Get it first, but first get it right. It's the mantra of many a journalist. But it seems we now need to tag on, "And make sure it's real."
Here's a quick recap of the week that wasn't:
1) Texas mass murder scene discovered (untrue)
2) Blogger goes missing in Syria (authenticity doubted)
3) Syrian ambassador to France resigns (apparent impersonation)
4) Woman tattoos 152 Facebook friends on arm (publicity stunt)
These stories illustrate the difficulties facing today's news gatherers and news consumers. Technology lets us all get information quickly... almost instantly. But sometimes, you just need to pause and think for a moment.
Take the "mass grave" in Texas. Dozens of bodies, some children, were reportedly buried in the yard of a rural home. It sounded exactly like an episode of "Criminal Minds." And it ended up being just as fictitious.
But those tantalizing bits of the story were initially presented as facts. They spread online for hours before officers even got a search warrant. Finally, they announced no bodies were found and revealed a psychic's tip had led them to the property. Local authorities stand by their response and say it should have happened quietly. They blame erroneous media reports for "sparking intense interest in the investigation "
Information spreads quickly on social media sites like Twitter. It doesn't matter if that information is true or not. And that puts pressure on news organizations. If Twitter is abuzz about a story we don't have, we're slow and asleep. But if we jump on the bandwagon, we can fall flat on our faces.
Sometimes websites are as close as we can get to a story. Syria and other countries in the Arab world are tightly restricting access. We rely on YouTube and blogs to help figure out what's going on. One blogger in Syria, Amina Abdallah Araf, is said to have gone missing. Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags popped up on her behalf. But as news outlets dug deeper into her whereabouts, it looked like no one had ever actually met her. An interview on CNN.com last month was conducted by email. As of now, the U.S. State Department has not been able to "ascertain the basic facts."
There are identity questions of a different sort in the case of Lamia Shakkour. She is the Syrian ambassador to France. And it sounded like she resigned during a live phone interview the other day. Now that network, France 24, says voice analyses prove it was an impostor. But the number dialed was provided by the Syrian embassy and had been used before. That suggests some sort of high-tech sabotage.
We have, of course, seen recent examples of hack attacks on the media. A fake story was posted to the PBS website proclaiming Tupac alive and well in New Zealand. The culprits claimed it was revenge for a "Frontline" report on WikiLeaks.
These days anyone with a computer can influence a newscast... as a prankster or citizen journalist. Traditional news sources are no longer the only gatekeepers of information. We would all do well to question everything. That way we can all continue to learn something.