The prime directive: Do not lie

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 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.

  • “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. ”
    As a reporter, would you set up some protesters to go in and heckle conservatives so you could report on it? If you did, you’d fit in just fine with the BBC.

  • Sounds like the NYU journalism school is as ethically challenged as Columbia’s.

  • The student appeared, and the Mentor was ready.
    Well done, Jeff

  • paladin

    Jeff, did you contact Jay Rosen, or someone at the NYU J-school? I’d think someone there would be interested in this little scam.

  • Donald E. L. Johnson

    Shouldn’t the student send a correction to Gawker? Wouldn’t Gawker then post the correction? Has anyone notified G?
    Why are people surprised? A huge percentage of Americans think nothing of lying and cheating “a little.” Some study journalism, and some are reporters, I assume.
    my url still is being blocked.

  • Gawker, to my knowledge, did not get the correction.
    It’s our policy to correct known errors, of course, though as Jeff states, reader sightings are buyer beware. I’ll add a strikethrough to the entry.
    Moby’s Little Tipster hit Curbed as well, by the way. Details and follow-up correction here.

  • A little girl

    So is Teany shitty or not? I would still like to know.

  • Paladin said: “Jeff, did you contact Jay Rosen, or someone at the NYU J-school? I’d think someone there would be interested in this little scam.”
    I believe Jeff Jarvis did a very good job giving a lesson.
    But going further in order to ruin this person’s educational life would be cruel.
    People make mistakes – especially when they are young.
    People deserve second chances.
    Casting stones is easy.
    Teaching a good lesson is not.

  • paladin

    To soci: do we really need more liars in the press? Why protect liars in the larvae stage when we can kill them before they do harm?

  • Ryan

    As much as I agree that the NYU student’s actions were unethical, she kind of proved her point, no?

  • Paw

    As Ryan indicates, didn’t this student simply prove, in this experiment, that blogging is not journalism and thus not actually news? I’m not referring to a specific blog but the act of blogging in general. By their own admission, Gawker states that reader items are not verified. Should we then expect people that submit items to Gawker to follow some journalistic credo of truth and be surprised when they don’t?
    Publicists lie to newspapers every day. Their items are printed right along side so-called “legitimate” news. Hasn’t the student proven how easy it is to exploit a medium that doesn’t bother to prove the veracity of what it posts? Doesn’t that make blogging more like grafitti (sp?) than anything else?

  • So when a reporter in Iraq takes an early report and says that a tractor trailer was being used to make WMDs and it turned out it was being made to make yogurt, is that journalism? When it’s corrected, it is, eh?
    See the note from the editorial director of Gawker Media (Lock); it’s corrected.
    No one says that forums and such features as reader sightings are journalism. They are what they are: interactivity.
    In the future, that will be PART of informing the public. The forums on my dayjob sites have lots of useful information. But they are not vetted and not edited and so you have to judge them just as you judge that fog-of-war account from Iraq.
    People will be wrong. The hope is that they are honest mistakes, that they acted in good faith. This student did not act in good faith.

