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Journalism 101: The importance of checking sources

Posted by Gabriela Warren on 14th May 2009

Yesterday, while reading the news, I stumbled upon this very interesting article.

In it, Associated Press journalist Shawn Pogatchnik explains that Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a phony quote on Wikipedia, and he claims he has done so to test how our globalised, increasingly internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news. Well, journalism very much flunked this one.

I’ll explain why: The sociology student made up the following quote, which he added to composer Maurice Jarre’s Wikipedia page just hours after he died on March 28th. (By the way, when you Google Maurice Jarre, his Wikipedia page is the first result that appears.)

“One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack, music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear.”

But I believe that the problem here does not lie with Wikipedia, whose editors acted fast to remove the quote. The real issue is with the journalists, who acted even faster to copy and paste the quote without checking its source, in an endless pursuit to produce the news fast.

Even worse, high-calibre publications such as The Guardian fell for this hoax. At least the publication later nobly acknowledged their mistake and apologised.

I’ve taken the odd journalism class in my day, and one of the first things I’ve learned was to check every source as many times as possible, to ensure that stories are accurate, and that any quotes can be traced back to a person, place and time. After all, good journalism is not just about a great story, but it is also about accuracy and veracity.

Gabriela Warren