I don’t want to spend too much time on the forged Wikileaks story that was exposed by The Guardian yesterday as it has been covered fairly extensively already. But there are some important lessons that should be discussed, and so I will spend a short time on those.
Some have laid the blame squarely on Jang Group, but that’s not quite fair. While Jang certainly shares some fault, they were not the only media group to run the story and neither were they the originators. Actually, the story was also run by The Nation and Nawa-i-Waqt as well as Express Tribune. That this story was not carried by one media group only but by a wide selection suggests that the mistake was not intentional but the result of two common media problems.
The first problem that is highlighted is the rush to ‘scoop’ other news organizations and be the first to publish headlines – especially if those headlines will get attention – without doing proper background checks to confirm the facts. We see this far too often. In the case of a bomb blast, news programmes will report a certain number of deaths before their reporters have even arrived to the scene, only to change their reporting several times until the facts are known. There must be a balance between reporting news quickly and reporting it factually. It is better to be second to break a story and have it correct than to be first and be incorrect. In this case, Dawn did not run with the original story, and comes away looking more reliable because of it.
The second problem is the habit of relying on questionable sources. This story appears to have been first broken by the website dailymailpost.com, a website that has previously been exposed as part of a propaganda ring. According to today’s The News,
A check on the Internet as well as The Guardian report showed that the story was not based on Wikileaks cables, and had in fact originated from some local websites such as The Daily Mail and Rupee News known for their close connections with certain intelligence agencies.
This blog and others have been trying to bring to light the question of intelligence agencies and other vested interests using journalists as puppets. Perhaps some times there is money changing hands, perhaps other times a reporter is awed by access to a well-connected source, perhaps the reporter simply believes the story is too good to pass up – whatever the reason, we see too many incidents in which news reports make claims based on statements by ‘reliable sources’ that never come true and then fade away. This is not to say that journalists should ignore their sources, but perhaps they should do a little more investigation to verify the story.
Both of these lessons center on the same point – the need for better fact checking.
Express Tribune has published a retraction and public apology letting readers know that the story was a mistake. Jang Group has also been forthcoming and published front page stories explaining that the story was a mistake and revealing the source for the material as some questionable websites. These media groups should be commended for their honesty in retracting the story and admitting the mistake. Unfortunately, today’s issue of The Nation continues to peddle the story even after it has been shown as a forgery.
In journalism, mistakes are made. This is why many newspapers include a ‘corrections’ section where they can let readers know in the event of a mislabeled photograph or some details that have been reported and later learned to be incorrect. For larger incidents like these forged Wikileaks documents, a full article such as published by Express Tribune and The News is appreciated. We hope that the lessons will be taken and all media groups will use the unfortunate incident to remind their editors and reporters of the importance of getting the story right.