  • Disclaimer: I am friends with the Gawker Media people, love their stuff, but…
    I think some of you are missing the point here, ruthlessly attacking a student with an interesting premise, and quite frankly not being very nice about it. Is it relevant to study if blogs can be credible news sources? Seems like people are always talking about that. If blogs are supposed to keep MSM honest, then is it fair to keep blogs honest, or more importantly, to find out how much they care about getting it right?
    Look, she did a very harmless thing by faking a celebrity tip to see how blogs react to it. (In the scheme of things, who cares? The celebrity gossip trade is part of the business and entire publications devote themselves to it. It’s not a crisis worthy of police action. To compare it to a false fire alarm or fake stock tip is an absurd exaggeration.) reported the item too and the only thing more ridiculous then sending the tip in is publishing it. Moby berates a 6 year-old at 2am on the Lower East Side? Does that even remotely sound possible? The fact these blogs would print it just goes to show you how some will print anything.
    I love blogs that act as news aggregators and throw insightful (or at least humorous) commentary on top of it. That’s what blogs do best, act as an intelligent filter so we know the worthy stories being reported by the MSM. (Come on, these are the basics of the medium.) When blogs cross the line and actually try to do some reporting not found in MSM sources, is it too much to ask for a little fact-checking?
    Do you really want to run the risk of blogs being permanently described as a recent BusinessWeek profile does, “a combination of hot insider news and just plain wrong information”? Gawker Media blogs are damn-good entertainment and I think readers see it that way. Ana-Marie Cox said at SXSW “we’re not doing journalism!! just commenting on it.” It’s not some horrible injustice of humanity that this student used blogs as a testing ground. Quite clever I think.
    Is it outrageous to plant fake stories? You don’t think this happens all the time? You would hope, if it matters, that a little background effort would be made. If it’s a celebrity tip I don’t think there’s a huge cry for reliable info (unless the claim is made that Tom Cruise was seen having sex in the bathroom with Brad Pitt) but what about other false tips that could affect someone’s business? You don’t think business is ruthless and dirty tactics aren’t deployed? Who’s to stop a NY real estate competitor to trash another with a fake tip sent to Curbed? What is Curbed’s responsibility in checking something like that out before publishing it?
    (This makes me think of the RIAA planting bad song files on Napster to discourage the use of file-sharing. How long before rampant fake tips are sent to blogs? I hope never but I don’t put anything past anybody these days.)
    If you’re concerned about blogs being credible sources of “breaking news” and “original reporting” then I would hope you expect *some* aspects of “old-world journalism” and fact-checking to be respected. On the otherhand, if you’re content to just view blogs as intelligent filters, news aggregators, entertainment, and giant op-ed pieces then this credibility issue is moot. Truthfully, I find myself in the second camp.

  • Paladin: You are ansolutely right. Nobody needs liars in the press. (We have enough of them already.)
    Therefore, I have no intentions whatsoever to protect them.
    However, I believe in the good of people, and the fact that they CAN learn.
    This person in question here is a student – which means s/he is in the process of learning. And people can change (to both ways) – especially when they are young and when they keep themselves open to improvement, better ideas, and higher code of ethics.
    Would I still favor the idea of another chance had s/he been in business as a reporter?
    I only believe that it would be a better world if everyone would prefer to wield the might of convincing first, and not that of punishment, when they happen to experience ethically unacceptable behaviors.
    This is why I liked this post by Jeff Jarvis.

  • To krucoff: What do you think makes the readers of the traditional media a more reliable source of information than blog-commenters?
    Just one fake comment doesn’t prove you right.
    Do you have scientific data to prove that blog-commenters tend to provide false information more than those who write to traditional journalists?
    One more thing… I do both.
    So who can clearly separate people who solely comment on blog entries and people who only pen letters to the editors or columnists?
    And is this really necessary?

  • Paw

    My point, Jeff, was to question your application of a journalistic standard of truth to a non-journalist medium like blogging. We all hope that our fellow human beings try to act in good faith all the time. Many, many do not. Why should we expect them to, when there is no jeopardy involved? Journalists that lie suffer consequences when they are caught. Contributors to blogs do not.
    Would Gawker have bothered to correct the item if the student had not sent you the e-mail and you made it a topic on your blog? I doubt it.
    I guess my definition of the difference between journalism and blogging is the ability, desire and EXPECTATION of fact checking.

  • Socio, I don’t know what you’re talking about. This isn’t about “comments” and none of the blogs in question even have open comments. This is about blogs reporting TIPS sent in by readers. They don’t necessarily (or ever) fact-check them. I’m pretty sure the NYT wouldn’t run a story based on a letter sent in without checking it out first.

  • krucoff: I failed to see the difference.
    You are right. I am wrong.
    NYT is obviously expected to perform a much better verification process of accuracy.

  • paladin

    Hey people, I think many of you missed the fact that the NYU liar also sent this little bogus tidbit to Newsweek. News flash! Newsweek is not a blog.

  • Vetted like memos faked on Microsoft Word, eh? Would CBS canned four folks and launched an investigation in a vacuum? I doubt it.
    Gee, it’s unethical to pass along fake information to news outlets. It’s sad that we’re even having this discussion. Common sense might not be dead, but it sure has been resting a long while.

  • The above should read: “Would CBS have canned…”

  • Paladin, did Newsweek run the tidbit too? I missed that, can you point me to it?

