Girl goes on date with guy. Guy acts creepy. Touches-her-bum-when-she-doesn't-want-him-to creepy. Guy is also a famous Canadian radio personality. Roughly a year later, girl writes a blog about it. That blog goes viral. The man's identity is less-than-thinly veiled. Man gets publicly shamed on social media for his behaviour.
Should we believe her story?
Welcome to the new new new journalism. The platform is the Internet, and everyone's a writer. The problem: There are no rules. What's a reader to do?
The new online order can be a wonderful thing. It gives a voice to the otherwise voiceless (anyone reading Twitter during the Arab Spring knows that). It gives news stories a much-needed human perspective (Rehtaeh Parsons' father's blog after she died is a heartbreaking example).
But there is also bad. When anyone is allowed to write, how do readers know what is true? (Full disclosure, Huffington Post Canada wrote up the creepy date story to highlight the trend of public shaming on the Internet).
The media used to be the gatekeepers of truth. That's why the New York Times' print edition still reads "All the News That's Fit to Print" in the top-left corner. Legacy media told readers what they should know and assured them it was right. Reporters supposedly followed the rule that two sources had to verify a fact before it was publishable. Fact-checking departments combed over details for accuracy before paper hit printer. The general sentiment in the industry was: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."
Times, they have changed.
In the new new new journalism, Hunter S. Thompson would be far from the craziest person writing. Anyone can start a blog or a YouTube channel (alleged murderer Luka Magnotta apparently did, killing kittens in videos). And a new regime of media outlets rule the Internet, bringing with them a different set of rules (Gawker's slogan: "Today's gossip is tomorrow's news.")
What constitutes a story is also different. The Internet is not just a platform to spread real-world news, but an alternate universe where media also reports on the mere fact that videos and blogs go viral, often without checking their legitimacy (you might remember the fake pig-that-"saved"-a-goat video that was shown by major television networks after blowing up on the web).
Now, a blog accusing a Canadian radio host of being a creeper probably won't have too much consequence (the author will and has gained a boatload of Twitter followers, and the accused can easily enough brush off the accusations for lack of evidence). But stories like it -- stories that are not verified in the traditional journalistic sense -- can have serious implications.
Reddit, a collection of the most popular stories on the web (tagline: "the front page of the internet"), infamously falsely identified one of the Boston bombers as 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi based on information from a thread that invited readers to submit suspicious photos and analysis. It later apologized, but Sunil's family said the accusation interfered with their attempt to find their son, who was missing at the time. He was shortly later found dead.
In a very different example, a political scandal is deadlocked due to a lack of verification. After Gawker published its story about an alleged video of Toronto's mayor Rob Ford smoking crack -- without physical evidence -- it prompted the Toronto Star to publish a similar account by two reporters, a story it had been sitting on for a few weeks. Presumably, the Star was waiting to obtain actual evidence so it wouldn't have to write "The Star had no way to verify the authenticity of the video" and admit that it had no proof beyond eyewitness accounts. But that is a snail's pace for the online world.
What did the mayor do? Deny deny deny. Where is the videotape? Apparently gone. Who is the mayor of Toronto? Still RoFo.
Both stories lack an essential level of verification: Police had not confirmed the Boston Bombing suspect, and there is no proof a Rob Ford video exists. And the outlets reporting the stories are not bloggers. Reddit and Gawker are the faces of new new new journalism, setting a new standard that legacy media like the Toronto Star is forced to follow, and espousing the same philosophy that most people with a blog subscribe to: if I see it, you should believe it.
That's why the Internet's slogan should be "Proceed with caution."
If a reader can't rely on media outlets to give them verified truth, they have to develop their own methods of verification. That includes being skeptical of every tweet, blog and Facebook post they read. It includes asking questions many journalists ask themselves when dealing with a source: How credible is the author? What is his/her motivation in writing the piece? What are the limits of eyewitness accounts? Is the other side of the story presented? How reliable is a photo? How credible is the site an account is published on? (There is a wealth of information on this topic online).
This may seem like web 101, but I think a lot of these questions are often forgotten, especially when a story is so good that you want it to be true.
If readers bring a more critical eye to content, the internet superhighway suddenly becomes less dangerous. Instead of a cesspool for wrongful allegations and hyperbole, it is a useful starting point for discussion.
So when a woman publishes a story about her creepy date, should readers believe her? Should they take her writing as proof that one of our national radio treasures is a bona fide sleazebag? No. We don't get two sides of the story. The facts have not been adequately verified.
But I still like that she published it.
The discerning reader can put the blog to good use: as an avenue to discuss gender relations -- how being "manly" is too often a euphemism for sexual harassment -- rather than for character assassination.
After all, that discussion too rarely happened when newspapers were the gatekeepers of truth.