But they’ve been ‘got’.
When Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a
poetic but phony quote on Wikipedia, he said he was testing how our
globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding
accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.
His report card: Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.
The sociology major’s made-up quote — which he added to the
Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer’s death
March 28 — flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper Web
sites in Britain, Australia and India.
They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though
administrators at the free online encyclopedia quickly caught the
quote’s lack of attribution and removed it, but not quickly enough to
keep some journalists from cutting and pasting it first.
Delightful irony, this.
A full month went by and nobody noticed the editorial
fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets in an e-mail and the
“I was really shocked at the results from the experiment,”
Fitzgerald, 22, said Monday in an interview a week after one newspaper
at fault, The Guardian of Britain, became the first to admit its
obituarist lifted material straight from Wikipedia.
“I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn’t come forward, that
quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said,
instead of something I made up,” he said. “It would have become another
example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media
without challenge, it becomes fact.”
This is more than amusing. He’s absolutely right. Was it Hitler who
said ‘if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes truth’? Or….was that
another rumor that took on its own life?
But this gets better…
So far, The Guardian is the only publication to make a
public mea culpa, while others have eliminated or amended their online
obituaries without any reference to the original version — or in a few
cases, still are citing Fitzgerald’s florid prose weeks after he pointed out its true origin.
(Emphasis added. Can’t believe they’re still using it.)
“One could say my life itself has been one long
soundtrack,” Fitzgerald’s fake Jarre quote read. “Music was my life,
music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long
after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing
in my head that only I can hear.”
Good writing there. No wonder it was quickly snapped up. Even though Wiki noted there was no citation.
Fitzgerald said one of his University College Dublin
classes was exploring how quickly information was transmitted around
the globe. His private concern was that, under pressure to produce news
instantly, media outlets were increasingly relying on Internet sources
— none more ubiquitous than the publicly edited Wikipedia.
When he saw British 24-hour news channels reporting the death of the
triple Oscar-winning composer, Fitzgerald sensed what he called “a
golden opportunity” for an experiment on media use of Wikipedia.
He said it took him less than 15 minutes to fabricate and place a
quote calculated to appeal to obituary writers without distorting
Jarre’s actual life experiences.
If anything, Fitzgerald said, he expected newspapers to avoid his
quote because it had no link to a source — and even might trigger
alarms as “too good to be true.”
No doubt that made it appeal to them all the more. Media do so little fact checking, this was a cinch to be snapped up.
Fitzgerald stressed that Wikipedia’s system requiring
about 1,500 volunteer “administrators” and the wider public to spot
bogus additions did its job, removing the quote three times within
minutes or hours. It was journalists eager for a quick, pithy quote
that was the problem.
He said the Guardian was the only publication to respond to him in
detail and with remorse at its own editorial failing. Others, he said,
treated him as a vandal.
“The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid
Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if
it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source,” said the
readers’ editor at the Guardian…
Besides false quotes becoming ‘reality’, there’s false attribution (that
goes back a long way, and examples abound). I was working on some
writing and started to attribute to Alexis de Tocqueville the line
“America is great because she is good…” etc. Easy to do, because that’s
been perpetuated for so long by so many. But I looked it up (a personal
tendency to want to source everything) and discovered it was actually not originally written by Tocqueville. The story of how that one took on its own life was interesting in itself.
So we can write about how the media shape and distort the news, but
one young man in one brief exercise showed it far more powerfully.