Archive for the ‘journalistic ethics’ Category

The Irish Independent has clearly spotted a gap in the market – incitement to racist violence. As the Irish Daily Mail doesn’t carry the execrable Richard Littlejohn column so beloved of English bigots, the Indo has decided to use his non-union Mexican equivalent, Ian O’Doherty, to offer Irish readers some old-fashioned race hate.

The irony of opening his latest link-bait “column” with one TD’s ridiculous comparison of laws against turf-cutting to the crimes of the Third Reich and then writing that “Romanian gypsies have been descending on the city [London] in advance of the games so they can engage in their traditional cultural practice — thieving and begging” seems lost on O’Doherty. On the first, he “squares things up” by pointing out the idiocy of comparing: “Six million dead in the Holocaust, a total of 50 million deaths in the war in total and the complete destruction of Europe and . . . a bunch of pissed-off culchies who can no longer cut their own turf”.

While Ming Flanagan’s outburst was ludicrous, the Holocaust refers only to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Maybe O’Doherty missed the lesson on the gassing of homosexuals, Marxists, Christians and … gypsies.

In his ignorance, Little Littlejohn has an original and creative suggestion to deal with this menace (that he read about in the always reliable Daily Express last Tuesday):

“… send in the cops, round them all up, crack a few heads and put them on the next plane back to Bucharest”.

Hooray. Night sticks and forced repatriation. Because nobody has tried that before. But then, O’Doherty has form:

“… when you have a dispossessed, disenfranchised working class which, rightly or wrongly, feels that more consideration is given to immigrants and religious fanatics than to the indigenous population, then sooner or later things are going to get ugly.

And when you have a political class which states that anyone who has concerns about the Islamicisation of Europe is a racist, eventually people are going to say … OK, call me racist.”

OK. you’re a racist. And you’re not funny.

Apologies to Mark Twain* for bowdlerising his quote, but it has happened again – somebody has made something up on the internet, without a thought for fact-checking or journalistic integrity. What’s worse is they then used the unregulated media of Twitter and Facebook to spread these lies. Worse still, this latest fabrication sullies the name of that fair and balanced journalistic institution, Fox News. Laugh? I nearly tweeted.

Padraig Belton, in the Irish Independent, told us yesterday that the world is not always as it seems. To support this skeptical world-view, he cites the infamous “Brian Cowen hangover” interview and this picture that did the rounds last week:

Photoshopped screengrab of Fox News Toolooz

Fox News. It's bad, but not this bad

Belton says:

In both cases, social media and citizen-journalism – not long prior heralded engines of a new democratic dispensation – were manipulated in political hatchet jobs.

Political hatchet jobs? I can see how the Cowen interview may have been politically motivated, but what’s the political motivation for “Fox News is rubbish”? Even if you could answer that, who cares? It’s not meant to be journalism. It’s meant to be a joke.

To illustrate the dangers of photo manipulation, he could have used North Korea’s nine-foot soldier, or Iran’s cloning-tool wars.  But he wanted to illustrate the threat of Twitter, so chose a joke.

That joke took a report of a multiple murder and tried to get a laugh at the expense of a cable channel renowned for screaming hyperbole and screw-ups. For example, the original, undoctored image was taken from a Fox News broadcast in which they mistakenly used a picture of Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live to illustrate an item on Sarah Palin. Here’s the video (if you can trust it):

Belton then trots out a litany of other supposed deceptions, some of them nothing to do with Twitter or Facebook – such as the Sunday Times using an illustration of John ‘Soap’ MacTavish, a character from the Call of Duty game, in a graphic of a failed hostage raid – and some of them actually unearthed by social media themselves, such as ITV’s mistaken use of video game footage in a documentary about IRA links to Gaddafi:

Jokes aren’t journalism

It is Belton’s mixing and mashing of media and platforms – very 21st century for such an avowedly traditional journalist – as he takes in broadcasters, papers, Twitter, Facebook , Wikipedia, and Youtube, that makes his point so hard to pin down.

The Fox News image is a joke. The Guardian’s Cowen tape and ITV’s IRA documentary were inadvertent foul-ups. The 50-cent commenters of China and Wikipedia editors of Capitol Hill are engaged in politics less filthy than the past (remember ‘ratfucking‘?). The  RTE-bashing over the Sean Gallagher debate continues the Indo’s delusion that a false tweet lost him the presidential election rather than his floundering inability to decisively rebut its fabricated content on the night.

So what is Belton’s point? If it were simply “do not believe everything you read online”, well, duh. However, he concludes:

Quality journalism, employing social media like Dorian’s portrait to preserve the likeness of vitality, is too quick to abandon its fact-checking traditions.

That sounds depressingly like a newspaperman putting his own trade on a pedestal of probity (despite every print journalist you ever met knowing someone who has massaged a quote, fudged a statistic, or concealed one of their screw-ups). Belton is in good company – John Fleming had a go at Twitter a couple of weeks ago on Hugh Linehan’s Irish Times blog, John Waters has borne the internet curmudgeon’s cross for the Irish Daily Mail (they don’t put his columns online, funnily enough), and Eamon Delaney maintains, terrifyingly, that we should regulate what has become a “cacophony of noise, but at the lowest common denominator”. Conor Brady and Alan Crosbie have both supported calls for State support of the press, which would just bring regulation by another route.

