A view from the outside: Fake news sites plague journalism
With Karyl Walker
It may have been an April Fools' Day prank, but for those of us in the profession of journalism, it was not funny.
On Monday, April 1, a website that has gathered quite a following posted an erroneous and completely false story that incarcerated dancehall entertainer, Vybz Kartel, had won his appeal and would be out to resume his life in a matter of days.
The story was sent to me via WhatsApp and I immediately dismissed it as false news. The story was poorly written and it was obvious that whoever penned that article had no knowledge of how the legal system works in Jamaica.
This particular website has been known to do this sort of madness even when there is no April Fools day to use as a cover to explain the childish action as a prank. It is the habit of that site and its owners to consistently publish fake news in the public space.
Vybz Kartel has been the subject of a number of fake news stories over the years including one that went viral last week.
Fake news sites are the bubonic plague of journalism.
If only there was legislation, similar to the law on the books where one can get prison time for impersonating the police, where one could get sentenced for impersonating journalists.
In a matter of minutes after the story was published on the site, (which will not be named here in order not to give the handlers any more infamy for their loose behavior), my phone began ringing off the hook.
People from Jamaica and abroad called me to find out if this was true.
“Then how that beat the media in Jamaica?” one associate of mine asked.
“Fake news,” I replied, “You think a story like that could break and not even one major media house in Jamaica would not have it? Stop follow the trouble makers. They have nothing to do with their time.”
Careful perusal of the story revealed that the writer was juvenile, to be kind. The erroneous article claimed that the entertainer's attorney received a call from a clerk of the courts that a decision had been arrived at by the panel of judges reviewing the case in the Court of Appeal and had given instructions for him to be present at the court to hear the ruling which was in Kartel's favour.
First up, the clerk of court has no place informing an attorney about the ruling of judges in the High Courts. Secondly, the ruling would be read out in court by the judges who would have informed the prosecution and the defense of the date the ruling would be handed down.
The article was not only just about fake news; it sought to paint the country's justice system as a joke.
To get a real breaking news story can sometimes be harrowing and time consuming for a REAL journalist. So, from our perspective, it is no joke when some frivolous moron poses as a journalist and makes a mockery of our profession by sending rubbish and a concocted story into the public sphere.
Members of the public are most times gullible and many do not take the time out to differentiate the imposters from the real hardworking journalists who stomp the pavement and put their lives at risk to inform, educate and entertain the public. This results in every honourable journalist being lumped into the same heap and being dubbed as the carriers of fake news.
Even though human beings should be allowed freedom of speech and expression, you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre and then giggle, shrug your shoulders and say it was just a prank.
Citizen journalism is where it all starts and without citizens, especially in the age of technology where smart phones are everywhere, it is the citizen on the ground who many times alert reporters to breaking issues in their communities.
But that does not mean that anyone who can buy domain space on the world wide web and post a few paragraphs with photos and videos qualifies as a journalist.
The profession is not as simple as that.
We owe it to our consumers to provide them with factual and fair reports and that takes more than just posting crap on the internet.
Years ago when I functioned as the news editor for the Jamaica Observer's online news site, the same thing happened.
While sleeping in my bed about 3:30 am, I was awoken by the ringing of my cellular phone. On the other end was a colleague who said she had gotten wind that, the same deejay, Vybz Kartel had escaped from the New Horizon Remand Centre and stolen a police vehicle.
After checking with a highly placed police source and disturbing the officer on duty at the Denham Town Police station, the reports turned out to be false.
It was later discovered that a blogger, who was a huge fan of the deejay, had thought it cute to post the fake news that, by the time the sun rose, had gone viral.
In order to keep the public focused on the truth, I quickly crafted a story debunking the myth. Needless to say, that story also went viral.
Fake news sites are also guilty of plagiarism. Reputable news sites including Loop News have been victims of their handlers' underhanded practices. They have a tendency to copy and paste the body of an article from legitimate news sources but use a sensational, erroneous headline.
It is not clear if it is done simply for the likes or if they make money playing the fool and bringing the fourth estate into disrepute.
It is not cool and that is the reason why I am convinced that it was no April Fools' prank, but a deliberate attempt by the infantile posers to get hits and gain page views.
I would like to use this forum to urge the members of the public to ensure that the sources they choose to consume news from are credible. Make sure your news source has been tried, tested and proven. These false pretenders will swing you wide and have you spouting their untruths as gospel.
In the age of social media, everyone has a right to play pranks on their friends and those in their inbox, however it leaves out of the realm of fun if the falsehood is being put forward as truth and can have devastating effects on the public psyche.
When in doubt, check it out. Still in doubt? Leave it out.
That is my view from the outside.
Karyl Walker is a multi-award-winning journalist who has worked for Loop Jamaica, the Jamaica Observer, the RJR Communications Group and Nationwide Radio among other media entities. He now resides in South Florida.