Traditional media losing the plot

When I was back in college we were expected to read and/or watch several sources of news daily. My Journalism-Print program even had a “Current Events” course requirement in which we would discuss, debate and be tested on – what else? – current events.

This was just before the Dawn of Blogs and the coining of the term “traditional” or “old” media. We still idolized journalists, figuring in our slightly hung-over starry-eyed student view that anyone who worked for a newspaper or major news network must be a Woodward or Bernstein.

We sat through class upon class about journalistic ethics, proper sourcing, how to get and cite quotes. And this wasn’t so long ago. In fact, I’m sure all major journalism schools still slip this into the curriculum somewhere … right?

But then why have I, who was once so convinced of the infallibility of the ‘Journalist’, begun to forsake the old news institutions?

Because of shit like this:

Marc van der Chijs
Marc van der Chijs

Yesterday Marc van der Chrijs (Tudou, Spil Games Asia, Marc.cn) tweeted a message on Twitter that he had been misquoted in an AFP article.

In and of itself, no big deal. I’ve been interviewed a good number of times, and rarely has the quote appeared verbatim. But following up on his blog I learned that this wasn’t just a rewording, or slight twisting of what he said. The AFP journalist Glenn Chapman, in writing an article about YouTube currently being blocked in China, lifted a long and in-depth quote directly from Marc’s blog, as shown below:

Marc van der Chijs, a Dutch Internet entrepreneur who co-founded Shanghai-based video-sharing website Tudou.com, offered another theory for the YouTube blockage in a Tuesday message on his website.

“I suspect the real reason might be that YouTube just launched a Chinese version, which would make the site much more accessible for Chinese users,” van der Chijs wrote.

“Not a very smart idea to do that in the middle of the National Congress, and I am surprised nobody at mother company Google’s China offices rang an alarm bell about this before launch.”

California-based Google bought YouTube in 2006 in a 1.65-billion-dollar stock deal.

“I don’t like sites to be blocked; even not those of our competitors,” van der Chijs wrote. “But, it will be an interesting discussion point for our Tudou board meeting tomorrow.”

Only problem is, that “Tuesday message on his website” was actually from a Thursday, not a Tuesday – oh, and October 2007, not March 2009.

From there it’s turned into some 21st Century journalistic version of Chinese Whispers, with Jane Macartney of The Times scooping the exact same quote off the exact same 2007 post. And while the AFP, having seen Marc’s post about their mistake, has re-issued the article with a correction announcement, several other media outlets are still running the story as-was.

Granted, word of YouTube being blocked, yet again, isn’t exactly hard news and probably doesn’t warrant the amount of footwork that an exposé on the corruption of government does. But blindingly painful gaffes like this do illustrate the cracks in the foundation of old media.

Journalists have long argued that “their” media is “real” media, and blogging and bloggers are just a collection of non-creditable amateurs writing about what they ate for dinner today. Well, I’m calling up the journalism program admin at my Alma Mater and suggesting they add “blog post date checking” to the course schedule. I imagine that Glenn Chapman and Jane Macartney will both be blogging about how they ate a rather humble tasting pie today.

More here at Shanghaiist: AFP pulls quote about Youtube block from two-year-old blog post

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12 Comments
  1. What’s even more scary is, as much as traditional media have had their foudations shaken by these new forms of media as everyone’s been harping on, they still hold tremendous influence on the general public because how many people actually get on the Internet and check the sources when they read their papers over breakfast?

    And that’s only when the mistakes are actually mistakes. What about those who just outright make things up for whatever sinister reasons they may have? Let’s not call any names here. I think those of us who read regularly on the Internet about China probably all have an idea or two who they are.

  2. I noticed this yesterday and was a bit surprised. It really is a shame “credible” journalism is losing its credibility in such an obvious way.

    Even worse when it’s not corrected. Still no correction from Jane McCartney on her article for the Times.

  3. The bigger issue, I think, is a collision between ignorance of the complexities of China’s internet politics and a cultural need among journalists (speaking as one*) to have a credible explanation for what’s going on. The fact is, we really don’t know why YouTube or any other site gets blocked. We can guess, sometimes, but that’s about as good as we can do.

    (*though, of course, not speaking for my employers or anyone else in mainstream or other media)

  4. A journalist makes an error (whether it was intentional or not, you don’t make clear, but it was extremely lazy journalism).

    But what does this have to do with old media v new media? no-one ever claimed old media was infallible did they? news to me if they did…

    So this example really exposes “cracks” in the old media sytem? Maybe, but in that case they are the same cracks that have been around for centuries (lazy journalists are nothing new).

    sounds to me more like China 3.0 disappearing up its own backside again. for every crappy AFP journalist, I’ll give you 200 bloggers (many of them journalists). Sound about fair?

  5. @Mike: Probably more like 500 bloggers. However, I don’t think this is lazy journalism necessarily. I think it’s “cost (un)effective” journalism, and I won’t put all (or even most) of the blame on the journalists themselves.

    In an effort to financially compete with bloggers, community journalism and various other UGC media, the old media corporations cut staff and resources until they can’t but make stupid errors like the one above.