Time for some whataboutery

Donald Segretti faked a letter to discredit one of Nixon’s political rivals. Newspapers followed it up, yet nobody denounced the postal service as a network used by liars. The Sunday Times agreed to print the “grotesquely … fake” Hitler diaries, yet the writing and serialisation of memoirs remains inexplicably legal. If a newsroom takes an anonymous call that contains libellous information, we do not blame the telephone network. If a lobby journalist misinterprets a hand-written note from one minister to another, we do not call for the regulation of paper and pencil.

If a journalist prints or broadcasts material from social media networks, or wikipedia, or a message board, or email, and never bothers to check whether it is true, it is not a failure of the internet, it is a failure by the journalist.  

Flesh-and-blood sources feed bullshit and PR bumf to journalists in person and on paper every day, but they have developed tools for sniffing it out. Newspapers should be extending the use of these tools online and developing new ones when they fail, rather than indulging in this incessant hand-wringing over media their correspondents barely understand and rarely use. Complaining about the climate isn’t going to change it.

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar”

– this one is really by Mark Twain. *The one in the headline is by his friend, Charles Dudley Warner. I knew that, but wrote it anyway.

A fact. It seems like the simplest, most unshakeable thing in the world. But so few people seem to understand what it means. A fact is something we know to have taken place.

Something that somebody says happened is an allegation. It stays an allegation until some evidence or testimony is produced that confirms it. That is how the law works. That is a fact.

In the flurry of internet postings about Kate Fitzgerald’s sad last days, facts are sadly lacking. That is largely because in Kate’s last article for the Irish Times, facts were lacking. She wrote it under a pseudonym, one assumes, for a reason. She didn’t want to embarrass her employer or her friends, perhaps. She certainly didn’t name any of them. However, she made at least one serious allegation, that her employers acted “illegally”.

As long as her employer remained unknown, that allegation was not an issue. Her employer was The Communications Clinic, as every dog in the street now knows.

The minute that information became known, Kate’s allegation became legally actionable. By the time it was published, she was dead. Without Kate to testify that her allegation was true, the Irish Times could not put it to The Communications Clinic and they could not  hope to eventually face their accuser. In Ireland, the dead have no legal reputation to protect. Until a court finds otherwise, The Communications Clinic is entitled to its good name. Like it or not, that is the law. That is a fact.

The anger at this reality is palpable, but it is not immediately clear from where it all comes. Some of it is intemperate and misguided — commentators on broadsheet.ie and the Irish Times Facebook page have confused Kate’s story with the case of Karagh Fox, a woman who claimed she was bullied by the Communications Clinic. The case settled out of court.

Others accuse Peter Murtagh of “outing” Kate as the anonymous author, when it was her parents who contacted him. Many demand that Kevin O’Sullivan, the editor of the Irish Times, reinstate allegations for which he can provide no evidence. Craziest of all, others still suggest that Terry Prone runs some sort of Illuminati-like PR agency that controls, unchallenged, the Irish political and media landscape. The mob suggests that the Times, having given into unproven pressure from the supposedly unaccountable Prone, can redeem itself by giving in to pressure from utterly unaccountable Facebook members.

We are into the territory of people believing in conspiracy over cock-up and, frankly, it’s not credible. Nor, unfortunately, is it easily combatible. The web has, yet again, made somewhat an ass of the law.

Be in no doubt, the Irish Times has botched the handling of this from start to finish. Reading between the lines of Hugh Linehan’s post today suggests they are well aware of it. But it is possible to do the right thing, legally, ethically and journalistically and still be painted as the bad guy in the minds of the public.

“Explaining is losing” is bullshit. Some reasonable commentators are finally emerging and as Hugh pointed out there are most certainly lessons to be learned. A refresher course in when to use pseudonymous sources and a seminar in jigsaw identification, for starters.  But no amount of mob rule, no matter how emotive the issue, should sway the editor to reinstate an article he is not convinced is factual.

Anyone who wants to continue the vitriolic campaign against the Times, I suggest they go read this post from Colette Browne. It may remind you of the more important message at the centre of all this.

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Purely in the interests of disclosure, I worked for the Irish Times a decade or so ago, and with Hugh Linehan specifically. He’d be the first to tell you he had no influence on my opinions

The doctored image, left

PetaPixel and Charles Apple both posted on this yesterday. The image, originally by Reuters, is clearly photoshopped to remove the woman in the middle and cropped to remove the man on the right.

I’m not sure how I feel about it. I did or commissioned similar things for feature or analysis pages at my last paper. The cover is a different country, but still not sure it doesn’t tell a good story well. This isn’t a daily newspaper, after all, and they do often use more obviously manipulated photos on their fronts.

The New York Times’s Media Decoder carries a response from the duty editor at the Economist, Emma Duncan, who makes much the same points.

Is it just me or does her explanation ring true?