Digital technology has given news outlets the ability to report stories more compellingly, more quickly and more thoroughly than ever before. However, it also leaves people in my line of work more susceptible to fraud and misinformation, for it is tempting to skimp on the due diligence when news needs to be “out the door” so quickly and sources can be people you’ve never laid eyes upon.
Consider the example of Ryan Holiday, a marketing and online strategist and self-proclaimed media manipulator. Forbes.com recently disclosed how Holiday presented himself to major news outlets as an “expert” on a range of subjects for which he had no expertise at all.
According to Forbes.com:
He used Help a Reporter Out (HARO), a free service that puts sources in touch with reporters. Basically, a reporter sends a query, and a slew of people wanting to comment on the story email back. He decided to respond to each and every query he got, whether or not he knew anything about the topic. He didn’t even do it himself — he enlisted an assistant to use his name in order to field as many requests as humanly possible.
Holiday implicated himself into stories by Reuters, ABC News, CBS, MSNBC and other outlets. He claimed to have been an insomniac, offered tips for winterizing your boat and claimed to be a collector of vinyl records.
As the Forbes.com article points out, most of the news outlets that cited Holiday apparently didn’t do a simple Google search that would have produced a link to his his website, where he makes no bones about his intentions to expose media laziness, or to references to his book, titled “Trust Me, I’m Lying”.
Holiday’s success is reason to ponder what the quest for traffic and eyeballs does to news, Forbes.com concludes — and boy, does it ever.
Among those reasons is the innocuous nature of some of Holiday’s whoppers. After all, it doesn’t really send up a red flag when someone falsely claims to prefer vinyl records because he can hear fingers on guitar frets and other imperfections engineered out of digital recordings. Why lie about something like that? Frankly, that makes me shudder because I know, right or wrong, how often I might have taken someone at their word under similar circumstances in my reporting career.
But the news media are vulnerable for other reasons that are less understandable and less excusable. I’ve written before about how bias can lead a reporter to suspend scrutiny and pursue a preconceived narrative — tales of the noble poor or the greedy banker, assumptions about those accused of crimes or who fight in wars. If sources tell us what we think they are likely to tell us, we sometimes can let down our guard. Of course, reporters were susceptible to such in the analog age, too, but the online world is a largely unvetted world where bad assumptions are as likely to be repeated as debunked.
The neural speed at which news now flows only complicates matters.
The very technology that allows us to report so quickly creates a business environment that demands that we do so. Online traffic statistics — for these newspapers and others — tend to demonstrate the value of posting big news stories early in the news cycle and updating them frequently. In that respect, newspapering is far less deliberative, far more a correct-as-you-go enterprise than when I got into the business more than 20 years ago.
As a matter of fact, I was struck by this evolution recently, when I had the sad task of preparing the Packet’s obituary for Jim Carlen.
The former University of South Carolina football coach moved to Hilton Head Island from Columbia after his 1981 ouster and became a respected businessman in his post-coaching life. I wanted to capture that aspect of his life in our story. I sought some after-hours help from a public-relations source, who I thought could put me in touch with some of Carlen’s business associates. “Is this deadline work for tomorrow’s newspaper?” he asked on a Sunday afternoon.
“Tomorrow? Heck, I need to post something online in the next five minutes,” I thought to myself — a thought that would not have occurred to me 20 years ago.
It’s the potential for perversion that quick access to sources, combined with the need for quick reporting, that Holiday seems to rail against:“A well made article and a poorly made article both do clicks the same way,” Holiday tells Forbes.com. “There’s no incentive to do good work.”
I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but he has a point.
One hopes that, to the extent he is correct, that he is only correct about the short term. Those interested in producing quality journalism must believe news organizations that are too lazy for too long eventually will be exposed by Holiday or his likes, and readers will wander away because they can no longer trust that news source.
Of course, that assumes readers, wading through a mile-a-minute information stream, are doing their own due diligence.