What Does the Ryan Holiday Media Prank Teach Us?

Ryan Holiday, the 25-year-old author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, lied to multiple journalists in order to prove that he could influence the media. In response, the Society of Professional Journalists tweeted:

Journalists: 1) Crowdsourcing is fine. 2) Fact checking is still a thing. 3) Heard of Google?

Several of the outlets involved in the Ryan Holiday case have rigorous fact-checking standards, which speaks to the quality of the outlets represented. It also speaks to the quality of the editors that represent those outlets. Not long after news broke, Dave Thier reported that all of the outlets involved in the Ryan Holiday case offered an editor’s note or removed Holiday’s quotes altogether.

Ebyline asked the New York Times if the paper has created a more vigorous fact-checking process in response to the incident. In an email statement, Eileen M. Murphy, vice president of corporate communications for the New York Times, responded:

Our fact checking process is already quite vigorous.  While we have no written guideline that would say specifically to verify a source like these online “experts,” it is one of those givens that fall under the broad guidelines of the 1999 Newsroom Integrity Statement and the ethics handbook.  The freelancer who made this error has been reminded of these policies.

So, is there a way for journalists to avoid being hoodwinked by sources?

Mary Ellen Lowney, Chair of the Communications Department at American International College, says that relying on web-based sources raises the level of risk when a reporter quotes someone in an article. “You believe what they put on the Internet is right,” said Lowney.

“Be more thorough, one on a web-based source, or two, you don’t know well,” said Lowney.

Lowney added that the risk of being deceived remains, but it happens to almost all journalists.

With more news outlets turning to same day deadlines, and editors requiring multiple articles at once, journalists should consider themselves the first layer of fact-checking for an article. Going back to the basics of fact-checking that most reporters learned in J-school could help avoid these issues in the future.

“Check and double check; that’s the time to fact-check,” said Lowney. If you come across a questionable item, Lowney suggests calling another source to verify it and checking public records if you don’t have a reliable source available.

According to Alec MacGillis at The New Republic in “The Hard Truth About Fact-Checking”

Every reporter still working at the smaller papers should be, at bottom, a fact-checker.

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