If I Read it on the Web, It Must Be True

By Robin Reck

It’s safe to say we have entered into an entirely new age of journalism.   With the creation of the internet (Thanks, Al Gore!) to the proliferation of Facebook, Tumblr and Blogspot, virtually anyone with an internet connection and a keyboard can become a journalist.  Each week, there seems to be a wave of stories that are equally unbelievable and seemingly true.  Determining what’s real and what’s not has become an incredible burden for newsrooms fact-checking departments, already under-staffed and over-worked. 

Nearly three years ago, we saw local on-the-ground "reporters" sending out information during the Arab Spring, armed with their smartphones, tweeting and posting news to anyone who was listening.  By clicking "refresh" on our browsers, everyone was able to access and be clued into how the situation was unfolding.  Newsrooms had never seen this level of information flooding out of an event without a reporter on the ground.  They were able to believe and fact-check the information based on the collective group of tweeters, posters and instagrammers.  But what happens when it's one person?  

Remember a few weeks ago hearing about a waitress who was a lesbian, and the family she served allegedly left her no tip, instead leaving a note that condemned her sexual orientation?  It was virtually everywhere: Buzzfeed, ABC, Mashable, Twitter, Facebook.  Turns out, it was probably made up.  The family in question showed pretty clear evidence that the tale we were all fed by the waitress, and exacerbated on the web, was untrue. 

Nearly a week later, Elan Gale, a television producer with a sizeable Twitter following shocked the world, well the social media world, with his tale of an unruly airline passenger on Thanksgiving.  The tweets made it feel so real and so unnerving.  Again, turns out Gale’s tale was just that, a tall tale

So where does the truth come into play?  Both Gale and the waitress’s tales were spun all over media channels, both online and in their traditional print and broadcast forms.  Not one person in the media challenged them until others came forward with a different interpretation.  Where do we draw the line and insist that, despite the story, journalists must do their job and check both sides?  Or, does this speak to the state of play these days in newsrooms.  With people getting their information, real or not, from a variety of sources, are journalists merely trying to compete on the latest story circulating around the web to remain relevant?  Are we all sacrificing the truth in the name of relevancy and web traffic numbers?