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Comment: Matt Wardman on Glen Jenvey, blogs and journalism standards

This is a story of how self-declared ‘terrorism expert’ Glen Jenvey, acting as an agent provocateur under the name of Abu Islam, reportedly created a false story by posting allegations on an internet forum, and then passed that story to the national press on his own behalf and made the front page of the Sun.

This process has been investigated and uncovered by two bloggers over a number of months, and featured on the Donal McIntyre programme on Radio 5 yesterday.

The key spadework has been done by Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads, and Richard Bartholomew of Barth’s Notes, who have been digging into this for some time. Both Richard and Tim have posted again this weekend.

Inayat Bunglawala has a detailed commentary on this story on Islam Online, and makes a series of excellent points.

The bizarre aspect is that Glen Jenvey has apparently confessed as a result conversion to radical Islam.

There is a potentially sinister aspect to this story – that of gung-ho coverage of anti-Islam stories in the British media provoked and seeded by commentators whose political attitudes are sympathetic to such stories. A good example of this style of coverage was the inflammatory coverage of the demonstration by approximately 20 extremists during a parade of soldiers returned from Basra in Luton, in March this year. By contrast, a far more balanced report, in my opinion, was published by the Nofolk Unity blog.

This is another story which asks serious questions of the quality and professionalism of the processes of journalism in our national media – following on most recently from the Baltimore spoof. In turn this asks the question whether there is actually much material that is worth putting behind firewalls – and whether discerning readers will be willing to pay for it for long.

It also highlights how digging by bloggers can help uncover stories, which then get wider attention than is currently delivered in the UK by blog sites.

Finally, I’d note that bloggers can have exactly the same biases as newspapers for stories which fit in with our own opinions, and none of us are immune to that – including me. So we need to pay attention to all the traditional disciplines of good journalism – multiple sourcing, sanity checks by a third party if we have a concern, and the separation of reporting from opinion.

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The Mayor of Baltimore spoof: A digest of media apologies

September 3rd, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Online Journalism

This is an edited version of the post that originally appeared on Matt Wardman’s site The Wardman Wire.

In my previous piece I noted that Labour List had made a neat three-point-turn after reporting that Alex Hilton’s spoof press release for the Mayor of Baltimore was not a real statement from the real Mayor Sheila Dixon.

The spoof was picked up by a range of newspapers and online news outlets and reported, before the hoax behind the story was known.

The manner of an admission of a mistake can tell us about the culture and attitude of the organisation making the retraction. This article is a straight digest of retractions on this story, without much commentary from me here – each title’s name links to its own retraction/apology regarding the story:

Baltimore Sun:

The Baltimore Sun had more excuse than anybody else for getting it wrong, since they were informed about the new ‘Mayoral’ Twitter page by a Baltimore official.

“Editor’s note: The website and Twitter accounts referenced by this post were not written by Mayor Sheila Dixon or her staff. Instead, they were produced by a British prankster. A fuller explanation is available here. The Sun regrets the error.”

And:

“I got duped.

“Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon does not have a Twitter page and did not respond to Britain’s Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling’s rebuke of the city by referencing The Wire. It was a hoax, I learned this morning, and City Hall is trying to figure how a fake internet page with the mayor’s seal was born.”

Baltimore City Paper:

“Update: We got punked. See comments section below.”

Independent:

“The story below was written on the basis of statements supposedly made by the Mayor of Baltimore which have since been proved to be false. They were fabricated on this website (http://mayorofbaltimore.org/crimestatement.php). We fell for the hoax.”

(The Indy did a further piece which attempted to set up Hilton as the new Damian McBride.)

Guardian:

The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Saturday 29 August 2009:

“In the story below we numbered among the duped in quoting comments supposedly by the Mayor of Baltimore, but actually by a hoaxer, chastising Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, for comparing aspects of British life to the underside of Baltimore as portrayed in the TV crime show The Wire.”

Spectator:

“UPDATE: Oh, the embarrassment! Guido reports that this whole quote (and the Mayor of Baltimore website behind it) was an elaborate hoax, by Alex Hilton of Recess Monkey, designed to catch out ‘churnalists’. I’ll certainly think twice now before flagging something up from another blog – so congrats, Alex.”

Liberal Conspiracy:

First statement from the site:

“Update: It’s a fake. But this accompanying video is pretty funny though.

(Matt Wardman: this video has now been removed from Youtube)

“And Chris Grayling is still wrong.

“Another update, in response to Iain Dale

“There never was a press release to the story.

“I heard about it on Twitter and passed it along to post up on the site.

“The sanctimonious attitude of Dale and Fawkes is funny – I suppose they’ve never linked to a website with a comment.

http://iaindale.blogspot.com/2009/08/extent-of-government-funded-lobbying.html

http://order-order.com/2009/08/04/think-tanks-on-the-taxpayer/

In a second statement:

Separate piece. Liberal Conspiracy has a point here – guess which blog the Spectator did its ‘research’ on?

“Yeah, we fell for the spoof on the Mayor of Baltimore, as did many others including The Spectator, the Guardian and Baltimore Sun – people who are paid to do more research, you know? And I updated the page as soon as I heard about it, as should be the practice.”

