When I worked as a journalist, I always was verifying information. I didn’t just run with whatever someone told me, because, too many times, it wasn’t true.
It was a fact of life that I had to question everything and everybody. No, it wasn’t paranoia, but the amount of misinformation littering the planet makes that a bigger problem than most people realize.
I was told of studies that did not exist, for instance. People lied about their backgrounds and credentials. People lied about illnesses. People lied about their business acumen.
Yet, every second, people quote other people’s assertions without verifying it.
It’s what makes much of the Internet useless.
But confidence doesn’t make information any more accurate, even if it tells you precisely what you want to hear.
There is no information skepticism in 2018. None.
And there must be.
But social media is just a sloppier version of traditional media, and traditional media has had a very shameful record of credulity.
Let’s take one case from the New York Times that did not make it into my previous book because it hit the fan after publication.
JT LeRoy was a white hot author in the early 2000s, and Hollywood hip kids loved, loved, loved JT. People read JT’s books and raved about him.
The New York Times reviewed one of those books in 2004.
Because JT, as the title announced dramatically, had “a literary life born of brutality.”
It was as hard up as a personal history can be.
JT even got to write for the Times in 2005 in their travel magazine, as well as other publications.
Except that JT’s backstory was a hoax.
And JT was two people masquerading as JT: both women related by marriage: one was the author, and the other the disguised persona.
I won’t go into the details of the case, but here is the New York Times, writing about JT LeRoy, and then allowing JT LeRoy to write for them…but it was all a sham.
How did it get that far?
The same reason you have probably posted fraudulent and misleading things on your own social media feed: no one is bothering to verify what they broadcast.
The Times perpetrated a hoax.
One day, it’s a fake author. The next, it’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.
And yet people, knowing my area of research, still come to me saying, “Did you read the Times’ article about…”
To which I reply, “How did you verify that information? Did you call Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, or JT LeRoy?”
Don’t mess with a media skeptic. We won’t put up with it any longer.
We will not be putting up with your unverified assertions.
We assume actors are writing their own tweets, for instance, and it’s not usually the case.
Western society has forgotten that fact-finding is a slow struggle and fight. For instance, sometimes I had to sit for hours and watch to see if someone who claimed to have an illness was really sick, or was putting on a show for my benefit.
Long interviews are far more revealing than short ones. Sometimes a source was sick, and other times, the answer was disturbing, but it would determine what story I would pursue, and which one I would nix.
Other times, I would come in a couple of hours early to an interview and walk around the company’s premises, just so I could do a head count and see if people were certain of their jobs, or was it likely jobs cuts were coming, meaning whatever an executive told me would have to square with the subtle signs around me.
It’s called Manwatching. (Or people-watching, it’s not important).
I did other kinds of research, but it always involved making sure that I didn’t get caught up in someone’s narrative, especially if I found myself agreeing with a point of view.
People used to make fun of me because I would notice whether light was peeking out from under a locked door or not, or looked to see if soles of someone’s shoes had marks indicating they smashed their cigarette with it.
Those details weren’t about adding “colour” to my story. They never did. What they did was give me clues and hints.
For example, a couple of years ago, I once tagged along to one newspaper building as a guest because the paper was interviewing people I knew for a story and I was there for support.
As the reporter interviewed the others, I was free to have a look around.
The newsroom was empty. The carpeting was old. There were papers and folders with dust of them, and the dates were from years ago, and were not newsworthy.
But there was a black and white photograph of a notorious killer pinned on a bulletin board — no longer newsworthy as it happened in the mid-1990s, but it was a staff photographer who took that now-notorious picture, and it was that paper’s glory days.
Once upon a time, they were up close to a story that gripped an entire country.
And now, nothing.
There is no resurrecting or reviving that outlet.
Social media is beginning to show the same symptoms as traditional media had: a tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize misinformation that later turns out to be false, or at the very least, seriously misleading.
When an uninformed opinion has more hits than a highly-researched and well-conducted study, you know trouble is simmering.
Facebook and Twitter are completely ill-equipped to handle the storm brewing.
Because neither was ever created with the idea of information verification in mind.
You cannot keep tacking it on after the fact, adding a fix as if it were a patch. It only makes the troubles worse.
For a fifth medium to thrive, at its core must be a dedication to truth and reality. There must be standards — tested, of course — built in its system.
And we are nowhere near that point yet.