A reliable source of unreliable information

The last few days have been a news editor’s wet dream: a massacre and a dead celebrity. Journalists would have been called in on their day off BECAUSE IT’S A NEWS EMERGENCY. And once the online journos have raided the photo library for galleries, and scoured the internet for every bit of salacious gossip that can be dressed up as news (hey, if you put inverted commas around it, then you don’t need to verify it, right?), the boss will be buying pizza for everyone to celebrate (I know this from experience). The excitement in the newsroom is actually quite disgusting.

If you look at where the stories come from, almost all will be British tabloid re-writes. As though a British tabloid is a reliable source of information. (There’s another issue here, in that everyone assumes that someone else has checked the story and verified all the claims. But that’s another post.)

And so we have this at news.com.au:

Amy Winehouse story

News.com.au, reliably reporting unreliable information.

That she bought coke and ketamine earlier that night is just an unverified claim from an unnamed source The Sun found in a pub, so it should be ‘Coke, ketamine’. And treated with a bucket of salt. But why let punctuation get in the way of a drug headline. (Also, a coke and ketamine night isn’t exactly sordid. Or unusual for many people in the UK and Australia. It shits me to tears when journalists act all pious over drug-taking. I’ve been to News Christmas parties and they are not examples of clean living. And like many workplaces, Tuesdays are grumpy days in newsrooms.)

The story itself is yet another re-write from The Daily Mail: Claims Amy Winehouse bought ‘cocktail of drugs’ on night she died:

DETAILS of how Amy Winehouse spent her final hours have emerged, with claims she bought a cocktail of drugs before her tragic death.

That doesn’t even make sense. Either the “details have emerged” (what a cliche) or they’re just unverified claims. It can’t be both.

And what gives any journalist – particularly one on the other side of the world – the right to report that someone died from a drug overdose before the cause of death has been established? Unless that journalist was with the person when they died, then it’s just speculation designed to get people to read a story, which is good for advertising. We’re talking about a celebrity whose music is loved by millions – people will still read the story if you don’t put drugs in the headline. And when the results of the autopsy are released, then you can report that. You know, like journalists are supposed to do.

The story has been updated since I first read it, and is now shouting about how Winehouse MAY HAVE BEEN DEAD FOR A FEW HOURS BEFORE SHE WAS FOUND, OH MY GOD! What a ridiculous piece of hysterical reporting.

I’m not having a go at individual journalists. We’re all guilty of doing things without thinking too deeply about the words we’re using. But Australian journalism has a serious credibility problem, and this is not a problem you want to have when you’re facing paywalls on websites. Here’s a radical suggestion: why not make the product worth paying for?

15 responses to “A reliable source of unreliable information

  1. And people will repeat it, and then when they hear differently, they will say, ‘Oh no, I heard that it was…”
    Bit stunned by how much space people were giving Amy Winehouse on Facebook yesterday, compared to how little space the Norway massacre and bombing got.

    • I can see why people might feel more connected to the Amy Winehouse story – they know her music, know what she looks like. But still… you don’t need to know one of the bombing and massacre victims to talk about how horrific it is.

  2. It’s also easier to toss off a comment about Amy Winehouse – she’s not a particularly sympathetic character, and she’s easy to condense into a, I don’t know, little socio-cultural event thingie. The Norway thing is pretty big and unwieldy, I mean, what can you say, quickly, about it?

    • That’s true, L. You don’t need to know much about Amy Winehouse to be able to comment on it. But it’s also true that you don’t need to know much about what happened in Norway to be able to say “what a horrible thing”. Welcome to the News with Nipples.

      • Thanks for the welcome, long time reader, first time commenter.
        When so many people now engage in citizen journalism, I think there is an expectation that they will comment about newsworthy stories, like the Norwegian massacre. I’m not sure why I think there’s a difference between commenting about a disaster, and commenting about the smaller disaster of someone’s life. I didn’t say anything about either, I don’t think, either on FB or my blog.

    • Most people were very sympathetic, and there was a lot of discussion about mental illness and/or drug disorders and/or support networks.

  3. Since I cannot bring myself to read anything about the Norwegian massacre yet all I wanted to do yesterday was to listen to Amy Winehouse tracks.

    When people have just died is it more appropriate to (a) pick over the carcass or (b) find the good in their lives and celebrate it?

    Having sat through the endless ‘what happened in that Tunnel’ Princess Diana death stories over a decade ago, I made a pact with myself never to read another newspaper postmortem. My avoidance of the massacre is for the same reason – until I know why/how this happened and IF there is anything that can be learned from/done to prevent it, I’ll just concentrate on and celebrate the music.

  4. I’m really uncomfortable with the words ‘sordid’ and ‘tragic’ both being used there. It smacks of “oh, Amy Winehouse is dead, how sad… but clearly it’s her own fault, right?”

  5. I’ve always attempted to make a concerted effort to learn as much as I can about something, be it a person, subject or story, before forming an opinion. Attempted is the key word. But given some of the things that I’ve read in media over the past few months, I’ve come up with a seemingly surefire way to circumvent the learning and still arrive an intelligent conclusion: if I read it in a certain publication, I assume it’s unreliable (and probably totally off the mark) until proven otherwise. Damn, I’m getting cynical in my old age…

    My “favourite” quote from the Amy Winehouse coverage thus far appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Monday:

    “Another source from one Camden pub told the tabloid…”

    The use of the words source, pub and tabloid in the same sentence make me nervous. That, and make me wonder why the hell I am reading the article.


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