Here’s how journalism is supposed to work:
A. Event occurs
B. Event reported to journalist
C. Journalist gathers information from concerned parties
D. Journalist cross-checks facts to assure veracity
E. Facts wordsmithed into a story, checked for balance and bias
F. Story is published/broadcast
The hardest part is step D. Phone calls must be made, subjects interviewed, translations verified, etc. This takes time and resources.
However, in the modern 24 hour news cycle, driven since 1980 by 24/7 cable news channels and since about 1996 by myriad internet news sites, time is by nature limited. As media continues to be consolidated into the hands of a very few massive corporate news operations, fewer and fewer journalists are employed to do the work. The pressure to publish on a deadline often forces stories to be published with insufficient time spent on fact checking.
When a story is published, it is frequently cited by meta-news services and other commenters like bloggers. The public are accustomed to trusting the fact-checking resources in the past available to large newsgathering operations. However, fact-checking is the first task to be shaved. In many cases, fact-checking is deliberately made more difficult by those who have a vested interest in making your news read a certain way.
A few cases in point:
* Iranian president Ahmadinejad was recently widely quoted as saying that “…Israel should be wiped off the map.” According to University of Michigan history professor, middle-east specialist and linguist Juan Cole, the Ahmadinejad comment was really only a sloppy translation from Farsi. Wikipedia has a rather complete wrap of the translation dispute involving Cole and Christopher Hitchens. The sloppy translation was doubtless a delight to some Israeli politicians and diplomats who announced plans to sue Ahmadinejad for planning to commit genocide.
* Iran was again in the sights of those trying to build the case for a US military strike when it was reported that Iran had plans to force non-Muslims to wear colour coded garb to identify them, in the same manner as Jews were required to wear yellow stars in Nazi Germany. The story was even confirmed by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Bloggers stepped in and have done the fact-checking- and have debunked the non-Muslim colour-coding tale.
* Sunday Times reporter Hala Jaber was recently caught out on fact checking when she claimed to have seen a video in which Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat was stripped naked and beheaded. Bahjat’s family and coworkers denied that the person depicted in the video was the slain Iraqi journalist. That didn’t stop The Australian from running an editorial using the supposed beheading as the springboard for their usual agenda of demonising Muslims, garnering passionate community responses.
Where does slop end and intent to mislead begin?
Regardless of the cause, the old hacker’s maxim of GIGO, or ‘garbage in, garbage out‘ applies. However, in the case of modern junk journalism with slack fact checking in big newsgathering operations, some which have an agenda to drive, that could be reinterpreted to ‘garbage in, gospel out.’
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