The prime directive: Do not lie
: I got pretty shocking email from a journalism student at NYU, who also sent it to Steven Levy at Newsweek. I’ll not give the student’s name in hopes that he or she will learn the lesson and not be Googled with it forever. But I will quote the email because there is an important lesson here:
Hi, I’m a student of …
I am writing an article on fact-checking in blogs.
I have two questions.
Recently, sent Gawker.com a fake tip (said I heard Moby say to a little girl, “Don’t ever say that Teany [Moby’s tea store] is Shitty”). They posted it in their “Reader Sitings” section. I e-mailed them and said it was fake. But they posted no correction and the fake tip is still on their site.
Do you think Gawker should be held responsible for any damages against Moby? Do they have a responsibility to fact-check reader tips, do you think?
I had a very simple response to this student: “You are responsible.” Ethically and otherwise.
Gawker puts up notes from readers and clearly labels it: “Sightings are sent in by readers.” Any reader with a two-digit IQ and any experience with this medium and the internet knows that readers can publish anything anywhere and so, caveat reader.
If this would-be journalist simply asked Gawker, I’ll bet they would have given an answer. Ask me about the comments here or the posts in a forum and I’ll tell you quite clearly: Nothing is vetted or edited. That’s obvious. But if you were a good reporter, you’d ask the question. And if you did not get an answer, you still should not resort to what you did. You lied.
And that, correspondent, is the most basic journalism lesson you will ever receive. That is your prime directive as a journalist. That is Rule No. 1:
Do not lie.
Trust is our only asset. Truth is its only measure. Ask Jayson Blair.
Do not lie.
As a reporter, would you call the Fire Department with a false alarm just to see how fast they came? If you did, you’d go to jail and deserve it. Would you lie about a stock online to see what happened to its price? If you did, you’d go to jail and get sued and deserve it.
You make it even worse, then, by emailing your lie to two journalists. So you defamed not only Moby but Gawker. In fact, I don’t think any harm is done here. But with different players, you could, indeed, do harm to your subjects and your own reputation and the credibility of the journalists you ensare.
You also lied about your own identity: You did not reveal yourself as a would-be journalist. In an age of transparency, that, too, is becoming ethical lapse.
So, dear student, if you were in my class, I’d give you an F on this assignment (at least). I would assign you to apologize to those you tried to smear with your little lie. And I would hope that you would learn the most important lesson in journalism: Telling the truth is hard enough without lying.
(Oh, and by the way, it might help if you copy-edited your emails before sending them.)
: UPDATE: See in the comments, Lockhart Steele, editorial director of Gawker Media, says that they didn’t receive notice of the “correction” but have since X’ed it out. The same person hit Lockhart’s own Curbed.
Also, I neglected to add the full disclosure that most know but that should have been added specifically to this post: I am friends with Gawker Media and its founder, Nick Denton.