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How to fool a journalist

A spoof website with the Baltimore mayor's angry riposte to shadow home secretary Chris Grayling saw several news sites run with the story. Web 2.0 is challenging journalists like never before.

By Ian Dunt

Last week, shadow home secretary Chris Grayling compared parts of the UK to hit HBO show The Wire. So far, so laughable. And then journalists found a way to keep the story going. The mayor of Baltimore had put out a statement on her website lambasting him for linking the city and the show.

"To present a television show as the real Baltimore is to perpetuate a fiction that dishonours our city," she wrote. "It is as pointless as boasting that Baltimore has a per capita homicide rate a fraction of that in the popular UK television show Midsomer Murders."

Except, of course, she didn't. The site was a fake, albeit a very good one, by naughty political blogger Recess Monkey, who is holidaying in Baltimore. Cue red faces all-round. "The mayor of Baltimore did not make the statements attributed to her in the story below - we were caught out by a hoax," the Guardian wrote in a disclaimer to the story on the web. The Independent and the city's own Baltimore Sun had made the same mistake. And so too, for that matter, had politics.co.uk.

So what does the Baltimore hoax say about British journalism, and the effect of the internet on news reporting?

One problem lies in the ease with which people can set up very professional-looking websites. Simon Ruda, of Fired and Inspired, a website design company, says the sites can be set up in a short time scale, especially when, as in this case, most of the look can be simply transported by copying the original site.

Once upon a time, it was corporations which were the target. "It has been around since the start," he says. "Initially it was a trademark issue. Someone bought cocacola.co.uk before they did and tried to sell it to them. But Coca Cola argued the name was a trademark so you've got to give it to them.

"Someone who sets up a website against a corporation would get heavily sued so they are usually cautious. But the internet isn't policed in any real way. Anyone can do anything."

The debate over the trustworthiness of internet sources is becoming increasingly pronounced. Moments after Michael Jackson died, a tweet, apparently from foreign secretary David Miliband went out expressing sadness and stating: "Michael Jackson RIP". It was carried by a host of media outlets, including almost every broadsheet in London. Political sites like politics.co.uk loved it, because it offered a political angle on a story which was dominating the news agenda. Broadsheets loved it because it offered what was still ultimately an entertainment story some weight.

Unfortunately, it was fake. The Foreign Office issued a press release reminding journalists of the fact Miliband doesn't have a Twitter account, and we were only saved by the prime minister's statements, later that morning, expressing sadness at the death. Editorial teams across the country started having a debate which will become increasingly common. Do you delete the story, or put up a disclaimer admitting your fault, or change the angle of the story to highlight how many of us were fooled? politics.co.uk, for its part, went with the latter option.

Similar problems were afoot just this week, when the Met established a dedicated Twitter feed to keep the media up to date with the tactics on the first day of Climate Camp, in London. Before midday another account - cO11MetPolice, rather than CO11MetPolice - had been set up, spilling out fake information. None of it was funny or loopy enough to be obviously written off.

Wikipedia has always been at the forefront of these issues, because of its philosophy of user-generated content. The site is therefore a good place to look for an indication of the way the wind is blowing. This week, the site finally ended the ability of users to edit items themselves, leaving a dedicated team of experts to approve changes. "We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks," said Michael Snow, chairman of the Wikimedia board. The move was prompted, in part, by the frenzied and irresponsible behaviour of political activists, who amended the entries of candidates or leaders either to mock them (Tony Blair's middle name was changed to "Whoop-de-do") or trash their reputation.

The debate over the trustworthiness of the internet is relatively new, but the one over the trustworthiness of journalists is much older. It has been given added impetus, however, by the recession, and the flagging income among media outlets. With less sales comes less money, and with less money comes mass redundancies. Those journalists still left with jobs are being forced to write more and more copy, but with just the same amount of time at work. One of the first victims of this phenomenon - ably mapped out by Nick Davies in his excellent book Flat Earth News - is the process by which journalists verify the source of a story. This is doubly true when the source is an internet item itself - such as website or a tweet.

"We should treat new media with some scepticism in the same way we would a conversation in a pub," says Stephen Ward, director of NoSweat journalism training school in London. "The stringent rules we adhere to are getting blurred.

"Professional journalism is trying to capture the internet market. It's trying to have a presence on the internet market and so the two get blurred because they're on the same platform."

The internet's effect on journalism has been immense, threatening the very existence of newspapers and forcing new, previously unimagined financial models on a sector which is struggling to stay afloat at all. And now it is entering a second phase, where the prevalence of user-generated content, such a Twitter and blogs, threatens to make the veracity of a source even harder to establish. It looks as if we're experiencing the birth-pangs. Things will probably get worse before they get better.

source: Talking Politics blog, 01.09.2007


  1. its not hard to fool a journalist,the mccanns have done it for the last 2 years and still doing it.

