Wednesday, December 05, 2012

When news is fake, who you gonna call?

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, news articles started floating around the Internet that Bill Murray, after years of protest, was finally signing on to appear in "Ghostbusters 3." The source for all these articles was a fake story from the website Super Official News. That this fictional story proliferated so quickly is emblematic of the current state of journalism in the brave new digital world.

A website named Super Official News should be a tip off that perhaps the news from it may not be credible, but, ignoring that, there is no indication that the website is meant as parody. Most of the content is rarely outrageous or absurd enough to be satirical.

Articles like "New Drug Craze Leaves 3 Teenagers Hospitalized," "Announced – The Big Lebowski 2: The Dude Goes To Washington," "Mars Rover Finds First Signs Of Life On The Red Planet," "Blazing Saddles The Musical Coming To Broadway" and "Papa John's Apologizes: Offers One Free Large Pizza Per Household Till The End Of The Year" are all in the realm of possibility and are written in ways that are believable.

It isn't until you scroll to the bottom of the home page that you find this disclaimer: "This entire site is pretty much just a resume containing a collection of my writings and such for the off chance that someone like The Onion ever happens to stop by."

A website like Super Official News is just proof that what the people at the satirical newspaper and website The Onion do isn't easy. Some might say you can't blame these other websites for falling for the "Ghostbusters 3" ruse, but, yes, you can and, more importantly, should.

In the era of social media and smart phones, news travels faster than ever before. It is a race to be the first to publish a juicy headline. If you can't be first then you better be damn sure to have your own story about the hot topic in hopes of driving traffic to your website.

There is no longer time to fact check. Just get the news out. Any errors can be corrected later. Can you imagine if a surgeon operated this way? "I'm pretty sure I know how to do this surgery, but, if I screw up, we can always fix it later."

Some mistakes are unavoidable in journalism, but, ideally, a story should be published with 100 percent accuracy, at least to the best of the author and their editor's knowledge. In the rush to get the news out as fast possible, accuracy is falling by the wayside.

This is a dangerous development in journalism, especially given the speed in which a story can go viral. The falseness of the "Ghostbusters 3" news is harmless, but what about when harder untrue news spreads?

Once something goes viral it is much harder to get the truth out. A follow up story or correction may go unseen once a big story starts trending. The truth can very quickly be twisted into something untrue. It is even worse if you start out with something false. We are breeding an environment of misinformation and ignorance.

It took me all of five minutes to discover the "Ghostbusters 3" news wasn't true. Increasingly, we seem to be creating a society that is no longer curious. We want news quickly, but don't take the time to digest it before moving onto the next big thing.

In this high speed world, take nothing at face value. If it isn't a source you trust, double and triple check the story. Even if it is a trusted source, be skeptical, be curious, be hungry for knowledge. There's always more to the story.

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