A daily newspaper would not reprint a year-old story on its front page. But that’s because it carefully determines what goes in the paper, and where, on editorial grounds. Gawker, like virtually every website, tries to follow its readers’ lead and promote what they are already clicking on or sharing. If an article is getting lots of pageviews, it gets moved to the homepage for better promotion. Add to that the speed with which Web journalists, especially homepage editors, have to work, and it’s easy to understand how a Gawker editor stuck a high-traffic, but old, story in a prominent place on the site.
Gawker shrugged off the error, removing the link after a commenter brought it to editors’ attention. They did not post a correction, although Gawker’s Jessica Smith posted a comment, saying, “Thanks for the heads-up, those things sneak up to the top of the view charts sometimes.” Gawker editor John Cook also unapologetically tweeted, “it was going around earlier b/c someone misread the date and it got shared around… it had become one of our most popular posts from that, it accidentally got added to a link round-up.”
News literacy experts say old stories going viral is also a manifestation of the way digital news consumers graze across different outlets. In the analog era, you picked a newspaper, news radio station, or TV news program, and that day’s edition provided your news. Now, if you use your Facebook or Twitter feed, or a Reddit community, as your news filter, items come from different sources with different timestamps.
“The date issue is related to the way we consume information now—of information grazing from many more sources than ever before,” says Adams. “Most people, I think, gather and consume information throughout the day, to a large degree on social media where large numbers of sources are present, making it more difficult than ever before to remember exactly where one heard or read what. This style of consumption—where we’re exposed to a never-ending stream of small bits of information—also lends itself to the assumption that everything is recent or current; that every viral story that gets thrust before us in one way or another is somehow new. It must be, otherwise why would people be buzzing about it?”
It turns out that attention to detail is important in assembling one’s newsfeed after all. But now that onus is on the reader.
Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.