimes even basic competency. And that’s exploitable by everyone from ordinary trolls and partisan hacks to poorly-regulated industries and giant corporations. And while everybody shakes their fist at the problem insisting it supports their preconceived personal biases, few of those same folks really want to spend much time thinking about creative funding alternatives for a clearly busted, ad-engagement based media system.