  • Jeff: you certainly should NOT give the student’s name. There are expectations of privacy in personal communications, and even if you despise what the student did, you should respect her/his privacy.
    Further, should your “do not lie” be held as an absolute law? Is not some consumer/investigative reporting about the sale of unsafe cars or spoiled food beneficial to readers/society, even if the reporter only pretended to be a customer?
    As someone noted above, this “lie” is not worthy comparison to stock tips or firehouse pranks. And its not equivalent to the fraud perpetrated by Jayson Blair. What this student did, actually, is a very interesting experiment about fact-checking in comparative media.
    And you didn’t properly answer her question. The fact that Gawker adds the label “Sightings are sent in by readers” does not necessarily absolve them of the responsibility of checking their accuracy. Should they?

  • Paladin/Krucoff: Nothing indicates that the student sent the tidbit to Newsweek. It appears she sent an e-mail to Newsweek seeking reaction (just like Jeff).

  • Michael: My rules say that any email sent to me is fair game. I am not revealing the identity or talking to the instructor out of charity.
    Yes, you’re right: The note was sent to Newsweek for reaction. Though I do find that dubious as well: It’s as if the student is trying to cause a story not just for class but in a national magazine. That could appear to be a vendetta of some sort but I don’t know enough to conclude that. I nonetheless thought it further bad judgment.
    And, Michael, I do think the comparison is apt. In your study of media at NYU, would you lie? I doubt it. For an academic (that’s what you are, right?) it’s questionable enough but for a journalist, it’s inexcusable.
    That’s different from the student not revealing his or her identity; obviously, investigative reporters have for years done that (see the legendary story from the Chicago Sun Times in which reporters ran a bar to see how many times they’d be shaken down; it was a trap but then they did not lie, they were merely not transparent and the ethic of utter transparency is still new and untested).

  • paladin

    Keep on excusing the lies of young larvae journos—you foreclose your right to complain about how the press lies, misrepresents, etc. It doesn’t make any difference to me, I don’t believe what I see in the press anyway, but if you intend to shore up the credibility of the press, don’t give this NYU liar a pass. Personally, I think the kind of deception this NYU larvae displayed should get him/her a nice job in MSM. He/She will fit right in!

  • Mike

    Let’s forget that this person is a journalism student. Now imagine it is just a collegiate blogger trying to demonstrate the value of fact-checking tips from everyday people, and it wasn’t being done for any classroom project. What standards then apply and whom are they applied to?
    I would think that the disclaimer by Gawker and maybe the whole reader submission thing by Gawker is just wrong. Don’t they have to share in the blame for not following up on the tip and just publishing it outright, even with that silly disclaimer?

  • Jeff – you’re assuming that she has visited this site and read your “rules of engagement.” People might obtain your e-mail address by other means, preserving expectations of privacy.
    You’re reading a lot into her asking Newsweek for an opinion. A much simpler reason would be that she wanted to compare an old media (Newsweek) opinion to fact checking to a new media (Buzzmachine) reaction.
    No, I would not lie in my scholarship. But I don’t see how that’s related. The larger (moral) question is whether the use of deception for some “greater good” is acceptable. Cops use deception to catch criminals; and investigative reporters use deception to break stories. She used deception to test the fact-checking at a gossip site.
    In the end, I’m not understanding the point you are trying to make re: investigative journalism. Is her crime making up the story, or not revealing the true reason for her submission of the tidbit, or not revealing the fact that she is a journalism student. I’m just not following the end of your comment there.

  • Ditto Mike. And Jeff, with all due respect, I really don’t know what you’re getting at. Blogging is a fairly new medium and I think it’s fair to test its credibility especially when so many attack it. Hell, why not test MSM on their fact-checking too? (Oh wait, thats what blogs are doing, right?) Everyone is game and should be held to *some* standard.
    Afternoon talk shows like Jerry Springer, etc seemed real exciting (in a demented kind of way) when those fights looked real but when stories came out a lot were staged (totally unknown to the Springer staff) then it became a whole let less interesting.
    Now I’m not saying blogs are in danger of going that route at all. I firmly believe that 99% of the value in blogs is aggregating news in a smart, interesting way. But when they actually break original news, I think it would be nice to know if some fact-checking is done rather than throwing up reader tips with the assumption it could be corrected later.

  • This is a journalism student. I find this utterly unacceptable from someone who wants to be a journalist and I say so. We often talk about maintaining standards and credibility in news. Well, I’d start there: Don’t lie.

  • Andrew: I believe you don’t take comments. Michael: You do. So let’s say I go back in your comments a few weeks and leave a lie there and then tell the object of that lie it’s there and then go tell journalists that you have a lie on your site. I’d bet anything you’d be pissed. It’s not a test. It’s somebody thinking he or she was doing something cute that is not. Even the Enquirer doesn’t do this kind of thing anymore. It’s not journalism. It’s lying.

