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Sunday 17 May 2015

Fake News and Lazy Journalism

Earlier this year I wrote about the huge upsurge in Fake News Stories circulating on social media. The Snopes website is very good at identifying and debunking these stories, and a few days ago they had an interesting article on Fake News Sites to Avoid Sharing (from which the above graphic is taken). The first paragraph emphasizes the cynical financial motive behind most of these “fake news” stories:
The sharp increase in popularity of social media networks (primarily Facebook) has created a predatory secondary market among online publishers seeking to profitably exploit the large reach of those networks [...] and a number of frequent offenders regularly fabricate salacious and attention-grabbing tales simply to drive traffic (and revenue) to their site.
There’s another factor at play though, besides deliberate fake news sites. That’s lazy journalism by mainstream media, who often repeat a far-fetched claim without attempting to check up on its background and credibility. There was a good example of this last week (admittedly a slow news week here in the UK, what with the General Election) when several tabloids chose to run the “Roswell Slides” story at face value:
  • “REVEALED: Images of Roswell ALIEN found in wreckage of crashed UFO almost 70 years ago” (Daily Express, 6 May 2015)
  • “Is this evidence of alien life? New Roswell photos prove ‘beyond any doubt’ that ET exists, claim UFO specialists” (Daily Mail, 7 May 2015)
In fact the images in question look less like a dead alien in a government laboratory than a child mummy in a public museum (which is what they almost certainly do show). But if the papers had said that, they wouldn’t have sold as many copies.

The latest issue of Animals & Men magazine (issue 53, May 2015) contains a letter from me on another example of lazy journalism with a Fortean flavour. You can read the whole issue online for free (my letter is on pp. 70-71), but here is the gist of what I said:
[...] The mainstream media appear to judge the newsworthiness of Fortean-type stories not by their credibility but by their outrageousness. A case in point was the “Whitstable giant crab” you mentioned on page 25 of Issue 52. This started out as a whimsical piece of artwork in issue 301 of Fortean Times (May 2013), which was a special tribute issue to the actor Peter Cushing on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Whitstable was Cushing’s adopted home, and the magazine included a lighthearted feature on “Weird Whitstable”. The article was the work of artist Quinton Winter, and the idea that a giant crab can be seen on Google Earth images of Whitstable was just one of his inventions. Sadly, however, it seems that people these days simply aren’t wired up to understand irony. In October 2014, it was reported as a genuine news story in the Sunday Express, soon followed by several other tabloids including the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. Within days, the story of “Crabzilla”, as it became known, had gone viral on social media around the world! (Source: Fortean Times issue 321, December 2014, page 2).


Kid said...

Dave Hunt, the editor of Eagle (the new version), once got a 'phone call from a journalist who said that his paper had received complaints about the level of violence in the comic. When pressed by Dave, he eventually admitted that there had been no such complaints, but that it had been a slow news day and his editor had instructed him to write a story on 'violent' comics.

Andrew May said...

Fascinating (if slightly shocking) - thanks Kid!