    And I think you’re wrong, largely this is a new problem. Maybe not as new as the concept of Web 2.0 and the blogsphere, but definitely only a couple decades old – starting when conglomerates started buying up media outlets, big and small, so that editorial decisions were decided in boardrooms not newsrooms.

    Obviously this isn’t universal, and business has always been a key component of the media. But now you have massive amalgamations, cut backs in staff and resources and fierce (if somewhat less professional) competition from legions of people doing it for free or next to free.

    The problem, which was so clearly illustrated above, and more dangerously illustrated during last year’s Tibetan riots (when news agencies famously ran images of Nepalese police in place of Chinese) is not a case of infallibility, but ridiculously careless actions.

    WTF is China 3.0? And it has a backside? Where’s its frontside?

  6. What I find very interesting, is how, having followed English language China blog-land for around 3 years, the collective ‘blogosphere’ has a finger deep in pies across the country, from State-owned media to successful Internet start-ups to established business advisories to NPOs. Yet this force, brought even closer together by Twitter, celebrates itself a lot, but is not well understood (aside from a few savvy journalists who know how to source from it) by the outside world.

    What I propose is a large Masons type society, long term mutual benefits for members, and a code of practice. To join you have to blog well and establish yourself in a nice. Almost there, just need a code.

  7. regarding this single incident: of course it is lazy journalism. if the journalist wanted/needed a quote from tudou (or any commentator related to this isssue) he should have picked up the phone and made the call. Instead, it appears he trawled the web while drinking his morning coffee, found a quote that seemed relevant and published it. yes, a decent editor would have questioned the quote, but obviously this didn’t happen (and again, is hardly a new thing and cannot simply be blamed on cost cuts in the industry).

    Furthermore, to deduce that this all came about because of the pressure and competition coming from blogs is, imo, rather fanciful.

    The nepalise police photos is an entirely different argument and in my opinion came about through either general ignorance of Asian culture/politics, an over-eager picture editor, or a combination of the two and not the growing power of blogs.

    you can write all day about evil conglomerates and the wonders of 2.0, but at the end of the day it was a mistake. Not the first and not the last. The internet may highlight these mistakes (as in the Nepalise photo) more than ever before, and we are better off for that, but it certainly isn’t the cause.

  8. alex, in a nutshell, you have just described China 3.0 – mutual back-scratching, an overdeveloped sense of self-importance and a fetish for aprons and rolled trousers.

  9. Yep, I agree with the “lazy” comments. Though I’d add the “F” word in front of “lazy” ! As an old fart who started work before the fax machine was invented, too much reporting is done by folk who rely on secondary sources, don’t take the effort to pose questions for themselves….some even don’t know anyone who’ve ever been to the place that they’re writing about!
    Point in question is reporting on China’s vast interior – where it’s difficult trying to capture the essence of a story unless you speak to folk face-to-face, on location.
    As a middle aged old hack, I can vouch for the fact that the media has always had its share of opinionated scribes who don’t like to get their hands dirty. And I remember dealing with an editor, a 10 hour flight west of here, who used to pass comment on China but could only name three Chinese cities (one was Hong Kong). Yep, with budgets being squeezed and a new breed of so called “mainstream reporters” – who never knew the working world before the internet – hacks should have the words “verify all you say” as a screensaver.

  10. I think Mike is right about it being a case of laziness. In a related aside, It’s every bit as self-important for bloggers to proclaim themselves the new guardians of “news” as it was of print media to proclaim themselves the gatekeepers of the flame.

    Sorry about that flowery metaphor in the previous sentence, I’m a bit excited about a match I saw yesterday.

    I suspect that if blogs received nearly the same scrutiny as traditional media did (and devoted as much legwork to tracking down stories instead of just riding shotgun on traditional media so often) there would be a lot less congratulatory posting, but we’d all be better for it. Say what you will about newspaper columnists/stringers and the drivel they print, but they work on a deadline, are pushed to meet it more and more these days and don’t have the benefit of a good night’s rest and rumination on someone else’s piece – they are bringing the orb up the field.

    Personally, I have no idea what China 3.0 is. I’d like to see blogging 3.0 though: a little less wild conjecture, the same amount of dogged fact checking (that some do), and much less circle-jerk atmosphere among the lads.

  11. @Fiskadoro: And I’d love naked women to feed me grapes while I type blog posts – but well…

    The, somewhat obvious, problem to what you’re suggesting is that bloggers aren’t professionals and largely don’t get paid. It’s not a career, it’s a hobby or at most a stepping stone to a career.

    Self-proclaimed “pro-bloggers” are simply just online journalists/columnists.

    What you’re saying with “blogging 3.0″ is that you want bloggers to become journalists. But then, what would the journalists do? Exactly what they are doing, they’ll become bloggers – their fact checking will suffer, copious amounts of bias and presumption will slip into their work, etc.

    I think if traditional media (whether it remains in print form, or online) needs to grab hold tightly to what they are – reputable. They’ve (intentionally or not) blurred this line in the last several years in an effort to compete with bloggers but that’s because they don’t have faith in people’s ability to seek out quality.

    If traditional media continues to pour resources (read: money) into maintaining a quality product, they will not have to compete with your average bloggers. And the “bloggers” they do have to compete with won’t really be bloggers, they’ll be journalists (perhaps disguised as bloggers) – and that sort of competition keeps everyone sharp.

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