When we journalists are at our best, we are like that magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. However, sometimes we pull out a turkey instead. That’s especially true in this day and age of social media.
Stories with errors spread widely and sometimes articles that are little more than rumors wing their way across the web. It’s easy to get your name out there nowadays, but journalists who wish to maintain their credibility have to keep on their toes to avoid lazy journalism.
What Is Lazy Journalism?
Lazy journalism happens when journalists don’t do their homework, and don’t check the accuracy of the information they find. One example is the compilation-style article.
These are articles in which there are little more than collections of links or copied excerpts of other articles, along with perhaps one or two original lines. We’ve all come across these spammy articles, that are often larded with advertisements. In social media jargon, journalists call these articles “aggregations,” or “curated posts”-in these articles, the writer gathers information from a number of sources and collects it together into a single spot.
These kinds of articles can give serious journalists a bad name.
“Sadly, many internet journalists simply re-post what they’ve seen elsewhere to attract readers to their blogs. These people are more interested in attracting ad clicks than reporting news,” seasoned journalist Darla Dollman, who writes for Decoded Science and the Christian Science Monitor told me.
Lazy Journalism: Error Checking and Fact Checking
Other examples of lazy journalism include articles that are clearly not checked for misspellings or errors in grammar, as well as over-reliance on social media reporting.
Relying on Internet sources can be problematic for several reasons – one of which is an inability to verify the information. A source can retain anonymity on these sites, so how do you really know if the person is who they claim to be? What if a story is completely fake? This happens more than you might think.
“There are too many people on this planet who derive pleasure from trying to fool people into believing they are someone they are not. It’s difficult to verify the identity, education and experience of someone on the internet because they could be lying about their name and using a fake photo,” says Dollman, who also writes for Dezert Magazine. “It’s also a challenge to verify if information in a news story is valid.”
She notes that there are lots of bloggers out there who are hard-working and honest, who verify their sources and do the necessary work, however there are also plenty of examples of writers who post “news” stories that are little more than opinion pieces.
“Fake photos, quotes and stories are often first in line in Google searches so readers now have the responsibility to carefully consider the source before posting stories on Facebook that might be re-posted by others and journalists should carefully consider the validity of a source and do their own investigations into a story,” she says.
The immediacy that the Internet provides can be exhilarating, but it makes it challenging for journalists to verify the veracity of their sources.
“Our bias is that when something is on the Internet, that it is true,” says journalist Jamila Bey, who writes for The Washington Post Blog She the People, “And our compulsion to be first is often in conflict with our obligation to be correct.” Bey is also the host of the radio program “The Sex, Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila,”on Voice of Russia.
So What’s a Journalist To Do?
“Call. Look to see what local reporters in a place are saying. One’s own reporting must be included. Reading social media posts is no better than gossip outside of an auditorium,” Bey wrote in an email to me. “You’re not certain if the person telling you a thing was an actual witness. You’re not sure if this person is giving opinion or fact. You need to corroborate all info to the best of your abilities.”
If you plan to run with breaking news on Twitter, check your facts. Then check them again. If you can’t verify your information, start over again, or find another story to write.
“When news is breaking, interns and seasoned reporters alike turn to Twitter looking for people writing about a thing. But the bar is too low,” Bey notes. “‘Sources say,’ should NEVER run! Getting on the phone and calling a newsroom close to the story location is something that journalists do too infrequently.”
Another pet peeve: Fewer journalists are doing biographical fact checking.
“Jane Doe is a graduate of X school with Y degree,” she says. “Has the reporter seen a diploma? Has the reporter called the registrar of X school to confirm Doe’s credentials?”
Do a little gentle questioning. If a person can’t produce a diploma or other evidence, move on to someone else. It might slow things down, but ask yourself if you would rather publish an inaccurate story quickly, or would you rather publish a story that’s credible and accurate? I’m quite sure the journalists who were fooled by the story of the man suing his wife for having an ugly baby would prefer the latter rather than the former.
Studies and Surveys
Journalists don’t always check studies and surveys to see who funded them, but they should, and here’s why:
According to Think Tank Watch, there are hundreds of think tanks worldwide, and all are pushing some kind of agenda. Knowing whether the Heritage Foundation or The Center for American Progress funded the information can completely change the entire angle of a story and even make it inaccurate.
The world of the Internet and the social media is constantly changing; providing a healthy challenge for journalists struggling to keep up. At the press of the enter key or the click of a mouse, we disseminate information that can change the lives of others in a heartbeat. In the vast swamp that is the Internet, we are the arbiters of change for better or for worse. In pulling the rabbit out of the hat, it behooves us to stay on our toes so that we do not bless our readers with a turkey. It can be exhilarating to be involved in the crush of the media, but it can be exhausting as well.
Don’t just take my word for it.