May 14, 2009

Those Darn Shortcuts

How do you make a first-class idiot out of yourself in a hurry in journalism?

OK, yes, there’s actually a long list of answers to that question. The reason is that journalism is a tough craft to practice well, and it is subject to all manner of human foibles and failings.

The particular failing I want to highlight today is my favorite. You know what’s coming…

Journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

One of the latest lapses: A fake quote lifted from Wikipedia. What really hurts: The fake quote was placed by a college student in order to test “how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.” That’s the “story,” anyway.

Hahahahahaha! I love it!

Here’s the scoop from AP via CNEWS:

When Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a poetic but phoney quote on Wikipedia, he was testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.

His report card: Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.

The sociology major’s obituary-friendly quote — which he added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer’s death March 28 — flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper websites in Britain, Australia and India.

They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it.

The Guardian was one of the newspapers fooled by Fitzgerald’s fake quote. The conclusion of Siobhain Butterworth’s explanation is interesting:

It’s worrying that the misinformation only came to light because the perpetrator of the deception emailed publishers to let them know what he’d done and it’s regrettable that he took nearly a month to do so. Why did he wait so long? “I apologise for that,” he said. “I was originally going to do a report for my class and then it didn’t work out. I know I should have told you sooner.”

Is Fitzgerald a “perpetrator”? Hmmmmm… I find it fascinating and very troubling that neither AP nor The Guardian apparently bothered to check out this guy’s story (a little meta-reporting, please!). What class was involved? Why didn’t he turn something in? Did anyone call this guy’s professor to find out if this “experiment” could have been a legitimate part of the class work? This is more failure of craft of exactly the kind that got The Guardian into trouble in the first place.

The Chronicle of Higher Education avoided the implication that Fitzgerald conducted his experiment for a class. But it would have been nice if this newspaper covering higher education had rundown the truth — experiment or hoax? The truth, it seems to me, rides on what this student’s professor has to say.

Somebody call this person and ask!

Ooops, well, too late. The news beast has moved on to other matters.

4 Responses

  1. Jackie 

    “But for the grace….”

  2. Why are they pulling quotes from Wikipedia without citing where it’s from in the first place? If they simply cited as Wikipedia then everyone who read it would assume that it may or may not be correct.

    “the perpetrator of the deception” I love that. He didn’t deceive the newspapers, he deceived Wikipedia. The fact that the newspaper used Wikipedia as a primary source is a mark against the paper, not the “perpetrator”. This story is only made better by the fact that Wikipedia’s users caught the error but the professional didn’t bother taking the time to check.

  3. Tim 
  4. Jason 

    “Journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.”

    That’s a great definition.