news literacy

When old stories go viral

The onus is on readers to double check the timestamp on things they share
February 17, 2014

Earlier this month, many internet users were sharing a year-old Gawker item suggesting New York City might get 30 inches of snow in the coming weekend. This led to much confusion among readers who failed to check the date of the piece: My girlfriend’s roommate worriedly texted her wondering if our flight back from vacation on Sunday would be canceled. Gawker even put the story in its morning link roundup after seeing all the traffic it was getting without realizing, at first, that it was re-featuring old content.

Stories going viral on social media long after their publication date, as readers mistakenly assume they break fresh news has become remarkably common.

Friends email, tweet, and post on Facebook stories that came out years before and somehow got revived on social media. To choose just a few recent examples: On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a friend told me that a worker at a Long Island Walmart was trampled to death on Black Friday. Later she realized that the story from the New York Daily News, which she encountered when a friend shared it on Facebook, was from 2008. Although this might seem harmless, my friend mentioned the story to illustrate that Black Friday is getting more out of hand each year, a narrative that she readily concedes is undermined by the story being five years old.

On the lighter side, since I’m a notorious whiner about gentrification in my native Brooklyn, one week a few months ago it seemed as if everyone I know was sending me an Onion story, also from 2008, titled “Report: Nation’s Gentrified Neighborhoods Threatened By Aristocratization.” I’d read it at the time it came out, but none of my friends had noticed the date. (Granted, the shelf life on a humorous fake trend story is considerably longer than a weather report.)

Speaking of gentrification, just two weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted a New York Observer story, which he in turn had gotten from another friend’s Facebook feed, reporting that Brooklyn had surpassed San Francisco as the second-most expensive American urban area after Manhattan. Upon inspection, I could see it was published in 2012. The fact may still be true, but given rapidly rising rents in San Francisco last year, it may not. In any case, it did not just happen, as readers sharing the item with one another seem to assume.

In this sort of media environment, where you cannot assume that the link you click on from a major site is actually current, the burden on readers to be careful is increased dramatically. Readers so frequently discover old stories and think they are new that warning them about it has become part of the standard news literacy curriculum.

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“We teach news literacy students the Web is archival–wonderfully so–but that places on online readers a burden to mind their APCs, a mnemonic that includes checking ‘currency’ of a report,” says Dean Miller, director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, in an email. (The A and P stand for “authority” and “point of view,” respectively.)

Other educators agree that assessing the timeliness and contemporary relevance of a piece of content is a foundational concept in news literacy. “The issue of recirculating content relates to several information trends and important news literacy lessons,” says Peter Adams, senior vice president for educational programs at the News Literacy Project, also via email. “It often comes up in discussions and lessons with students about viral content and the need to use specific factchecking tools (like reverse image search, which can show you how long an image has been circulating).”

In other words, NLP doesn’t have a lesson specifically about checking the timeliness of stories, but it relates to and arises in many of the other lessons, on subjects such as the importance of skepticism and independent factchecking. “People have to learn to adopt a posture of nuanced skepticism as a matter of habit, which means remembering to consider a variety of aspects of a piece of information (who created it, when, for what purpose, what’s the context, has this been altered, is this confirmed by another source, am I leaning into this with my own biases?, etc.),” says Adams. He adds that there are related news literacy challenges stemming from the internet’s constantly accessible archive of old news. For example, during campaign season, much of the news reported by political websites entails the discovery of an ancient quote or video that may now prove embarrassing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s important for readers not to get confused about when, say, a controversial statement was made.

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.

Ben Adler is a staff writer for Grist and a contributor to CJR.