  • Jeff, that logic is not consistent at all with what we’re talking about. This is not about comments left on a blog. Go ahead, tell a journalist there’s a lie on Michael’s site. When they ask you where it is and you say it’s a *comment* left after the post made by someone else, please try to shield yourself from their laughter. It’s one thing to believe everything you read on blogs, but comments??? Tell me the person who buys that, I got a bridge to sell them.
    We’re talking about reader tips sent into a site’s email address. The writer of the site has 3 options: ignore it, post it, or fact-check and then decide to post or not. 99% of the time this isn’t an issue but clearly there are times to do what “old-world journalists” do. I see no harm in expecting a little bit of fact-checking from bloggers in this case.
    God forbid a journalism student was able to pull the wool over some eyes (burn her at the stake! banish her to the world of publicists!) I sure hope dirty business/political people don’t start doing this. Too cynical? Not in this world.
    (One more thing, I maintain a personal blog at I post mp3’s and write nonsense about my life. There is no need for comments or fact-checking. I did in fact just launch which is an even bigger attempt at nothingness but I do have comments open on that.)

  • I’m still not sure I understand your position on investigative journalism, Jeff. Is it acceptable for a journalist to lie in order to get to the bottom of an important story?
    I see a difference here: lying (using deception) to get a information for a story (what this student did, arguably) vs. lying within an article itself (what Jayson Blair did).
    Are you holding an absolutist position that any lie is morally wrong? Or do you accept that some lies can lead to a greater good?

  • Krucoff: As you well know, having toiled in the Gawker Media vineyards (no?), they solicit these submissions and just put them up because they have no comments or forum. Nobody pulled the wool over eyes; I could lie in this very comment and say you are the spawn of the devil. That’s just a comment. That’s what we’re talking about here: interactivity. This student can find a million places where he or she could go leave a lie — forums, bulletin boards, reader sightings, blogs, chats — and what does that prove except that the student has nothing better to do and that the student sees nothing wrong with lying under the cloak of journalism.
    This is really quite simple: I think that’s wrong.

  • If the post from the comments section was then used as real news, that would show a failure on the sites part. Now not saying that Jeff’s view is wrong, a lie is a lie, regardless of why, but its possible for the sender to lie and the recipient to spread the lie by not verifying as they should. In this case, because the lie was not spread as credible news, the site held its standards.
    The test itself was a false test to begin with by even posting in a comments or reader section of the site. A true test when had been to send to comment to “tips” or “news” address of the site, where an editor would then have to vet it, and one hopes, verify it. If was posted without any attempt to verify then that would show failure on the sites part not the tipster’s part.

  • the student sees nothing wrong with lying under the cloak of journalism.
    Again, I think this student felt she was engaging in investigative journalism, and that making up a silly story about Moby & a little kid (a white lie) was acceptable in order to better understand a very important issue (fact-checking in online media).
    You seem to be saying that this person is morally corrupt/bankrupt becuase of this single white lie. There’s no reason to assume that she goes around lying and could lie about all kinds of things and has nothing better to do. Seems you’re making a straw man out of her tactics in order to ignore the larger issue she’s trying to address.

  • sbw

    We explain to everyone that trust is the only thing we have to sell. Lose it once and you lose it forever.

  • “White lie”? That’s ridiculous.
    A “white lie” might be that the Pope is a nice guy afterall.
    This was a lie. Period. Lie. Falsehood. Made up. Wrong. No basis in fact. Lie. Lie Lie. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
    I’m tired of going back and forth on this now, Michael. We disagree, as always. Fine. I think this was dead wrong.
    NYU may have different standards.
    OK, that was extremely unfair of me.
    But, hey, what’s the harm? Why complain? Eh?…

