Monday, 1 October 2012

The News They Want

A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. -- Attrib. to Mark Twain, but more possibly Charles Spurgeon
Everyone has that person on their Facebook feed who passes on 'news' stories that are full of hilarious unlikelihoods, righteous judgements or disturbing xenophobia. To any half-trained journalist, such writing should trigger warning signs all over. 
Howerer, these 'stories' - formerly the province of chain e-mail forwardings - are starting to slip through the undefended borders of traditional media. Of course, since the watershed of Nick Davies we all know that overworked journalists don't have the time to verify the stories they're printing. But in turn, they're validating hearsay and hoax by including these tall tales in print media outlets.

This picture turned up on my news feed recently, and immediately sent me across to Snopes, the definitive fact-checking website for all these urban legends - and journalists should immediately develop a weather eye for an article written in this style.

Indeed, this very story had been flagged before, and explains baldly that it is a mixture of truth and fiction, with the final - suggestive - paragraph, a later addition. Of course, it chimes with people because of its instant karmic conclusion to a heinous act.

Therein lies the greatest failing - that make-believe stories like this will continue to spread because, and I quote people whom I've told are passing on fake articles, "I'd like it to be true."

People are a willing audience, ready to be engaged. The onus is on the journalist to see this story, immediately reject it as false, and go out and interview the Marine involved, get the truth, and write an equally engaging story that doesn't tarnish the whole process of newsgathering.

I'll be the one person on your news feed who is posting links to Snopes articles, just trying to turn that tide.

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