Wild Web Stories Deserve a Skeptical Eye
Blogs crave eyeballs on their websites, and mentioning eyeball-licking in the first sentence of this blog entry is sure to increase the number of hits it receives. For many aggregation sites, the importance or even truthfulness of stories can be of secondary importance to their ability to induce clicks. We expect that of certain list-heavy, animated-GIF loving aggregators, but we expect a bit more from serious news sites, such as the Guardian.
The conflict between page views and journalism caused embarrassment for the Guardian’s blog Shortcuts, which uses the tagline “Trending Topics and News Analysis.”
In June, a story appeared with the headline “Eyeball-licking: the fetish that is making Japanese teenagers sick.” The story is about an increase in eye infections because of the odd practice, but like many trend stories on the Internet, it lacks a source. Eyeball-licking appears to be a real thing, and Stuart Heritage, the reporter who wrote the story said he mistakenly relied on postings on Tumblr and YouTube to confirm the trend, but not the alleged medical result.
It’s not surprising that this aspect of the story wasn’t confirmed. As much as the item was dressed as a news story, it wasn’t. An increase in eye infections in Japan is hardly worth the attention of a blog about “Trending Topics and News Analysis.” The medical aspect is simply the peg that allows an otherwise serious news organization to write about eyeball-licking.
Mr. Weasley tells his daughter, Ginny, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.” It’s a good reminder for copyeditors. Never trust a claim in a news story if you can’t see who is making the claim.
A journalist in Japan did what Heritage or his editors should have done. Mark Schreiber called two ophthalmological organizations and a school clinicians group and found that there had been no reported increase in eye infections. He wrote to the Guardian in June to let them know, but the tip went unanswered until Sunday, when the Guardian’s readers’ editor wrote about the news organization’s mistake.