Columns / Discourse / January 29, 2020

The misinformation age

News travels faster than fact, and this was clearly visible by the media flurry following Kobe Bryant’s death this past Sunday.

Media outlets were jumping over each other with “breaking” news about the story, and it seems like many journalists decided to forgo journalistic integrity in order to be the first to deliver the latest tidbit of information, regardless of whether that information had any basis in reality.

ABC news, for example, initially “confirmed” that Bryant’s four children were also killed in the crash. Every media outlet that reported on the number of dead actually misreported the number for several hours before authorities made an official statement.

TMZ reported Bryant’s death well before authorities had confirmed his identity and informed his next of kin, an act rightly condemned by the Los Angeles County Sheriff.

Having to find out a loved one has died through social media is traumatizing, and not knowing exactly who has died further exacerbates this trauma. Relatives and friends of victims or reported victims are left scrambling to find out exactly what has occurred, while family members are forced to respond and reckon with numerous people presenting various accounts of what happened in a time when they should be mourning.

Journalists, above everyone else, should feel obligated to double-check and triple-check facts before publishing them in the moments immediately after a crisis instead of publishing the latest rumor on the corner.

Of course, fault doesn’t rest solely on media outlets. Equal fault lies on the backs of the public, who incentivize journalists that play fast and loose with the facts by giving them disproportionate amounts of attention and ratings.

There is a lack of news literacy within America, and this leads to a tendency of people believing whatever they read in headlines without checking an article’s sources. Social media exacerbates the problem, as individual journalists with verified accounts can tweet something that seems like sourced information when it is actually just conjecture.

The result of this is the near effortless propagation of misinformation among the public. Outside of Bryant’s death, it plagues our political process and our understanding of world news as a whole.

Misinformation about the recent coronavirus outbreak is rife with rumors of it being hyper-infectious and its true danger being suppressed by the Chinese government signal-boosted by accounts and people who don’t verify information before spreading it on. Indeed, a rumor about Chinese patients spitting on doctors in order to infect them is dismissed by a simple search that shows their source to be unreliable blogs reporting from screenshots of text messages with no context or translation available.

While we should rightly hold the media to account for their mishandling of Bryant’s death, we should also remain cognisant of our own duty as media consumers to ensure that the information we pass on is correct and verifiable.

You don’t need to be a journalist to fact check information, and ultimately we must accept that we have the ability to positively or negatively influence the propagation of misinformation among our social networks.

Rudy Koppikar

Tags:  journalism kobe bryant media ethics NBA reporting

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