Is it just me, or are journalists on nationals writing lots more unchecked stories?

Damian Thompson, apparently, is ” the author of Counterknowledge: How we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history.”

Seems like he’s surrendered to a bit of the latter himself with this daft post on his blog on the Telegraph about a claim – a claim, sod it, an unsourced “story” in the widest sense – about Muslims “invading” a hospital in Sydney. I don’t believe a word of it (but can’t be bothered to create a Telegraph account to poke fun at him). As Andrew Brown puts it so eloquently, “wtf?”:

Indeed, he asked if any of his readers could “stand it up”, since they are obviously better placed to do so than a leader writer on a national newspaper who has been a professional journalist for 25 years.

But this is a classic example of how teh interwebs are leading to crap journalism, where people hurry to post anything. Or perhaps it’s just making it more visible.


  • “Literary writer had to dumb down and write thrillers” – the Times. No, she didn’t “dumb down” at all: see the article in the Guardian.
  • “From today, feel free to download another 25 million songs – legally” – the Times.

    Qtrax, a digital service announced today, promises a catalogue of more than 25 million songs that users can download to keep, free and with no limit on the number of tracks.

    The service has been endorsed by the very same record companies – including EMI, Universal Music and Warner Music – that have chased file-sharers through the courts in a doomed attempt to prevent piracy.

    Not a scintilla of doubt. Or indeed fact-checking. (Update: actually, one of the people who was there tells me that they did try to confirm Qtrax’s claim with the four music companies, which were there at MIDEM, yet they didn’t confirm or deny until the next day.) For no, it didn’t have any agreements with the music labels. Perhaps more of a “misled the press” tale there.

  • Twins’ marriage annulled – no, it never happened. (Think about it. They come from the same town. They share a birthday. Wouldn’t those two facts alone make you wonder? And consider the source – a lord wading into the anti-abortion debate.)

And that’s just a few days. I’ve honestly created a new category on the Guardian Technology blog called “Undo” for total reverse ferrets on stories. Estonia was attacked by Russian hackers? Maybe, but the only confirmed fact is that one kid in Estonia has been fined, in Estonia.

People on otherwise sensible newspapers are writing stuff where they don’t check whether assertions are facts. No checking. Just the rush to be in there, to get onto Google News, to be indexed, to be read, even if the readers point out that you’re talking rubbish.

Journalists may rail against bloggers, but it would be bloody good if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot by doing precisely the things that we accuse the bloggers of – writing without knowing.


  1. I don’t see a way out of this one, I’m afraid. Once a story has run in one mainstream outlet, it’s put up to conference *before* it’s given to a writer to check. Once it’s been sold to conference, the news desk can’t nix it without looking silly, and in all probability getting shouted at, so they have no interest at all in listening to any journalist who tells them it’s bollocks. The journalist will, in all likelihood, be told to write it anyway, or fudge it, and may, to boot, get a reputation for being ‘awkward’. So the journalists stop bothering. If the newsdesk just ignore an obviously dubious story, or do listen to anyone who tells them it’s shit, the chances are they’ll get a phone call the next morning, asking why they haven’t done this story that everyone else has done. And the answer ‘because it’s bollocks’ is rarely one that executives like to hear.
    Why *do* we bother, Charles?

  2. @Karl: believe me, I know the “I’ve told conference so you can’t untell it” line. But the thing is that if you say “you know the line about Qtrax having all this music to sell? Here’s a much better story – they don’t” then a newsdesk does get interested.

    But what’s being left out is that checking bit. I think it was the LA Times which actually did the legwork of asking the music companies about the Qtrax licences.

    The other thing I didn’t mention was the norovirus “epidemic”, which turns out to be nothing of the sort – just the usual winter vomiting bug. Again, some checking would turn up the counterintuitive “man bites dog” (or “man not vomiting”) story. But in the rush to print (or the rush to write ten stories, seven for the web) that doesn’t get done.

    We do it because it’s fun, but the mischief is lacking sometimes.

  3. @Charles: yes — shooting stuff down does make a good story. But it’s not just newsdesks who don’t want to be told they are wrong. Perhaps I have a twisted view of human nature from writing about religion, but it’s extraordinary how reluctant readers are to give up something they want to be true. Perhaps the most extreme example of this comes in the “Jihadwatch” comments on the story that Damian Thompson lifted, after it became apparent that there was something dodgy about the story (one minor detail: it was meant to involve a car crash during celebrations at the end of Ramadan last year, and ot have happened on December 17th, which is roughly two months after the end of Ramadan).

    So, some berk on Jihadwatch comments “Of course Islamics would and could behave in this way but this particular story appears to have no basis in fact – in actual events. It is, in all probability, a Muslim constructed story designed to show us in the worst possible light – credulous and raving Islamophobes who will believe anything as long as the Islamics look bad.” I don’t think there was any irony intended at all.

  4. Charles – yes, sometimes it does. But more often, something not happening is no story at all, or one of much more marginal interest. The Qtrax story, for example, is fascinating as an example of old/new media shenanigans – and great for tech sections, specialist blogs, etc – but the fact of it not happening kills it as a mainstream consumer story.

    Likewise, ‘Norovirus at usual levels’ isn’t a headline to set the average news editor’s pulse racing – although the story of how it became a story may be of interest to media sections.

  5. Soon they’ll be publishing the Good Times Virus again.


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