  2. Hi Chris. Have the journos in the McCann case been fooled, any more than the rest of the public? I don't think so.
    I think the McCann's shudder at the thought of the day when the journos turn against them. Because that day will come.

  3. hi,if the jorno,s havent been fooled why are they churning out the same shite they do week after week about the poor mccanns,and i really do not thing any journo will turn as its gone on too long now.if they had queried the mccanns lies at the beggining madeleines body might have been found now.they have no respect for madeleine,discusting lot they are.

  4. British journalists know as well as i know that the McCanns have lots of questions to answer. - questions that they should have answered long ago, but continue to avoid. They know they have something to hide. The serious journos, as oppossed to the chattering columnists, will already have done their homework. The sensationalist stories are typed out and ready to roll. Anyone who believes otherwise is plainly deluded.

    As for the gist of this piece, for goodness sake - Check Your Sources is the moral - it's really not too difficult. What we are witnessing is lazy journalism, and, hey, let's face it, we've all become used to that over the course of the last two years.

  5. The one journalist I have lost respect for is David Jones. He wrote a very good article back in 2007...where he himself said he found it impossible for a man and child to have gone through that small window...Two years later after a chat with Mitchel he has changed his minds and says the Mccanns are innocent...

    Did he fall or was he pushed...well at least he kept his job but what price 'he has sold his soul.


  6. http://www.newsoftheworld.co.uk/scottish/anna_smith/346472/ANNA-SMITH-Sickened-by-forum-that-blasts-tragic-Maddies-family.html

    Then we had Anna Smith 'because we doubt the word of the mccanns we are people that live under rocks.


  7. http://www.apfn.net/Messageboard/10-31-05/discussion.cgi.18.html

    Journalism is Dead...may she rest in peace.

    An Article by John Pilger...who says many Journalists have told him including the BBCs how they lay awake at night ..wanting to resume being a real journalist.


  8. David Jones has also mentioned in his scribblings that there is 'overwhelming evidence' that points to the McCanns' innocence, without elaborating on this so-called evidence. As someone else has posted, that indeed would be a real scoop. So come on, Jonesy, do us all a favour - apoint by point article in the Mail on why the McCs are innocent. Without backing up your claims you run the risk of appearing a bit of a fraudster and a puppet. Not good for a journalist's credentials.

  9. http://abcnews.go.com/2020/Story?id=2954522&page=1

    Takes a while for the video to show.

    However this is Jessyca Mullenberg at the age of 13 years was abducted. Her mother explains she was thin,white and dirty when found.

    Perhaps the british press would like to explain to the public as Jessyca does in this video what happened to her in the three months of her captivity. Then maybe the Mccanns can explain why they wish this for their daughter.
    Gives me even more reason not to believe the Elizabeth Smart story...Elizabeth returned plump rosy cheeked and happy , her parents took her straight home to watch TV...Should she not have been taken straight to the nearest hospital. Her "abductor" has hepatitus C. Elizabeth does not. I still say Eliz abeth was a runaway. We have only ever heard one side to this story, her fathers.

    Again the press had no balls to question this fairy tale happy ending and why the abductor has never been brought to trial.


  10. The Mccann's fool everybody and the journalists know that very well. The Media Editor's will never publicly recognise that they have being fooled by the Mccann's. If so, on that day the investigation will be re-oppened and the story will end for the Media. Feeding Mccann's stories, mean's feeding Madeleine Media businness for some more months or years. MEAN'S MORE PAPER SALE'S , MORE MONNEY, etc.

    BUT... again a hot and shocked story this week, in Portugal, to show us WHAT FAMILY CAN DO TO RELATIVES WHEN THEY WANT MONEY- A OLD MOTHER AND HER DISABLED SUN FIND BY PJ, LEAVING IN A SHED WITHOUT FOOD, WATER,etc, have being caught and keep captive by their own family because they want their money. Maybe Joana can bring that shocked story here to discuss. MOST OF KIDNAPING STORIES HAVE THE HANDS OF VICTIMS FAMILYS ON IT, showing us how deep and evil can some humans go, when they look for money.

  11. Brown is with out a doubt finished he will be out come May Will Cameron be any better who knows, me thinks time to give the Liberal party a chance.Blair started the Decay and Brown finished it. They are both Satan's Henchmen.

    I would say Cameron is the next UK prime minister.

  12. Yes Cameron is in 'he already has his boots under Obamas table...be ready for another lot of headaches...with regards to Madeleine nothing will change.


  13. Ironside Do you mean we will never get to the truth about little madeleine, and justice for this child never done.
    I see Maria from Brazil kept her word about leaving the blog she also thinks its a lost cause. as the time goes on its beginning to look that way.


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