A fascinating event occurred on Twitter today. In short, someone cracked a joke about a new 3rd-party Twitter application. Someone else took it seriously and blogged about it on ZDNet, creating a wave of misplaced mass hysteria. Brian Ambrozy has the whole story in more detail, but I especially appreciated his Twitter-style summary:
- Hay guys, Twitterank gives u a twit score. Mine is 110.23! Check it!
- Looks like @brianoberkirch made a funneh. oops
- Now Oliver Marks sez @brianoberkirch hacked twitter omgz
- A MILLIONTY PEOPLE READ OLIVER MARKS AND RETWEETED IT
- Everybody skurred nao
This does raise some interesting issues. For example, if you’re generally a highly credible source, as Brian Oberkirch is, do you have a responsibility to be so reliable that you can’t even crack a joke? I experienced this myself last year when an April Fool’s post I made was so believable that it was prompting calls to LinkedIn customer service (even though I said "April Fool’s" at the end of the post). I took a look around the web at some of the other pranksters (Google being one of the biggest), and wrote about it in April 2nd – The Day After. I still don’t know where the line is, but I certainly don’t think Brian crossed it.
The real problem is in the system that allowed a blogger who didn’t do any fact-checking with other sources to jump on the story under the loaned credibility of the ZDNet brand. It was an honest mistake, and well-intentioned, but it was magnified by being published under a trusted brand. As Shannon Whitley wrote:
Bloggers are not journalists in the professional sense of the word. It’s not only a misconception, but judging by how quickly erroneous information can spread, it’s a very dangerous idea. […] Amateurs can produce high-quality content and, in a particular area of expertise, can provide more depth on a subject. However, we should never kid ourselves that the amateurs have the same level of experience, nor do they support the same level of standards as the professional. Read carefully and watch those banners. You may see a professional logo at the top of the page, but that doesn’t mean the same level of trust can be transferred to the content beneath it. I think it’s time that organizations like CNN and ZDNet change the layout of their amateur sites. It’s too easy to mistake the work of an amateur for that of the professional and trusted journalist.
In general, I agree with Shannon. However, I do think he perhaps has some misplaced trust in those "professional" journalists. I have done dozens of interviews with journalists, and while some adhere to very high standards, others are frankly kind of lazy. I’ve been misquoted numerous times in ways that changed the meaning of what I said. I’ve seen stories that drew obviously wrong conclusions from the facts. I’ve seen factual errors in the stories I’ve been quoted in. Many of the journalists are freelance writers with no formal journalistic training. And on non-critical pieces, i.e., anything in any section other than "news", a lot of publications don’t do rigorous fact-checking. If it wouldn’t lead to a potential lawsuit, they don’t bother.
So while you may want to be a little extra-cautious if the author is designated as a "blogger" rather than a staff reporter, you need to take what the reporters say with a grain of salt as well. If you are going to make an important business or life decision based on the information, check your facts with multiple sources.