The Parkland murders: Legit media falls into the trolling disinformation trap

Sadly, another lesson to be learned from the slaughter at an American school. This time the one in Parkland, Florida.

“Check your source. Then check it again. Then, check it a third time. Make the phone calls. Talk to the people involved. Verify the story and don’t you dare run with a single shred of that story until you’ve nailed it down and can say with 100% accuracy you have exhausted every possible lead. Only then do you run with the story and place your reputation and that of this organization on the line”.

Perhaps not word for word, but head-on the essence of what I was taught at my very first news job. Chuck Dent was the wizened radio and television news veteran, now News Director at WIOD-AM in Miami. For some wild reason, he saw something in that redheaded kid sitting across the desk from him and hired me to read the news on what was then the most respected radio news station in South Florida. And along the way, he drilled into me a level of journalistic ethics I know with absolute certainty is neither taught at a number of higher level institutions, and is certainly not practiced at stations, outlets and platforms that used to live and breath journalistic integrity.

Here’s your tragic and revealing case in point.

In mere hours after 17 people were killed, dozens more injured and hundreds traumatized by a lone gunman at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, the Internet lit up with misleading reports, phony assertions, hateful conspiracy theories and political fear mongering of the worst kind. All taking advantage of another bloody stain on the American culture. All seeking to gain clicks and eyeballs by writing the most outrageous clickbait possible, knowing full well there is an addled portion of society that will fall for anything. After all, more people get their news these days from the Internet than any other outlet. And if it’s on the Internet, we know it must be true.

When I saw that white nationalist groups were emerging from their fetid sewer and taking credit for the shooter being one of them, I had zero hesitation. I knew it was clickbait. While I posted a number if articles about the shooting on my personal social media pages, where I’m proud to admit is based on quickly re-searchable fact and more than a little common sense, this is one I ignored and refuse to give any shred of daylight to.

But in the rush to cover the story and nail down those clicks, more than a few legitimate news outlets fell right into the trap. One that has been sprung on a delusional faction of our society for many years, as the current Russian election meddling story has taught us.

Make it look real, give it what seems to be solid affirmation, and then watch as the clicks roll in.

There are dozens of outlets and platforms that one would expect to see this story featured on. I won’t give the credibility or attention by noting them here, as their identity should be obvious. They are also the outlets and platforms I will never present one of our clients to. These are the true “fake news” outlets that live and breathe the idiocy of conspiracy theories, third hand gossip and clickbait headlines. I tell our clients that once you’ve been identified as an expert or friendly commentator on these sites, your reputation is right there in the mud with them. You may one day escape that muck and mire, but there’s also a good chance your brand takes a might hit you wll never recover from.

Where once it would have been shocking to read high profile, veteran, legitimate news agencies such as ABC News and the Associated Press carried this story without performing the necessary checks and rechecks to ensure it was legitimate, there really is very little to be surprised about anymore.

It’s happening with greater frequency every day. Legitimate and respected news agencies allowing themselves to be suckered in to misinformation and hyperbole. All because of the speed of the Internet, that long standing desire to be first, all the while forgetting those tenets of journalism I was taught as a teenage by a demanding career newsman.

I would hope there are repercussions in both the ABC and AP newsrooms over their lack of ethics. I’m not calling for anyone to be fired, because there are far too many good people out there seeking work in what has become a difficult arena to find employment.

However, this needs to be a lesson to every outlet and individual covering the news. This is yet another in a long series of “wake up calls” about how generations of solid reporting and hard work can be undone in seconds.

And it also will bring legitimate news organizations back into the conversation about being biased and unable to perform their duties. It breathes gasoline onto the fire of “fake news” clown shows, putting even more distance between the legitimate and clickbait outlets.

As one who has dedicated his life to the profession, I can only hope ABC, AP and others learned their lesson from this incident and will strive for greater accuracy in their reporting.

I also hope it teaches everyone to be more discerning about how and where you get your news from, and to get your information from more than one source. 

The trolls enjoy it when they make news outlets, and the general public, look foolish and ill-informed. That’s their oxygen.

We need to be shutting down that misinformation air tank every single day, and seek to have them suffocate themselves into extinction.