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Sep 03 2012

Mind the Gaff

Politicians, especially US republican ones, are known to put their foot in it when it comes to world facts. George W Bush has broken some world records when it comes to factual gaffs and us, journalists, were the first to get on his case for it.

Mitt Romney is constantly challenging Bush Junior’s title, with a new astounding statement nearly every week. The one that got him most scorn of late was his assertion that “It’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. And …Syria is their key ally. It’s their only ally in the Arab world. It is also their route to the sea.” Journalists were the first to note that the Republican presidential candidate had clearly missed the meaning of the term “The Persian Gulf”, and could be assisted by owning a Middle East map. Others wondered whether one of the dozens of interns working in Romney’s service can’t possibly be assigned to engage in some diligent googling before the candidate actually opens his mouth.

But are we really proving ourselves fit to cast the first stone? Recently, CNN have shown a map of Africa when attempting to indicate the location of Cambodia, which earned it quite a few gleeful posts on twitter and Facebook. (BTW on a first version of this blog post I said  “showed a map of south America”, even though the map was just in front of me, and was corrected by a friend after I posted the blog on Facebook; which only goes to show nobody’s really qualified to cast the first stone…)

Last week three Israeli major newspapers Yediot, Israel Hayom and the respectable broadsheet Ha’aretz published photographs of the Grand Kenyon in Nevada, US, claiming they were “pictures from Mars

Staring at those mistakes you can only tear your hair out and ask: doesn’t anybody use Google?

The problem, is of course quite the opposite: everybody does. More often then not – this is just how this happens – people, journalists as well as politicians often use Google without using judgment, or common sense and without cross referencing.

It is staggeringly easy to find pictures of the Grand Canyon when looking for photos of Mars. All it takes is for someone to post a photo of the grand Canyon somewhere with the tagline “It looks just like Mars” and there you have it – all over Google images.

In a brave experiment, jeopardising my sanity in service of this blog post, I’ve checked out what could be found when putting my own name in Google images. Alongside quite a few pics of myself I have also found many pictures of other women, mostly unknown to me, who seemed to have been mentioned on some articles or entries which have mentioned me too, or which I have written over the years, including a pic of a porn star and a hip-hop singer. Also featured on the images page the portrait of the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian imprisoned activist Omar Barguti and, most bizarrely, some flowers. It was not the first time that the thought has crossed my mind that if anybody ever specifically looks for my picture there’s not much to stop some trainee picking up a photo of a poll dancer, a peace activist from West Virginia, or a Gladiola. I hope they’d have the common sense to realise I’m not Rhianna.

Google, like any other search engine and the internet in general, is but a tool; it makes everything easier – to find out facts, to get facts wrong and to be caught when you do. Like any great tool it can work magic in capable hands and stir havoc in ignorant ones. It is not Google’s fault when we get things wrong, and not its credit when we get them right. There are many reasons why we get it wrong more then ever and they have to do more with human resources than with software.

When I was working as news editor on a weekly newspaper in the late 1990s early 2000s, it took 5 signatures before a page could go to print – two proofreaders, the section editor, the graphics editor and the editor in chief, not to mention the journalist who wrote the piece. How many signatures does it take to put a page on the internet, even a page of a respectable newspaper? The need for speed competes against the duties of care and the need to save (aka greed), cuts not only the number of eyes that view the material, but also compromises the quality. There is no replacement for the “institutional knowledge”, the old hack in the office who had seen it on and just knows what Stalin, Jimmy Carter, or King George 5th look like and that Burma does not border Venezuela not even in a month full of Sundays. The experienced editor who could cross check missing facts and verify fact from hearsay with one phone call to a veteran source.

And just at a time when it is so easy to get it wrong, it is also simply impossible not to get caught, with millions of twittering fingers following millions of scrutinising eyes. At some point, before too long balance will have to be redefined and the mechanisms for fact verifying and page proofing reinstated. If this doesn’t happen professional journalism will find it harder to survive the fight against the other forms of information mushrooming around. And this could get dangerous.

1 comment

  1. Sameena

    professional journalism is one of the most noble professions. we should be able to trust a journalist. it takes time and evidence to build that trust, and it takes one error to destroy it. already cnn, fox, etc are treated as little more than gossipmongers, and even the bbc breakfast show is more like a tabloid magazine than a news program. there are the shining lights of journalism- pilger, fisk, jon snow, lindsey hillsum- we trust them because we know they have integrity. in this world of rolling news, it is hard, as a journalist, to hold your tongue and say, ‘i will not report that until i can independently verify it’- you may find yourself very quickly out of a job!

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