Bill Werde’s lesson in online credibility
The strange case of Lady Gaga, the journalists who don’t seem to exist and the made-up facts
As it’s April 1, there are probably many online pieces and posts that you’ll read today and go ‘I bet that’s an April Fool’s story’. It’s a tradition that today is a day when the more creative members of the media classes get to flex their making-stories-up muscles and deliver something which fools the reader. It’s training for many of them who will go on to have long and illustrious political careers. Of course, you could argue that there are stories which appear every day of the week which fit under the making-stories-up heading, but April 1 is the day when you take the more outlandish stories you encounter with a large pinch of salt.
Despite the fact that Bill Werde’s mindboggling post appeared last night, I still had to read it a few times to take in all the details and make sure I was believing my eyes. Werde, most recently editorial director at Billboard magazine with a long string of senior media postings in his CV, calls shenanigans on a number of stories which disparaged Lady Gaga on user-generated website Examiner.com.
He does this, as you’ll see from the post, by following up on two writers, namely “Angela Cheng” and “Sabrina O’Connor”, and discovering that they don’t appear to be who they purport to be (hence the inverted commas around their names). As in, he checked out their CVs and found it to be full of holes. As in, “Angela” and “Sabrina” don’t appear to be exist. As in, let’s call it Law & Order: Gaga. Can someone fire up the doink-doink sound effect please?
But that’s just the tip of the Gagaberg here. After all, when Werde contacted Examiner.com’s owners AEG about the pieces, the stories were yanked from the site so you’d think there was no damage done. But the fact is, as Werde points out, that the “facts” reported in the Gaga stories were then repeated again and again in stories about the singer in various other media outlets. This is the more worrying part of the whole weird enchilada, that a purportedly made-up stat about the singer’s marketing budget for the last album went global and became gospel. “This appears to be echo chamber reporting at its worst”, notes Werde.
It also makes you wonder what other stats taken as facts came about due to similar loosey-goosey reporting which just doesn’t stack up when you give it a decent poke. We’ve written before about how music and entertainment stories are often covered as fluff and froth, with the showbiz desk viewed as a much softer posting holding a much softer lens than anywhere else in the media complex. These stories often reflect a much more friendly relationship between the hacks and those being reported on. Indeed, as we’ve discovered again and again, the close ties between both sides are taken as a given so attempts to change that situation with some harder reporting are viewed with great alarm. We’re all in this together, goes the argument.
The need for such reporting becomes clear when you read Werde’s post. Here was a situation where someone set out deliberately to target a musician with a bunch of baloney. The figure became, to quote Werde, “an albatross of Gaga’s Artpop campaign” as it continued to be published and picked up by other sources without any attempt made to check its veractity. Worse, as Werde says, each new outlet could also point back to Examiner.com as the original source and pass the blame. Given our history with Examiner.com, we wouldn’t trust that particular outlet to tell us the time of day.
All of which means that just because a fact is reported online as a fact doesn’t mean that it is a fact. Of course, many will point to times when mainstream media get it wrong – and that certainly happens hence why these newspaper sections exist – but wonky facts in online reporting (especially user-generated online reporting) have the power to go viral a whole lot faster these days. It’s worth bearing in mind that widely reported facts may not be the sum of their parts, especially when they appear to have been reported initially by people who just don’t exist. Readers need to approach stories with a bit of wariness on those 364 days of the day which are not April 1.