  • Avatar

    More to the point, the particular episode wasn’t just a single lie (“I saw Tom Cruise last night.”) She also falsely attributed a quote. And on top of that, she made up a story about a popular figure (I’m assuming; I mean, I don’t know much about music, but even I’ve heard of Moby) cursing to a little girl! Yes, yes, I know, it’s way too late in the day to worry about the language involved, but there really are people out there who care about that sort of thing.
    Why’d she do it? Because it was outrageous and attention-getting. THAT’s why this is worth venting some spleen over. THAT is a terrible lesson for a journalism student to learn – that the way to have people pay attention to you is to make up shocking incidents.
    If Jeff printed her name, and you picked up the newspaper and saw an article by her, would that inspire you to trust the content of that article? The only thing you know about this person is that they’re willing to make up quotes.
    It’s analagous to a doctor intentionally losing a patient in surgery to see if his assistants are being attentive. Yes, it’s important to see if they’re doing their job properly, but you’re also a participant in the process; you can’t just do things that are antithetical to your profession just because you’ve got another motive. I don’t want an auto mechanic putting dubious brake pads on my car because he’s trying to expose the bad quality of that manufacturer’s product. And I sure as hell don’t want a journalist making up quotes in order to write a story!

  • Okay, forget about the journalism student. She’s not the point of this. I don’t care if she gets an A or F, or even lights firecrackers up a dog’s butt to get a story. Her ethics have nothing to do with the larger issue here. As someone else said, let’s just say this was some prankster with time on their hands, or worse, someone with malicious intent. (You think these people don’t exist? Welcome to the world and the Internet.) What are the consequences for blogging?
    Let’s go beyond stupid celebrity sightings, how about reporting other kinds of reader tips without fact-checking? Curbed once posted something about a fake gym scam based on a reader tip which happened to not be true. No fact-checking was done. The accused party was very upset, rightly so, and demanded an apology. Would it hurt to even ATTEMPT to do some fact-checking before it reaches that point?
    I care very much about blogs and I don’t want people to think they’re repositories of unchecked gossip and rumor-mongering (as that BusinessWeek article said), *especially* when non-celebrities are involved. You do this enough and you lose credibility.
    Want a great example? Look at today. One of the guest editors emailed Maer Roshan of Radar Magazine to ask about vacation plans or something. With no comment to make about the tanning conditions in Miami, Maer uses the reply to say “oh by the way, Gawker got that launch stuff completely wrong they reported the other week.” So why didn’t Maer respond earlier when it happened? I’ll tell you why, HE DIDN’T CARE and that says a lot. If people read Gawker for serious media scoop he might have felt compelled to right the error when it was published. But Gawker has mired in celebrity gossip and other crap for so long that it is no longer a reliable source of real media gossip.
    (More power to Nick & Co., they went for higher-traffic topics like Paris Hilton and they got it. Want the real media goods? Go to Fishbowl. Spiers has a much higher standard of fact-checking and has told me repeatedly you can’t mix celebrity gossip and media analysis on the same site. I agree with her, it results in watered-down rubbish.)
    One doesn’t even expect it from Gawker anymore, so when they get something wrong, people like Maer don’t even take Gawker seriously enough to respond. Would it have been so hard to email him before running the original post?
    And yes, I’ve guest-edited Gawker a couple times and I learned my lesson big time when I casually published a media gossip tip that a reader sent in. I didn’t do any fact-checking and I ended up on the phone with the scorned party for over an hour and ultimately had to delete a large portion of the post on top of the retraction. The damage was already done by accusing the person of something they didn’t do. Not everyone sees a retraction. And I *hated* doing those celebrity sightings posts. To me, they’re stupid and something I never read anyway cause there’s no credibility to them.
    If it seems like i’m hammering my point incessantly it’s because I care about blogs who fancy themselves legimate news sources. (You seem to.) But I really dont think the Gawker Media sites view themselves as legitimate news sources. They’re news aggregation with witty commentary. That’s entertainment and a kick in the balls, to quote a song by The Jam.
    And Jeff, I say this all with a smile. I agree with you 99.9% of the time. Me and Lock are great friends and we spar playfully everyday on IM over this stuff. He challenged me to make my point here, so I have. Way too many times! I’m sorry and outta here…

  • TG

    This is almost like a parody on a conservative site. Your freakout over this is ridiculous, and you’re just lending credence to the common (and getting more so) notion of journalists as whiny elitist brats.
    As others have pointed out above, this happens daily many times over. And the fact that nobody seems to have caught the BS does not reflect well on the image of blogs of journalism – if you’re taking the position that ‘journalism’ requires a degree of fact-checking. If your argument is that the sites in question don’t check as policy, then that’s at their peril, and it shouldn’t be unexpected that not all tips are legit. And I still couldn’t tell if your freakout is due to this student perhaps, at some point, if lucky, will be an ‘official’ journalist some day. If a business school student had done it it’s okay then?
    If you expect weblogs to maintain and gain in legitimacy, this type of thing has to be dealt with reasonably, without running around with your hair on fire (“This was a lie. Period. Lie. Falsehood. Made up. Wrong. No basis in fact. Lie. Lie Lie. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong”). You think Page Six never got a madeup quote from someone?!
    Stop making it so easy for your detractors.

