If journalists were more transparent about their failings, “The Oh, Really? Report” would be even more entertaining.
Brayden Olson is a real person who has many similarities with one of the main characters in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Or not. Business Insider, an operation I know mostly from the frequency with which its posts show up in the news feed on Yahoo’s homepage, says that Brayden Olson says he’s just like Christian Grey. But it also says that it wasn’t worth checking to see if he’s telling the truth.
According to a screen grab that media monitor Jim Romenesko caught, the Business Insider article originally carried this disclaimer at the bottom:
We should mention that Business Insider didn’t think it was worth the resources to confirm Olson’s whole story, so take this post for what you will.
At some point BI took down that note, but inserted this in the story:
[W]e don’t know if this really happens. We also have no idea if he is interested in S&M (like Grey). Still, we enjoyed his story, so here it is, along with a bunch of pictures Olson sent us.
In comments on Romenesko’s site and his Facebook page, people are shocked and/or disturbed. But as I’ve written earlier, there is a long journalistic tradition of deeming stories too good to check out. Instead of criticizing BI for being true to its apparent motto, Fabulatio propter lucrum (fables for profit), we should be praising it for its display of that key value in digital journalism: transparency.
Lazy reporting happens. But imagine how much better journalism would be if we were transparent about it. Think about, say, this editor’s note appearing underneath the New York Times’ stories on WMDs in Iraq:
We don’t know if the aluminum tubes had anything to do with nuclear weapons. We also have no idea if the administration believes that itself. Still, we enjoyed the feeling of having inside information, so here it is.
Or if some of Bill O’Reilly’s reports came with crawlers like this:
We should mention that ‘The O’Reilly Factor’ didn’t think it was worth the time to seriously examine the impact of government programs on poverty, so take this rant for what you will.
If this caught on, we could see a note tacked on to every daily stock report:
We don’t think a single quote from one guy can adequately explain movements in something as complex as the market, but that’s all our story template calls for, so here you go.
On every story about whether someone will or won’t run for president:
We don’t know if this is really what the prospective candidate thinks. And we know it contradicts what we said she was thinking two days ago. But you knew that from the headline and clicked anyway, so you’re in no position to whine, are you?
Guest columns on the op-ed page could include this note just above the byline:
We have no idea who actually wrote these words, but that doesn’t matter because we are delighted to believe that we are penpals with …
Every Huffington Post column by a charlatan to the stars would have this gentle reminder:
We don’t know if any of the advice given here is accurate, useful or, indeed, even safe. But here it is, along with several links to ways you can further enrich the author.
And so on. Why, Business Insider could be the vanguard of the next great era of journalism. And those who criticize BI for being so open about its lassitude should remember: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones — and those who work in non-transparent offices shouldn’t, either.
(Editor’s note: I didn’t think it was worth the resources to try to obtain responses from any of the individuals or institutions criticized here. Still, I do enjoy being snarky, so here it is.)