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May 12, 2009

Multiple Layers of Painstaking Editorial Fact-Checking: Irish Student Punks World Press by Inserting Silly Quote into Wikipedia Bio

Good story illustrating just how lazy and childish the press corps is.

I want to stress that this story isn't about how easy it is to insert a silly bit of nonsense into Wikipedia. Anyone can do that -- and the whole idea of Wikipedia requires it to have this vulnerability.

It is for this reason that high school teachers tell students around the globe that they can't cite Wikipedia in their term papers and essays.

What about adults who are supposedly professionals in the "information industry"? Surely they know better than to commit a sin that even high schoolers are warned against.

Nope. Hours after composer Maurice Jarre died, a Dublin college student decided to prove a point by how quickly the world's press would seize upon a fiction and turn it into a "truth" by sheer repetition of it.

Dozens of outlets printed his made-up quote. No one discovered the fraud -- even though Wikipedia kept scrubbing the entirely unsourced quote from Maurice Jarre's page. So the student began emailing the MSM to let them know they'd been punked -- and as of yet, only a single outlet has corrected the record.

The "quote:"

"One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack," Fitzgerald's fake Jarre quote read. "Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear."

He made that up because he knew that obit writers would seize upon it. Even if it was "too good to not check." Even though he didn't even bother putting in an attribution for the quote. There wasn't even a made-up "source" here -- he just stuck it in, naked of any citation whatsoever.

They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia quickly caught the quote's lack of attribution and removed it, but not quickly enough to keep some journalists from cutting and pasting it first.

A full month went by and nobody noticed the editorial fraud. So Fitzgerald told several media outlets in an e-mail and the corrections began.

"I was really shocked at the results from the experiment," Fitzgerald, 22, said Monday in an interview a week after one newspaper at fault, The Guardian of Britain, became the first to admit its obituarist lifted material straight from Wikipedia.

"I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn't come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up," he said. "It would have become another example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact."

So far, The Guardian is the only publication to make a public mea culpa, while others have eliminated or amended their online obituaries without any reference to the original version or in a few cases, still are citing Fitzgerald's florid prose weeks after he pointed out its true origin.

But they're professionals, you know. Don't question them.

As Abraham Lincoln so famously said, "Only trust half of what you read, and none of what you read on Wikipedia."

Steven Glass just emailed me: "I wasn't a disgrace. I was a revolutionary."

An Old Punking: According to Wikipedia (ahem), the NYT got punked nicely as they scrambled to catch up with the "grunge" phenomenon of the early nineties.

The reporter asked someone at Sub Pop records if there was a grunge lingo, I guess like the hippies and hepcats had. The representative eventually said yes, and gave the reporter the low-down on grunge-speak.

But she was making it all up as a goof.

Among the other bits of "grungespeak" the New York Times reported as genuine (based on a single source's say-so), were...

cob nobbler - loser

harsh realm - bummer

lamestain - uncool person

pain ride - bus trip

rock on - a happy goodbye

tom-tom club - uncool outsiders


swingin' on the flippity-flop - hanging out

Swingin' on the flippity flop. Uhhh-huh. You can definitely imagine Kurt Cobain asking Eddie Vedder if he's up for "swingin on the flippity flop" tonight. No, he's not? Oh well. Harsh realm, dude.

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posted by Ace at 01:43 PM

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