Journalistic Accuracy? — ‘Too Good to Be True’

The Associated Press‘ Shawn Pogatchnik (5/12/09) has the incredible and deeply alarming story of Dublin sociology student Shane Fitzgerald having “posted a poetic but phony quote on Wikipedia” just as the world’s reporters were writing up the March 18 death of composer Maurice Jarre. Intended for “testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news,” Fitzgerald’s fib “flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper websites in Britain, Australia and India”–in short, “Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.”

“They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia quickly caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it, but not quickly enough to keep some journalists from cutting and pasting it first”–and from there it only gets more embarrassing:

A full month went by and nobody noticed the editorial fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets in an e-mail and the corrections began….

So far, the [London] Guardian is the only publication to make a public mea culpa, while others have eliminated or amended their online obituaries without any reference to the original version–or in a few cases, still are citing Fitzgerald’s florid prose weeks after he pointed out its true origin.

If anything, Fitzgerald said, he expected newspapers to avoid his quote because it had no link to a source–and even might trigger alarms as “too good to be true.” But many blogs and several newspapers used the quotes at the start or finish of their obituaries.

Not only did the Guardian honestly own up to its mistake, but readers’ editor Siobhain Butterworth got “the moral of this story” right in her May 4 column on the episode: It’s “not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source.” For his part, Fitzgerald himself now is “100 percent convinced that if I hadn’t come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up,” and in doing so “would have become another example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact.”