“I started looking at stuff that they were reading, because they started to send me articles, and I clicked through to see stuff that was absolutely untrue,” he said. “Not even a misunderstanding—it was just things that were untrue.”
Woolner decided to document what was going on. He wanted to collect the inaccurate and sensationalistic reports, and enable other people to join in. He set up a wiki and called it the Journalist Wall of Shame. He told his followers on Twitter. They shared the link. You can see where this is going: that wiki today has close to 200 entries. Woolner is personally responsible for “ten or fewer” submissions.
“Honestly, I expected this to be something that me and maybe like fifty people who are followers, or followers of followers, on Twitter would do and it would be a pretty small thing and in the end I’d maybe make a little theatre piece about it,” he said. “It’s kind of taken me by surprise.”
The examples of media error come from the U.S., U.K., France, Canada, Germany, Brazil, and Spain, among other countries. These are raw, unvetted submissions. Some identify clear factual errors, while others take issue with tone, make accusations of sensationalism, or allege anti-Japanese ignorance. Not all are valid, and many are debatable. But at least they provoke critical thinking.
Woolner believes most contributors are expats living in Japan, or people who previously lived in Japan. When we spoke, he was planning to recruit a group of editors to vet submissions and help organize the material.
“My original intention was to leave it as a wiki and, in the same way Wikipedia works because you have so many people editing, you end up with a decent product,” he said. “I’m trying to put together a team of editors to try and go through [the submission] checking to see if they really deserve to be there, and posting them on a more viewer-friendly page.”
His experiment demonstrates a desire on the part of citizens to engage in fact checking, and to find ways to express their frustration with subpar reporting. They want to be heard. If a rudimentary wiki can attract a decent level of participation, then imagine what could be achieved with a truly collaborative debunking service?
“I think a lot of people would like to extend this beyond the Japan quake coverage,” Woolner said. “ It went further than I thought, and I’ll do my best to see it through to the end and see if we can make some kind of difference somewhere.”