Kissing Trust Goodbye
Part of the problem is that these sites know that if they are first with something truly weird and appealing, they will get the viral hit and their page views will soar.
But the shocking thing was how little being accurate mattered to any of them. “We are dealing with a volume of information that it is impossible to have the strict standards of accuracy that other institutions have,” Gawker told the Times. “The faster metabolism puts people who fact-check at a disadvantage,” added The Huffington Post. “If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views. That’s a problem. The incentives are all wrong.”
Otherwise respectable websites post all sort of stupid, prurient, man-bites-dog stories because they know they have massive pass-along appeal. If there is no story there, they invent one. Sites that have nothing more than a photo of a celebrity walking her dog, might promote it with a headline along the lines of "Miranda Kerr Shows Off Ample Cleavage in New York." Eyeballs by the thousands follow.
Let's write that off as appealing to the lowest common denominator and focus more on stories that are just dead wrong. For years, most folks have chosen to overlook that much of what pops up in their browsers is utter nonsense. They never bother to fact check on Snopes or wait to see if a reputable news organization posts the story. They are in a hurry to post or pass along -- asif they might get a trophy or a free Starbucks drink for being so prolific. All this does is validate those who don't lose much sleep over accuracy.
Some of this trend may seem harmless, but it puts enormous pressure on those who do care about getting the story right. You can be sure that the traffic reports for Gawker, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Mashable are eyeballed with angst at the New York Times, WSJ, CBS, NBC, Bloomberg, Reuters, etc. You can see their concern in their own efforts to get readers to post THEIR stories to social media. But it is rare that they publish something utterly without fact (“60 Minutes” Benghazi report notwithstanding). And if they do, they do a fair soul-searching to prevent it again. Not so, I think, with Gawker, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Mashable. To them, picking up an occasionally untrue story is just the cost of doing business. Speed and salaciousness are more important.
In September 2012, Pew Research Center found only 6% of respondents in the 18-24 bracket said they had read a newspaper in the previous day. Last year, 28% of adults aged 18-24 got news from the Internet only, while 29% said they consumed no news at all -- higher percentages than for any other age group, according to Pew.
When you grow up in a world where you get your news mostly from the Internet (and almost never read a newspaper) who is going to help you separate the wheat from the chaff? Certainly not those who traffic in viral chaff.