In the era of fake news, one huge media dilemma
What to do with uncorroborated report on Russian intelligence-gathering
January 12, 2017
Prostitutes romping with Donald Trump in hotel rooms in Moscow.
“Golden showers” requested by the United States president elect. (Look it up if you don’t know—it may well be the catchphrase of 2017.)
Secret meetings between Trump staffers and Kremlin officials.
Russian diplomats wheeling, dealing and flattering the real estate mogul to act in their best interests rather than his own country’s.
Do you believe any of this?
Today it probably doesn’t matter whether you do or not. Actually, at some level it probably doesn’t even matter whether any of it is true or not.
It’s all out there, true or not. The story is leading the news in the U.S. and across the world, and it’s turning out to be a major crisis for U.S. media.
How do you report a story based on a dossier floating around Washington containing sensational disclosures about a major public figure–Trump here–that can’t be verified?
It’s one of those stories that’s going to break at some point.
But who will break it, just how much of the allegations will they disclose, and how will they handle the very critical fact that none of allegations can be verified?
And how do you handle the outrage from Trump and supporters when the story does break, as it did yesterday at a Trump press conference in which he blasted the media once again?
That’s been the challenge facing newsrooms across the country since Tuesday afternoon, and it’s been further complicated by the ongoing fake news crisis that played such a key role in the elections.
How, in this era of fake news, do you report a story that’s so sensational that it appears to stretch even the most outlandish standards of fake news?
Different news outlets handled the story quite differently.
What is known about the document
Here’s what is known.
The dossier, several dozen pages in length, was prepared by a former British intelligence official Christopher Steele, now working for a private security firm.
The firm was reportedly hired by Republican interests during the primary season, presumably by a candidate or someone working in the interest of a candidate. But who that candidate might be is not known.
The dossier then found its way around Washington over recent months, ending up in the hands of reporters, politicians of both parties, the FBI and intelligence officials. Its existence was widely known.
CNN broke the story Tuesday afternoon. It revealed the existence of the dossier, that it contained sensational charges, but published only those details it could independently verify.
BuzzFeed then published the full document, noting it contained factual errors and that the allegations it contained could not be verified.
It essentially left it to readers to make their own decisions as to its believability. The site argued that American citizens had a right to see the information to decide for themselves what to believe about the president elect, in light of the seriousness of the accusations.
“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers,” editor Ben Smith wrote in a staff memo. “We have always erred on the side of publishing.”
Other news organizations’ takes
The New York Times used the word “unsubstantiated” in its headline and did not publish the document, but it did make specific references to its content, including allegations of Trump hiring prostitutes in Russia. Executive editor Dean Baquet stood by the paper’s reporting, saying it would not publish information it could not verify.
The Washington Post called the report “unconfirmed claims” but said intelligence officials believed the source of the document was “credible enough” to warrant publishing. But the Post’s ombudsman ripped BuzzFeed for printing the document.
Fox News, which counts several big-name Trump supporters among its hosts, posted stories about the document but didn’t publish it. It put a story about Russia and Trump’s denials of the content of the document at the top of its homepage, noting Trump’s use of “fake news” to describe the document.
The Wall Street Journal backed up various parts of the narrative but used independent reporting to poke holes in other parts, such as a claim in the document that Trump attorney Michael Cohen had met with Kremlin officials in Prague.
Poynter’s media ethicist called the BuzzFeed decision “irresponsible” and said journalists’ job should be vetting the document to determine if it’s true before publishing it.
But the Columbia Journalism Review disagreed, saying BuzzFeed was right to print the dossier.
The editors of Media Life agree. Too many journalists worry about their low standing in the public’s esteem and believe their image is further tarnished by stories such as this one.
But the role of the press in a free society is not to polish up its image with the public but to publish stories that are out there, being talked about, and in some way shaping public discussion.
If some members of the public think less of them for doing so, too bad. Maybe those journalists should take up another line of work.
After nearly 18 years, it’s time to say good-bye
Yet more evidence native advertising doesn’t work
A new type of cord-cutting: Snipping broadband
Coming, the collapse of radio’s iHeartMedia
Weeklies: Surviving if not thriving in digital age
Tweeter in chief: How Trump could save Twitter
Shows Trump hates are seeing big ad gains
Broadcast vs. cable: How the top shows stack up
A sign that coughs at your cigarette smoke
The word: Time Inc. sale is imminent
Rundown: Which advertisers have jumped from YouTube
Media Life’s Digital Media Transparency Initiative
HBO does hard time with Dwayne Johnson
- Arun Kumar becomes chief data and marketing tech officer at IPG
- Jenny Campbell rises to managing director at 72andSunny
- Adam Crandall becomes director of strategy at mono
- Mark Wildman rises to EVP of partnerships at Westwood One
- Kevin Craig rises to SVP of newspaper relations at AMG/Parade
- Bill Corvalan becomes VP of West Coast partnerships at AllOver Media
- Richard Just becomes editor at The Washington Post Magazine
- Gemma Lawson rises to VP and design director at Nickelodeon
- Ashley Judd joins Epix' 'Berlin Station'
- Former NBC ad sales executive Robert Blackmore dies at age 90
This week’s broadcast ratings
This week’s cable ratings
This week’s top-rated movies, songs and books
This week’s daypart ratings
This month’s digital traffic data: December 2016
Ad sales rep for a digital-only magazine
Freelance media planner/buyer available for all markets
Wanted: Media buyer in Philadelphia
Paid social media planner wanted in Detroit
Opening for a media planner at a top OOH agency