The media, trusted sources, and dolphins with spears attached to their foreheads

The 'Net has been a blessing and a curse to journalists. This wonderful technology lets us quickly and conveniently conduct research, follow stories, and communicate with sources and our editors. But the 'Net can also be a minefield, as MSNBC found out this week after a reporter following the Michael Vick dogfighting case printed a juicy reaction from Al Sharpton's blog -- only to find out later that the blog was a parody.

How could something like this happen? That's what a lot of people are wondering, considering all of the warning signs that the MSNBC reporter must have seen -- and ignored -- when scraping the quote from the Web. The site it came from, News Groper, is a parody site devoted to fake political blogs. This is made clear on every page of the website. The title bar includes "Fake Parody Blogs." The list of bloggers in the navigation features George W. Bush, Kim Jong-il, Britney Spears, and a handful of other unlikely bloggers.

Drilling down to the fake Sharpton blog, there are more red flags. The "About Me" blurb lists "Emancipation Proclamation enthusiast." The title of the blog post from which MSNBC got its quote is "Don’t let this guilty plea fool you, Vick is innocent (like OJ)." It describes dog fighting as "traditional urban gaming activities." And then there's the quote itself, which is a doozy:

Consider this: If the police caught Brett Favre running a dolphin-fighting ring out of his pool, where dolphins with spears attached to their foreheads fought each other to the death, would they bust him? Of course not. They would get his autograph, commend him on his tightly-spiraled forward passes, then bet on one of his dolphins.

MSNBC has since removed this quote, and issued a correction ("An earlier version of this article quoted from a blog entry purportedly by the Rev. Al Sharpton. has determined that the blog is a hoax.") But the episode illustrates an uncomfortable trend in today's 'Net-connected society  -- people implicitly trusting what they see on the Internet. For many, the Internet has become a primary source of news and information. Even when a search engine or link directs them to an unfamiliar site, many will assume that the information on it is authentic and accurate. Check out the comment thread below the fake Sharpton blog entry -- scores of other readers clearly believe that it was really written by Reverend Sharpton.

The problem is compounded when unreliable, incomplete, or false information is repeated as fact elsewhere. This issue has already been noted in academic circles -- some young students use the Internet as their sole source of research. But in the news business, the impact of careless reporting can be much greater. Reports are typically seen by many thousands of people. They are often excerpted by other news organizations, blogs, and aggregators such Techmeme and Google News. Not all of the people who read the reports based on false sources see corrections or follow-up articles. While some of the gaffes involving hoax articles are harmless, and only damage the reputation of the offending news outlet, in other cases, the reputation of the subjects or sources can suffer for a long time. For years, Mariah Carey was blasted in online discussion forums for a cruel quote ("When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean, I'd love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff") that was completely fabricated. The quote originally appeared in a 1996 hoax article and was repeated by a number of mainstream media outlets, including The Independent and the San Francisco Chronicle.

According to Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell, News Groper's Associate Editor, the contributors who help write the fake blogs include college students, magazine editors, and even an "active duty soldier blogging for us in Afghanistan." To date, none of the other parody blogs have been mistakenly quoted by the press. However, Mayer-Blackwell believes the "MSNBC incident won't likely be the last." Based on the frequency of other cases involving fake quotes and news making it into the mainstream media, I am afraid he's right.


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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