Truth, lies and new media

Not being a follower of reality television, the name Kris Allen meant nothing to me until I learned this week that the Star had mistakenly disparaged the winner of last year’s American Idol competition.

In her Star blog, Reality Check, which follows the drama of reality shows, writer Debra Yeo questioned the singer’s whereabouts. Yeo repeated a report from a Los Angeles Times blog that said Allen had not made it to Haiti to help earthquake victims as she had reported in a previous blog entry.

She linked to a YouTube clip of Allen in which he said the trip had not panned out. But Yeo also linked to photos that showed Allen helping with relief efforts in Port-au-Prince and joked, “I’d say somebody’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

Yeo’s early Monday morning blog entry brought a flurry of emails into the public editor’s office from Allen’s fans, many of whom had learned about it from a link on Twitter. These fans were angry at what they interpreted as Yeo’s suggestion that the singer had somehow faked a trip to Haiti.

They were also anxious to set the record straight: Allen was indeed in Haiti and the YouTube clip Yeo had linked to was recorded several weeks ago before his trip details were worked out.

“Even though this isn’t the most important news story in the world, I don’t think your paper wants false stories presented as fact on its website,” said one complainant. Echoed another: “An apology is owed to Kris Allen, and your readers for not fact-checking.”

I realize this all sounds like something more suited to a gossip mag than the editorial page. But I think it’s illustrative of the journalistic challenges in a digital world where speculation and rumours are published and spread through the online echo chamber of blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

The fallout from this was made all too clear last week when a false rumour pronouncing Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot dead was spread through social media and news websites after being posted on Twitter by a Canwest News Service reporter.

In fact, did not report that Lightfoot had died. But that didn’t stop Toronto Mayor David Miller from telling his 11,113 Twitter followers that the Star had done so, tweeting, “Oops. Star and Sun report the death of Gordon Lightfoot. A surprise to him …” This week, I tweeted the mayor to flag his erroneous posting about the Star. Miller subsequently tweeted a correction.

Welcome to my wired world – and yours, too.

Just as we expect the mayor of Toronto to communicate accurate information, the message conveyed by those who complained about the Star’s treatment of Kris Allen is that they expect more than speculation and rumours from a credible news organization. As one reader stated, “You really should do some research and fact-check before you publish nonsense.”

These readers are right to hold the Star responsible for the accuracy of everything it publishes in print, online or through social media tools such as Twitter – whether the report be about a prime minister or a reality TV star.

“Trust is the new black. The more you do online, the more important it becomes,” Arianna Huffington, the daughter of a newspaper editor and founder of the online Huffington Post, one of the most influential websites in the U.S., told a Toronto audience at an event last month sponsored by the Star. Huffington said the questions about media today are not about whether news is delivered in print or online but rather, “Who do you trust, who is credible.”

In the media credibility stakes, how errors are made right matters greatly. Building trust in this new digital world demands that journalists and news organizations are seen to be “human,” “transparent” and “honest,” says University of British Columbia journalism professor Alfred Hermida.

“If you get caught out on something, admit you are wrong,” Hermida told a recent Canadian Association of Journalists session on news innovation.

On those measures, Yeo passed with flying colours. As soon as she became aware of her error about Allen, she posted a mea culpa on her Star blog:

“So here’s the deal. I messed up. I’m not the only one since I didn’t just pull that post out of thin air, but I should have done a little more research and perhaps not been so glib with my joke about someone having some ‘splainin’ to do.

“I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression to err is human; to forgive divine. I am most definitely human,” Yeo said, adding, “To those of you who said I should have done further fact-checking, you are absolutely correct. I should have.

“I cannot guarantee that I will never make another mistake, but I do guarantee that I will own up to it when I do. So this is me, owning up to it.”

That’s human, that’s transparent and that’s honest. And readers who subsequently weighed in on Yeo’s mea culpa were appreciative: “Thank you. Glad you owned up to your mistake,” one online commenter said.
Said another, “Since I started following Kris’s career, I realize a lot of blogs/media out there don’t actually do research or check facts. Most of them won’t admit or clear up their mistakes, which I commend you for.”

Now that’s a reality well worth tweeting.

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on February 27, 2010.

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