Sourceless: Online Reporting Becomes a Race to the Bottom

Reporters and bloggers have stopped verifying information in favor of getting their stories out first.

offthemedia-1Online journalism has always had a sourcing problem. From using unverified “anonymous tips” to repeating whatever rumor or speculation people are chattering about, the general ethic is “we’ll publish just about anything.”

But I think it’s fair to say that when blogs start using anonymous secret sharing apps like Secret and Whisper as sources for news stories, we’ve hit a new low.

These apps enable users to share their deepest secrets and freely gossip anonymously to other people using the app. As Valleywag has reported, Secret is primarily being used by the Silicon Valley techie crowd to dish dirt on each other. And Whisper, which now gets over 2.5 billion pageviews a month, has become a repository for young people to exercise their angst and anger.

As I’ve written about many times in this column, the reigning incentive of online journalism is to publish what is interesting as opposed to what is true or verifiable. Of course, appearances still matter, so even the most pageview hungry publishers would prefer not to make things up outright. It’s no surprise to me that eventually blogs would turn to these apps because it allows them to repeat pure gossip and pretend it’s from a “source.”

A recent example: Gawker didn’t straight up make up claim that Gwyneth Paltrow was having an affair. Instead they used an anonymous rumor on Whisper as the impetus for the story. Look at the headline “Secret-Sharing App Claims Gwyneth Paltrow Is Cheating with Lawyer”. Gawker gets to repeat the claims, gets the scandalous benefits of the juicy accusation but doesn’t have to take ownership of it. Of course on social media no one makes that distinction—it just looks like fact.

In this case, it’s even sketchier than normal because a former Gawker writer, Neetzan Zimmerman, is the “editor in chief” at Whisper. As he lamely explained about “the source:” “I have no reason to suspect they’re lying about this, and if anyone would know the truth, this person would.”

Well, I can think of a 118,167 reasons (see: pageviews) that no one involved tried very hard to check the veracity of the source.

It is the fundamental conflict of interest inherent in today’s journalism. Individual reporters have always been after big stories to make their names—but their personal self-interest was at least partially checked by the long-term interests of the publisher and its editors. Nobody wanted to be wrong because that was bad for business. It wasn’t what the readers wanted.

This is a reality we have to get used to. If our old media system was once far too strict about what “was” or “wasn’t” news—which is why the Monica Lewinsky story was broken online—then today we have the opposite problem. It’s a race to the bottom to see who can find the most spurious and unsubstantiated leads to justify whatever stories will be controversial.  With publishers and bloggers equally addicted to traffic and faced with an infinite publishing schedule, the threshold for a story is lower.

Consider the fake note-passing episode live tweeted by Elan Gale, a producer for The Bachelor. BuzzFeed got millions of pageviews out of the story, which they published before they verified. Why would they verify it?  If they had, they’d have seen it was fake and would have missed out on millions of pageviews. As Ryan Grim, the Washington Bureau Chief at the Huffington Post said in The New York Times, “The faster metabolism puts people who fact-check at a disadvantage. 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.”


To go back to Gawker, their own blogging platform, Kinja, is deliberately designed to bring attention to unverified stories from the masses. That’s why they put Killer Martini’s story of her poverty on their front page. Of course, her tale of woe was later found to be exaggerated and untrue, but that was after the woman started a GoFund Me campaign that raised over $60,000, with a stated goal of $100K. Those are free stories—seemingly without consequences for anyone involved.

It has gotten to the point that media outlets will take information from anyone if it fits within a narrative that will get traffic. Like going to a celebrity’s facebook page and publishing a story containing random comments from their fans like NY Daily News did with Paula Deen after she was fired from the Food Network for using racial slurs. This is cheaper, easier and always going to be crazier than getting actual responses from real sources.

Bloggers are lazy and greedy. It’s why they use things like (and why I managed to catch them all with easy bullshit.) It’s why outlets—short of information or a source—will just fiddle with things like Google Trends until they have confirmation for their point. Or will report on a neighborhood Facebook group protesting Justin Bieber reportedly moving into town, which turned out to be hoax. Or at their most irresponsible, use a Reddit thread as a source for identifying a terror suspect during a chaotic manhunt.

These secret sharing apps are not sources, just like random Tweets and Google trends and Reddit threads aren’t, but more and more we are seeing sites stoop to new lows that benefit them but not the audience. We, the readers, would almost always be better off if the writer had waited. These stories didn’t materially change anyone’s lives—except the reporter who got paid and the subject who got screwed.

And when the story turns out to be wrong, or incomplete? No corrections are made, the post is merely updated. No apologies to the readers, instead, “Oops! Wasn’t that a brilliant hoax?”

Maybe the best response—for writers and for readers—is to just scoff and ignore, instead of feeding the monster.

Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of the forthcoming book The Obstacle is the Way. Sourceless: Online Reporting Becomes a Race to the Bottom