Which is not to say that BuzzFeed did a bad job last week. Debunking corrosive memes is a genuine public service, and it’s great that outlets like BuzzFeed and Gawker are doing it. Where I part with Smith and Herrman, however, is in their implication that everybody else — the NYT, the WSJ, the Boston Globe, Reuters, Bloomberg, CNN — should be doing it as well. That’s silly, and I can’t believe that many people would want to live in a world where a relatively small number of Redditors could effectively set the news agenda for the entire country.
On Monday, I received an email from someone calling herself Sarah Hanson, in which she claimed that she had successfully auctioned off 10 percent of her post-tax future income for the next ten years, raising $125,000 in the process. I wasn’t the only journalist to hear from Hanson: she had already, at that point, managed to score an interview with VentureBeat, which in turn begat lots of other coverage around the internet. But various aspects of the story didn’t smell right, to me, so I sent an email to VentureBeat, asking if they were sure this girl was for real. It turns out that she almost certainly isn’t. I was perfectly happy for VentureBeat to write the debunking; in fact, that was the perfect place for it to happen: there was very little point in me writing a story saying “some person you probably haven’t heard of is very unlikely to actually exist”.
Given the amount of information pouring onto the internet every minute, it’s statistically inevitable that a substantial amount of that information is going to be erroneous — especially when the source is something as unedited as Reddit or Twitter. No mainstream journalism outlet should allow its coverage of a major story to be hijacked by backchannel noise — especially when a large part of the value such outlets provide is that they filter out the noise and transmit only a reliable signal. Just because your readers can peer behind the curtain, doesn’t mean you have any responsibility to yank it open yourself.
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