The BBC:

The BBC included the site in their daily quiz. It was changed without immediate acknowledgment. I can’t link to it as there is no acknowledgment, however Plato had a screen shot:

20090901-plato-bbc-quiz-baltimore

To be fair, a daily quiz is hardly in the same league as a news article.

Matt Wardman edits the non-partisan Wardman Wire group blog which covers politics, media and technology. He is @mattwardman on Twitter, and mattwardman [at] gmail [dot] com on email.

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Journalism Daily: Digital plans for Big Issue and the Baltimore hoax

August 28th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Journalism Daily

A daily round-up of all the content published on the Journalism.co.uk site. You can also sign up to our e-newsletter and subscribe to the feed for the Journalism Daily here.

News and features:

Ed’s picks:

Tip of the day:

#FollowJourn:

On the Editor’s Blog:

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The Baltimore Hoax: newspapers and bloggers fall for Wire comments spoof

There’s been a wonderful ‘gotcha’ story today.

Following on from the ‘froth and fertle’ of the ‘Chris-Grayling-compares-Britain-to-Baltimore’s-The Wire-TV-Series’ story (even Garbo came in on that one at the Wardman Wire), parts of the British Press and parts of the blogosphere picked up a story that the mayor of Baltimore had rebuked Grayling on her own website.

These news sources included:
1. The Guardian
2. The Independent
3. The Baltimore Sun
4. Liberal Conspiracy
5. Labour List

The Sky News blog took a different position, and suggested that the whole thing was a bit fishy.

The story was a fake, as Alex Hilton – the editor of Labour Home and ‘currently resting’ Recess Monkey – had created a spoof mayor of Baltimore website with a fake press release, which suggested that if we compare Baltimore to TV series The Wire, we may as well compare Britain to The Midsomer Murders.

The real Mayor of Baltimore website is part of that of Baltimore City.

The fake website contained a number of clues, such as an assertion of copyright belonging to ‘R Monkee Esq’, and a slight giveaway in the source code:

OK, so I’m just having a bit of fun at Chris Grayling’s expense.
Sitting in the office on a hot August afternoon, I was fantasising
that I was mayor of Baltimore and how annoyed I would be.
I hope you very quickly picked up that this was a spoof.
Didn’t mean to break any laws or ethical mores – please don’t
extradite me if I have unwittingly done so. Hope you appreciate the
humour, Alex Hilton, alexhilton@gmail.com – 07985 384 859

But some British newspapers and blogs missed the clues.

What can we learn?
I’ve recently been arguing that the different skills of bloggers and journalists are complementary rather than being competitive; it seems to me that this ‘incident’ points up some skills which are common to both.

The pressure to get the story out now is the real enemy of good reporting. Surely it is better to wait and be beaten, than to just get it wrong. A model which depends on being five or 10 minutes quicker than a competitor with the news may end up undermining credibility. In this case, there were ample signs that this was a hoax, but they were somehow missed. I’m glad I’m a supporter of the slow blogging movement.

One antidote to mistakes caused by time pressure is a stronger ‘fact-checking’ framework, as used in the USA. For bloggers the equivalent might be a ‘sanity check’ by a completely different set of eyes.

One way to avoid that is to follow the classic ‘niche’ route, and simply avoid competing in the commodity area of ‘the latest news'; report something in-depth where you can be a specialist and a unique authority. That is a strategy which is perhaps more open to bloggers than journalists in the big media.

Once the incorrect report is published, the important element becomes the nature of the the updates and corrections are a peculiar mix of self-justification, continued reflex-bashing of Mr Grayling, and straight corrections. Labour List has done the cleanest three-point-turn in this case:

UPDATE: The Guardian, The Independent, The Baltimore Sun and LabourList all got hooked, lined and sinkered by this, which was a hoax inexplicably deisgned to deceive, arranged by LabourHome’s Alex Hilton. Lesson learned: check twice.

Question asked: why, Alex? Hopefully he’ll let us know in due course. In the meantime, apologies.

The final point that I have noted is the ‘comment box ranting’ tendency to follow the line of the article, even when there are those in the same thread pointing out that the article is nonsense.

The one point that I am still interested to discover is how Alex Hilton seeded the story into the media.

Matt Wardman edits the non-partisan Wardman Wire group blog which covers politics, media and technology. He is @mattwardman on Twitter, and mattwardman [at] gmail [dot] com on email.

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Tewspaper – the ‘online newspaper with no writers’

August 26th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Social media and blogging

A new online newspaper venture, Tewspaper, has been launched with automatic aggregation replacing the need for journalists. The sites use an algorithm to search and aggregate news from social media sites to create websites relevant to five US cities (though the site itself claims to cover 10), according to a press release.

The service uses publicly available APIs to find text updates and match images to stories for Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York City.

“We began by limiting the news to trusted authorities on Twitter. From there, we are working on an algorithm that can find additional breaking news from anyone on Twitter and other websites as it happens,” said Jared Lamb, the creator of Tewspaper, in the release.

The sites currently look pretty basic, but add an RSS feed and this could be a handy tool for journalists in these areas wanting to track news in real-time.

There’s also an attempt at a Digg-style user-rating system, perhaps similar to plans for the blogpaper, though this isn’t yet explained on the site.

Full post at this link…

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