Fake David Miliband and the future of news

Last week I got into a conversation on Twitter with @freecloud, aka Alan Patrick, co-founder of digital media consultancy Broadsight.

(I don’t know Alan, but the one of the great things about Twitter is that you can end up having interesting conversations with complete strangers.)

Alan was asking the kind of question that’s exercising many media types at the moment:

I replied as follows (typo and all):

To which Alan later commented:

It turned out that Alan was thinking specifically about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s recent prognosis that the media industry will never recover financially from the current recession, but at heart it was the same ‘blogging vs journalism’ debate that’s been going on ever since bloggers emerged to challenge the mainstream media’s monopoly over information dissemination.

Once a simple question of professionals vs amateurs, it’s a debate that has grown much more nuanced as the two disciplines have encroached further into each other’s territory. The maturing and thinning-out of the blogosphere has seen the credibility of blogging rise considerably, for example, while the funding crisis in the newspaper industry means that a lot of the old certainties about the superiority of professional journalism are no longer quite so certain.

Despite my belief that professional journalists are still better qualified to report hard news, their ability to do so is rapidly eroding. In an environment in which ever fewer journalists are required to churn out ever more stories at an ever increasing pace to satisfy the second-by-second information needs of an always-on audience, it’s inevitable that serious errors are going to creep in, even at the most professional organisations.

One such serious error occurred yesterday, during the frenzied reporting surrounding Michael Jackson’s untimely death. Along with Sky News and CNN, three of Britain’s quality newspapers – the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times – quoted British foreign secretary David Miliband giving his reaction to the news:

“Never has one soared so high and yet dived so low. RIP Michael.”

An unremarkable enough tribute, but the trouble was that David Miliband never said anything of the sort. His supposed quote was lifted from a Twitter feed purporting to be his, but which was in fact created by an unknown person masquerading as the foreign secretary.

People impersonating other people online for satirical purposes is nothing new – the more accomplished parodies, such as Fake Steve Jobs and Fake Nick Cave, attract whole fanbases of their own – but it’s rare for a professional journalist, let alone a whole swathe of professional journalists, to mistake the fake for the real.

(Reading between the lines of this Guardian blog post, it would seem that the fake quote was first used in a report by the Paris-based AFP newswire, which was then picked up by a number of other news organisations. Anyone who’s read Nick Davies’s excellent book Flat Earth News will know that many journalists accept wire service reports as accurate without feeling they need to be fact-checked.)

Incidents like this make it harder for newspapers to claim factual accuracy as a point in their favour, but that doesn’t automatically mean that blogs and microblogs are more trustworthy sources of news. As the fake David Miliband profile suggests, social media sites can be a riot of misinformation. Yesterday alone, Twitter users merrily passed around made-up reports of the supposed death of Jeff Goldblum, while, in a moment of glorious postmodern silliness, a fabricated rumour about a mass moonwalk at Liverpool Street Station in Michael Jackson’s honour gained so much credence on Twitter and Facebook that it actually took place.

So where does this leave @freecloud’s question about who’s best qualified to reinvent the newspaper? I don’t know the answer, but I think that the ‘journalists or bloggers’ question is increasingly irrelevant, as both are equally good and equally bad at delivering useful information.

What matters now is not the medium by which news arrives, but the trustworthiness of the individual or organisation delivering it. In our new age of ultra-transparency, honesty, openness and a willingness to engage in debate are increasingly important to securing trust. News providers (of any stripe) that publish false information without correcting it risk losing the trust of an audience that can readily find more accurate accounts elsewhere.

The Telegraph and the Guardian’s respective approaches to correcting their fake-Miliband stories may therefore contain clues about the future direction of news. The Telegraph elected to remove the offending article from its website and carry on as though
it had never existed – despite it being captured for posterity in screengrabs like this one:

The Guardian, meanwhile, excised the fake-Miliband quote from its article, added a note about why it had been removed, and followed up with a blog post about how several news organisations – including itself – had been duped by the Miliband impersonator.

In doing so, the Guardian has behaved more like a blog than a traditional newspaper. Bloggers tend to make visible corrections to their posts if they discover a factual error after a post has been published, or if a reader points one out. Newspapers, culturally rooted in an age in which an article couldn’t be changed once it had been published, are less inclined to make visible, post-hoc edits to online articles.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that the Guardian will endure while the Telegraph will fade into history; just that the transparency shown by the Guardian in this case is another indicator of how newspapers are borrowing techniques from blogs as they adjust to life in a more democratic media age.

The question is not whether we’ll receive news in the future from professionals or amateurs (it’s likely to remain a combination of both), but what techniques and behaviours our future news providers will have to adopt in order to secure the trust of enough people to make their efforts financially viable.

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