  • Krucoff:
    No, I won’t forget about the journalism student. That is PRECISELY my point.

  • Jeff – I’m not sure what you’re Pope statement is supposed to mean, but I’m using the term “white lie” in the sense of lying for a greater good or when justifiable due to social convention or pragmatism (e.g., lying when a murderer is at your door and asking if your son is home; police lying to a suspect in order to obtain information; lying to someone who gave you a gift you really don’t like, etc.)
    I’m still not certain as to your position on journalists using deception for investigative reporting, but you have made it clear that any lie – no matter how big or small – is wrong, so I guess that’s that.

  • Michael: I mean that my parents taught me that a “white lie” was something you said not to hurt someone’s feelings, not to be rude. It’s not a lie with an agenda.

  • Arrgh, okay but that certainly seems like a narrow-minded focus to avoid addressing the bigger questions about blogs and their responsibility (if they even have one) to fact-check certain tips lest they become less credible.
    I’m repeating myself for the millionth time but these situations are very rare because blogs by and large are news aggregators or exercises in op-ed punditry, not sources of original facts or real reporting. But it would be nice if they made the extra effort in those few times they venture towards old-world journalism.
    I guess it’s more convenient to ignore those issues and just demonize this girl for attempting to point out a weakness in the blogging medium. How dare she.
    See ya at the next Denton happy hour. I’m short and aiming for your knees!

  • Kurcoff: I’m telling you why I posted this, what my point was. It’s that a journalism student lied in the course of what he or she thought was journalism. That’s the bud I’m trying to nip. The fact that people lie? Well, there’s no news in that, no scandal, even. But a journalism student being taught — or self-taught — to lie; that’s bad news to me. You have other points and that’s fine. But that was my point.

  • Okay okay, that’s your point and it’s taken. I’m sorry for attempting to explore the ramifications of “bogus tips” on blogging. I admit I’m a little more interested in that than a student lying. I care about the future of blogging, not hers.

  • As I said, you have your point and that’s fine — that’s great. I’m just explaining why I posted this and how far I went with it. If you and others want to go farther, that’s what blogs and comments were made for … but now the conch is yours.

  • Mr. Zimmer,
    “I’m still not sure I understand your position on investigative journalism, Jeff. Is it acceptable for a journalist to lie in order to get to the bottom of an important story?”
    I’m not Jeff (obviously), just a news consumer. But here’s where I see a difference between an investigative reporter with a cover story and what this would-be journalist did.
    The investigative reporter misrepresents only himself or herself. Assuming an ethical, unbiased reporter, the actual facts in the story aren’t misrepresented. Yes, the cover story is a falsehood; but it’s a falsehood with no measurable harm to anyone, and it serves the positive good of truth in the story.
    But this would-be journalist misrepresented not himself or herself, but rather Moby. Now his or her rationale — trying to demonstrate the level of blog fact-checking — may have some value. But the would-be journalist committed a small but real harm to someone in the process.
    Is it a large enough harm to matter? Don’t ask me, ask Moby. But to me, there’s a difference between saying, “I’m a meat packer, hire me (so I can prove that your meat is substandard)” and saying, “Moby’s mean to little kids (not really, but see how gullible Gawker is).”
    And to paraphrase Jeff: do not lie — to the public. If you’re a journalist, that has to be the rule. The would-be journalist published a false story (through the auspices of Gawker). That demonstrates a willingness to lie to the public “for the greater good”; and from that point forward, every reader who reads the would-be journalist’s work will have to ask, “Is this true? Or is it a lie ‘for my own good’?” As a news consumer, I’ll assume a lie from that point forward.

  • TG

    “The would-be journalist published a false story (through the auspices of Gawker). ”
    No. Gawker published it. The student submitted it to Gawker for consideration by the editor[s]: [email protected]
    If the student “committed a small but real harm to someone in the process”, is Gawker (in this case) not also complicit in that crime – or magnifying the crime by printing unsubstantiated tips from (probably often) anonymous tipsters? Or is “sent in by readers” and the implicit “ergo, not fact-checked” a viable disclaimer?
    I think the point is, the context matters. I don’t know the full extent of the student’s “project”, but if the false story was peddled to less, let’s say “irreverent” publications, and contained (false) facts of a bit weightier tone, I’d think some of this reaction would be reasonable. In this case it’s more akin to someone bitching that The Onion isn’t properly fact-checking all their pieces.

