As Business Models Change, We Must Not Lose Journalistic Values

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“Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.” – Abraham Lincoln

Clearly, a made-up quote. Lincoln would have said it far better than that.

Sadly, many other made-up quotes and stories make the rounds online every day. Many are reasonably harmless, but others are impacting some of the most important decisions we face.

The recent election cycle gave us a daily potpourri of stories ranging from half-truths to outright lies. Some of my favorites from this page on the outstanding

  • Members of Congress and their families don’t have to pay back student loans. Nope. Federal workers, which includes some Congressional employees, are eligible to have student loans repaid after several years of service. Not true for members of Congress or their families.
  • President Obama does not deny emergency brain surgery to patients over 70. 
  • Mitt Romney’s son Tagg does not own all the voting machines in Ohio. And his private equity firm stated they have no financial interest in Hart InterCivic, the company that does.
  • There is no bill before Congress that will give Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants.
  • Michelle Obama’s brother’s job was not saved by money from stimulus funds. Craig Robinson, the brother in question, is the head basketball coach for Oregon State University, which did not receive stimulus funds for salaries. Or more basketballs.

Many Internet and email rumors are so absurd they’re laughable. Sadly, too many are sharing them without a second thought — or a second source — in order to further a point of few. Recently, however, even professional journalists were sucked in.

NPR’s On the Media recently covered the story of Neda Soltani, a young woman identified in media outlets around the world as the woman murdered in an Iranian protest in 2009 — a crime caught on a cell phone camera and broadcast around the world. However, it was a case of mistaken identity. The victim was Neda Agha-Soltan — similar name, but not the same person. Protesters the world over held signs with the wrong Neda’s face. Neda Soltani, whose photo was erroneously grabbed from her Facebook profile, is still very much alive.

Media outlets, including CNN and Fox News, ran with the wrong Neda’s photo and broadcast it globally again and again. Time labeled the crime the most witnessed murder in world history.

Far from a harmless or laughable mistake, Neda Soltani began to receive hate mail and threats for, as she said in an NPR interview, “distorting the face of a true hero.

“People were arguing that I was an agent of the Islamic Republic, that the photo did not belong to me,” she said. “They had seen it everywhere on the media. Of course, they would believe the media. People started calling me a whore, a bitch, a slut, whatever you can imagine. And then my situation got dangerous once the Iranian Secret Service realized that there had been a mistake. They came for me and they started trying to use what has happened to me to their own advantage.”

Since she refused to cooperate with Iranian authorities to paint the mistake as a conspiracy, she was threatened with a charge of treason, which carries the death penalty in Iran. As a result, she fled the country and is now a visiting scholar at Montclair State University and author of My Stolen Face:  The  Story of a Dramatic Mistake.

The lesson? We’re all guilty of seeing something on Facebook or Twitter and sharing the post without checking, but it’s a practice we should resist. In Neda’s case, trusted media outlets — despite her efforts to stop them — proliferated a lie by jumping on the bandwagon instead of checking the facts. In an age of minute-by-minute news cycles, we must all value getting it right more than getting it first. The business model of journalism is changing, as it should. The values of journalism must remain steadfast.

So before you send an email or share a post on Facebook that the ACLU has filed suit to remove cross-shaped headstones from military cemeteries (they haven’t, but it’s another of my favorite 2012 election cycle rumors) check it out. Let’s share the facts and leave the rest to the fiction sections, wherever they may be.

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