Almost everything exciting for journalists starts with an information leak. An off-the-record tip from an inside source. A comment overheard in what the speaker thought was a private conversation. An unverified claim made by a whistleblower. Right away, it’s the journalist’s job to prove that rumour true.

Often we’re incapable of proving these rumours, at least at the moment. For each Rob Ford crack scandal, Kevin Donovan must have a dozen half-stories lying dormant. When a video could end a mayor’s tenure, fact checking is going to be a top priority, but what about when something like an unconfirmed letter—penned by a disappointed father to his daughter, who kicked out her own son because he came out as gay—lands in your inbox?

In his recent study published by the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism—Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content: How news websites spread (and debunk) online rumors, unverified claims, and misinformation­—Craig Silverman looks at the infighting this letter caused between Gawker owner Nick Denton and the editor who posted it, Neetzan Zimmerman. Denton argued that he didn’t believe the letter was true, thus it shouldn’t be up on Gawker. Zimmerman countered, writing, “People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. [People] look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the internet news hole. Overthinking internet ephemera is a great way to kill its viral potential.”

This type of public debate is rare, and private ones about potentially viral content probably are too. As Simon Houpt writes, “Journalism’s financial and cultural incentives, which used to support the search for facts, now favour the search for eyeballs. If truth is the first casualty of war, it is also one of the first casualties of the war for web traffic.”

Indeed, Silverman’s study found that unverified claims attract more attention than corrections or updates online, and fake news articles generate far more shares than ones debunking them. He also realized that publications pushing out these unverified stories usually only point to where the story was initially posted, without trying to figure out who was behind it. In the letter case above, both Gawker and Buzzfeed pointed only to the original Facebook post.

Potentially viral posts are somewhat like a large unfolding story—they connect with people on a personal level. During the Ottawa shooting, numerous rumours swirled throughout the day and many news organizations put a hold on publishing anything until they had confirmed facts. The same could be done for content like the grandfather’s letter, which, if authentic, wouldn’t lose its virality if it was held for a day. It would, however, put the organization in danger of losing valuable hits—whether it’s because the story turns out to be fake, or a competitor jumps on it first. Is anyone going to hand this story over to be fact checked before publishing? Likely not, especially because the consequences of posting a fake, but heart-warming letter are far less severe than being wrong about how many armed attackers are on Parliament Hill.

Online success for today comes when an organization is able to balance this type of possibly fake viral content and “shoe-leather” reporting. Because funds for in depth reporting have to come from somewhere.

 

Thanks to Tim Franklin for the image.