By Kalev Leetaru
December 15, 2016
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Some of the world’s most prestigious and reputable news outlets took a moment this week to carry the heartwarming story of a Santa Claus actor who held a boy in his arms at the hospital before he died, offering him comforting words in the spirit of the Christmas season. Outlets covering the story included a veritable who’s who of the media world both in the US and across the world, including the Washington Post, BBC, CNN, NBC, Daily Mail, Japan Times, Today, People, Cosmopolitan, Mashable, BuzzFeed and many many more. However, last night the Knoxville News Sentinel, the originator of the story, published a note from its editor warning that after further investigation it could not verify the substance and details of the story and was no longer standing by its contents. While stopping short of saying the story did not happen, the paper noted that each of the major hospitals in the area had confirmed that the events as described did not occur in their facility, casting doubt on key details of the account, even as the actor himself stood by his story.
While in an ordinary week such a story might simply be written off as another possible viral hoax, what makes this series of events so remarkable is that they occurred in a week saturated with discussion of “fake news” and the need to do a better job of fact checking and verifying the information we consume. Indeed, several of the same outlets carrying the Santa Claus story have also run pieces this week and last arguing that citizens must turn to mainstream media to protect themselves against “fake news” because of the immense amount of verification and fact checking that journalists at these outlets do before reporting on a story. Slate went so far as to create a browser plugin where its editors will screen news coverage and flag articles they believe to be fake. Yet, if some of the world’s most respected news outlets like the Washington Post, BBC and CNN all freely published an unverified story, how could we trust them to somehow do so much better on other stories?
First, its important to ask how such a story went viral in the midst of journalism’s soul searching about “fake news.” It all started with a news outlet: the Knoxville News Sentinel, which ran the original story. The News Sentinel is part of the USA Today Network and the story was rapidly picked up by its other properties and then from there went viral across the national and international news spheres. The News Sentinel’s editor wrote last night that the paper had not performed additional fact checking before running the story and only after the article went viral and outlets like Snopes began to question its veracity, did the newspaper finally reach out to local hospitals and determine that the events as written in the article did not occur at any of their facilities. As each additional news outlet rushed to cover the viral story, they too failed to perform basic journalistic diligence in picking up the phone and calling around to local hospitals for verification and more detail. Instead, essentially a giant trust game played out in that each outlet wrote about the story because it trusted that the earlier outlet had performed the necessary due diligence on it.
The News Sentinel did not respond to a request for a comment on why it did not perform additional verification on the story until after it had gone viral nor what its standard policies on pre-publication verification are. The Washington Post also did not respond to a request for comment as to why, in at least the second time in the last few weeks, it ran a major story without performing additional steps to verify it.
In the case of the Washington Post's earlier PropOrNot story, the newspaper initially strongly defended its work, arguing that it had thoroughly vetted its reporting, offering “The Post reviewed its findings, and our questions about them were answered satisfactorily during the course of multiple interviews.” Only after extensive reporting by other outlets did the Post reverse its stance to claim it performed no verification of any kind, saying in an Editor’s Note “The Post … does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do.”
When asked to comment on the Post’s pre-publication verification and vetting processes and why it did not ask for comment from other researchers in the field to offer additional perspectives before publishing the PropOrNot story, a Post spokeswoman offered only that the paper would have no further comment on the matter. The Post also declined to outline its verification workflow or the steps it takes to verify a story prior to publication.
Such silence is especially troubling in an era when newspapers like the Post are positioning themselves as a bulwark against “fake news” by arguing that their immense verification and vetting workflows ensure they have positively confirmed all elements of a story prior to publication and thus readers can rest assured that a story that appears on their pages has undergone the most rigorous fact checking imaginable. Yet, the reality appears to be precisely the opposite: in the Post’s case, it first claimed to have rigorously investigated the PropOrNot story, only to reverse itself in the face of criticism and say it was merely reporting what it had been told and not standing behind the results in any way.
In the case of the Santa Claus story, it appears the Post similarly did not perform the most basic of due diligence to call around to the local hospitals in the area to confirm the basic details of the story before running it. Yet, more concerningly, the editorial note it subsequently appended to the story places the blame solely on the News Sentinel, while not saying a word about why the Post itself didn’t do any fact checking of its own. In short, the Post’s argument is that it simply trusted another outlet to do due diligence and that once a story enters the news cycle, no other outlet bears responsibility to verify it. This is remarkably similar to the castle defense formerly popular in cyber security circles, in which a company would assume that the outer layers of its network would verify that incoming network traffic was trusted and that once traffic entered the network it could be trusted without additional verification.
Of course, one might argue that it simply isn’t worth the time of a newspaper like the Post to expend precious journalistic resources verifying the minute details of a personal interest story. On the other hand, most would likely agree that publishing a media blacklist like the PropOrNot story certainly does deserve extensive fact checking. The problem is that there is no way to know, when reading a typical newspaper story, how much (if any) fact checking the details of that story underwent. There is no appendix that lists all of the details the reporter did or did not confirm. Indeed, this is the case in all major Western news outlets, but this practice creates the illusion of trust that the reporter must have verified the story before the newspaper would even think of publishing it.
In many ways, the Santa Claus story that went viral without a bit of verification is merely a reflection of the broader problems facing both the news industry and the data science world as a whole. As I noted last week, the inverted pyramid of journalism allows stories like this to flourish by placing the emphasis on conclusions and story rather than underlying facts. Similarly, in our information-saturated realtime-focused society, we’re more interested in short punchy conclusions than we are in the reams of data and caveats that accompany them.
In the case of a large data analysis, the original analytic report might contain pages of caveats, nuances, assumptions and explanations on how to interpret the result. In turn, that result and a few of the caveats are repacked for the next level of decision making, which in turn strips out even more detail to present to the next level of management, until at the highest level of decision making authority, only the final strengthened conclusion remains, absent all of the critical evidence that might call it into question. A single analyst’s tentative conclusion, offered with just 20% probability of being correct, might, through a giant game of telephone, become a definitive answer supported by the entire analytic community.
Here, it appears that each news outlet covering this story simply assumed that the one before had performed the necessary fact checking and as the number of major outlets covering the story grew, so too did its perceived trustworthiness, as readers assumed that all of these outlets had independently verified the details, subjecting it to an ever greater collection of fact checking and verification.
At the end of the day, we simply don’t know if this heartwarming story is true or false or somewhere in between and the Santa Claus actor at the heart of the story stands firmly by his account. However, what we do know is that of the myriad news outlets covering the story, including some of the world’s best-known and most reputable brands in journalism, not one of them made even the most basic of efforts to verify the story before publishing it, content instead to happily spread a viral feel-good holiday narrative. Moreover, in their post-postmortems this morning, not one of these major outlets has accepted ownership over this failure to verify, placing the blame instead on the News Sentinel. In a world besieged by “fake news” how can these same news outlets ask the world’s citizens to turn to them as skilled fact checkers and arbiters of the truth if they can’t be bothered to make a few fact checking phone calls before rushing a story out the door?