We’ve written before about how the explosive growth of new media has lessened readers’ trust in what they read or hear. In the past, newspapers like the New York Times could throw their considerable weight behind whatever appears in their pages. Journalists were professionals, trained to verify their sources and well-versed enough in whatever they were writing about to earn readers’ faith. But with the decentralization of media from larger, centuries-old institutions to smaller blogs and twitters, and professional journalists slowly drowned out by the masses of so-called citizen journalists, telling the truth — which to Walter Lippman is the highest law in the profession — has already begun to telling the most explosive story the quickest. Welcome to the Age of Gawker.
Two weeks ago, an up-and-coming blogger posted that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley could soon be facing indictment for tax fraud. He cited “two well-placed legal experts,” and promised that more would come. That was at 12:52 p.m.
At 12:54 p.m., a blogger for The Hill tweets about the article to his followers, who include several important political journalists. Some of them retweet the article — on-the-ball BuzzFeed at 12:56, and the Washington Post at 1:14. At 1:03 p.m., the Daily Beast posts a short article about the post, along with others like the Daily Kos and Daily Caller that soon follow suit. The Atlantic Wire titles its post “Nikki Haley Probably Won’t Win Republican Veepstakes. All of this in a matter of minutes. At 3:29 p.m. the Drudge Report — one of the most popular blogs on the internet — posted a link to the Daily Caller article, and by the next morning The State in Columbia, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, ran an article about Haley on its front page, despite protests and denials of Haley’s office.
Turns out, none of it was true. The IRS eventually released a letter that said there wasn’t any tax investigation at all. Who’s to blame here? The blog’s editor, Logan Smith, told the New York Times that he “reported that credible sources said they believed the governor would be indicted” — not that [he] knew she would be indicted, or even whether or not [he] personally believed she would be indicted.” Instead of doing what a classically trained journalist would likely do, he posted the post before asking Haley’s office for comment. In other words, in a rush to promote himself, Smith threw aside the truth.
But that’s not the worst part. Smith ran a small-time blog, with a small, local readership. The idea that I find scariest is that credible organizations like the Washington Post and other readership ran stories that amounted to nothing more than rumors. At the Yale Daily News, journalists get lambasted if they include unsubstantiated claims in their stories; in this case, some of the largest names in news did so in an attempt to be fast enough. While the majority of the stories tended to say something along the lines of “this blog says Haley will be facing indictment, Haley denies” — which is 100%, factually true — the story still does damage to Haley’s reputation. A better question would be if they should have reported this in the first place.
Without the new media, it’s unlikely any of the big-time news outlets would have run a story. After all, the blog that posted the original post is fairly small, and before the onset of new media it would have been nearly impossible for it to interject itself into the national conversation. But with the online platform the blogs offers — as well as the conversational-like nature that Twitter offers us — smaller voices have been given a megaphone. While there have been smaller instances of false reporting driven by the new media before, there hasn’t been anything of this scale that involved so many major news institutions. Looking forward, it’s probable that more and more of these false reports will occur, unless some (unlikely) structural changes take place. This is a worrisome trend: if we can’t trust the Washington Post to report the truth, where will we go for our news?