  • “Let the reader beware” = Caveat lector.

  • UML Guy – thanks, and I think you’re right that there is a difference between investigative journalism and this student’s actions. I’ve just been trying to take Jeff’s “do not lie” mandate and see how it would apply to investigative journalism in general, and get his opinion on it. He hasn’t really answered that question (not sure why). But I think you’re paraphrasing is a good guess: “Do not lie – to the public.”
    In a difference scenario, if this student made up a tidbit that didn’t involve real people, would it have been acceptable?

  • Try this on for size:
    An investigative reporter is, oftentimes, not transparent (to understate it). The reporter may not reveal he is a reporter (which, in an age of transparency, does cause issues). The reporter may indeed lie about his identity — say, putting waitressing experience on her resume to get a job waitressing in Denny’s to expose its policies (and I’ve always been uncomfortable with such a lie).
    In this case, the journalism student went one big step further and knowingly propagated in media something he or she knew to be a lie and knew to be injurious to one or both parties involved (thus the question about who should be liable for damage to Moby — not taking any responsibity for that him or herself). Further, this student did it as an exercise in a journalism class, where students should, I hope, be learning the principles of journalism first. So you’re right to say that what’s behind this is “don’t lie — to the public” and I take that further and say that even in investigative journalism “try not to lie — ever” is a good rule, for if you lie once, people will be free to wonder when your lying at other times. Credibility is our only asset and all that.

  • Well said, Jeff. Thanks.

  • Ryan

    I really enjoyed the J-school student’s experiment. With blogs receiving so much attention lately as an complement or even a “replacement” of the MSM, she effectively showed some real vulnerabilties that will need to be addressed if blogs are going to be taken seriously. Yes, she shouldn’t have lied; however, she showed that anyone, anywhere can make up a ridiculous story and there’s a good chance it’ll not only get published by one of the most popular blogs on the web, but picked up by at least one other one. I, for one, think it was a worthwhile experiment.
    On a much, much smaller scale, I compare it to the Stanley Milgram/obedience psychology experiment — should Milgram have subjected the participants to knowing that many of them would have permanently damaged a human being if a man in a white coat ordered them to do so? No, and this type of experiment would never be allowed in today’s day and age. But did it further our understanding of human nature? Yes. The J-school student was certainly wrong in what she did, but she’s helping us understand this new medium and its ramifications. Even if we don’t like what we’ve learned.

  • KEW

    I’m late to the discussion and it looks like it’s over but I’ll give my two cents in any case. I agree with Ryan and the others who find what the student did an interesting experiment. Did she lie to the media? If she doesn’t believe blogs are legitimate media than the answer is no, or at the least she proved a valuable point. How can you call something legitimate if it doesn’t fact-check? Taking part in the spreading of lies, even if you’re unaware the information provided by a tipster is wrong, is not a system we want to encourage. You can expel this girl if what you think she did was so horribly wrong but it still doesn’t erase the fact that blogs are easily manipulated and if measures aren’t taken to prevent this in the future then we’re going to be left with a medium that has serious credibility issues. The story of this girl is over, the credibility of blogs is not. Let’s begin work on the latter.

  • Mr. Zimmer,
    “In a difference scenario, if this student made up a tidbit that didn’t involve real people, would it have been acceptable?”
    I tried to think of an answer to that before I posted my comment, because I agree that it’s an important question. But I couldn’t come up with a useful hypothetical, so I gave up. The problem is that the nature of Gawker is such that they wouldn’t be interested in a tidbit that didn’t involve celebrities. And without a hypothetical example, I couldn’t really tell what I thought about such a case.
    My gut reaction is that it wouldn’t bother me as much if the lie were inconsequential; but it would still make me distrust that reporter for a long time to come. And that, to me, is Jeff’s point: the most serious damage is to the would-be reporter’s credibility, not to Moby’s reputation. That’s why he’s not naming names: the would-be reporter may be bent on destroying his or her credibility, but Jeff’s not going to help.

  • Chap
  • Mark