Lazy journalism exposed by online hoax

 

OPNION:Media use of fake matter I placed on Wikipedia has sweeping implications for reporters, writes SHANE FITZGERALD.

HOW EASY is it for a 22-year-old, overly curious sociology student from UCD to influence the national press around the world? Quite easy is the short answer.

Faced with the arduous task of writing yet another essay on social science’s current fad – globalisation – I was easily distracted from my task by the sight of the infamous Sky News breaking news box that was flashing at the bottom on the TV screen beside my desk.

The speed with which the story was reported got me thinking about the potential pitfalls relating to the media rush for up-to-the-minute news bulletins. In the era of 24-hour news coverage, the internet is no doubt the lifeline for reporters in their never-ending scramble to report a breaking news story in time for the on-the-hour news slots, or for journalists racing to get a story written before the paper is sent to the printers.

Just how reliant reporters are on the world wide web was the question that suddenly gave me the idea of carrying out an internet hoax. The global world is connected through the internet, and news reporters are relying on this resource more than ever. I wanted to prove that this was indeed the case, and show the potential dangers that arise.

Winston Churchill once said that all great things are simple and a great Guinness ad once said that good things come to those who wait. Armed with these two nuggets, I waited patiently for a few days until a golden opportunity arose and I knew it was my time to act.

My plan was without doubt simple, and maybe it was great as well. The death of the French composer Maurice Jarre was reported in true Sky News fashion in the very early hours of March 30th.

I immediately grabbed my laptop, went to Maurice Jarre’s Wikipedia page, clicked the edit button on screen and proceeded to lay the trap for my unsuspecting prey, the journalists.

“One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack,” I wrote into the Wikipedia entry. “Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.”

This was a totally fake quote and neither Maurice Jarre, nor anyone else, has ever been on record as uttering these words. Social science experiments always have ethical issues, because you are in effect using people as guinea pigs. I did not wish to taint or distort anyone’s reputation, so I purposely made the decision to put in a general, random quote that would not affect Jarre’s stature.

Wikipedia, for the less computer-savvy people reading this, is a free online encyclopedia and, as the website states, “anyone with internet access can make changes to Wikipedia articles”. I knew that as soon as newspaper reporters around the world heard about Jarre’s death, the first thing they would do was go on to his Wikipedia page and gather information to quickly throw together a fitting obituary for the following day’s paper.

While I expected online blogs and maybe some smaller papers to use the quote, I did not think it would have a major impact. I was wrong. Quality newspapers in England, India, America and as far away as Australia had my words in their reports of Jarre’s death. I was shocked that highly respected newspapers would use material from Wikipedia without first sourcing and referencing it properly.

The issues about the media and quality reporting that this experiment raises requires a whole new article by itself – because the implications are far-reaching. If I could so easily falsify the news across the globe, even to this small extent, then it is unnerving to think about what other false information may be reported in the press.

I was somewhat nervous about using the Winston Churchill quote near the beginning of this piece for fear that karma might add a final ironic twist to this story. However, I, along with many red-faced journalists, have learnt to take certain precautions before believing everything we read. I guess we truly are living in a globalised age.


Shane Fitzgerald is in his final year at UCD studying sociology and economics

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