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A Choice Between Clickbait And Editorial Standards

Journalists and editors are just as vulnerable as other people to confirmation bias.

22/04/2017 14:19 SAST | Updated 22/04/2017 16:11 SAST
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Tom Eaton's phrase "Huffington Ghost" will stick: certainly to the affair of the hoax blog arguing that white men should be denied the vote, possibly to the news site that published it.

There is no question that the reputation of the site has sustained significant damage. The reasons are well rehearsed: first, there was the piece itself, poorly argued on the basis of false information and designed to offend. The piece quickly got significant traction, including among the US alt right. Then it turned out it had been a hoax, whose real aim had been to show how easily nonsense can get published if it attacks the right people.

The backstory emerged in stages. After doubts emerged that "Shelley Garland" was real, the actual author confessed to the trick in an email to the Renegade Report, a show on CliffCentral. He still signed with a false name. Most recently, Huffington Post's own reporters tracked the man behind the article: Marius Roodt, a researcher at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and palpably not a feminist MA student of philosophy, as claimed for "Garland". Roodt has expressed his regret and resigned from his job.

The Huffington Post's SA offshoot did not cover itself in glory in dealing with the affair. There was a spirited defence of the piece, which was only removed when it became clear that the news site had fallen victim to a ruse. Its later responses, referring the article to the Press Ombud and publishing an apology, have gone some way in repairing the damage. The site's further steps will determine how lasting the impact is.

Clearly, editorial checks at the Huffington Post slipped badly, and plans to tighten up are to be welcomed.

Nobody likes to be made a fool of, but the question remains whether the objection to the piece is to what it said, or to the fact that it was a hoax. If Shelley Garland had been real, how would the discussion have unfolded?

The affair raises important questions for journalists. For one thing, it is worth considering whether Roodt's point has some validity. Is he right to claim that editorial checks soften when editors are presented with material that they agree with? In this case, Roodt identified a leftish editorial bias to which he pandered with an argument pushed to absurd lengths.

In her initial defence of the piece, since deleted, editor Verashni Pillay said it was based on "pretty standard feminist theory", and argued that the discussion about patriarchy was an important one.

The fact that there are some important points to be made about gender and power doesn't validate every related argument, however. The Press Code recognises the right to even "extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced" comment as long as it is, among other things, "honestly held" and has taken account of all "material facts that are substantially true". As the Press Ombud considers the piece, these are the guidelines that will be in play.

Journalists and editors are just as vulnerable as other people to confirmation bias, the habit of mind that gives greater weight to arguments that fit preconceived notions and filters out uncomfortable facts. If nothing else, the affair should remind editors of the importance of subjecting their own biases to careful and constant interrogation.

The other thing that the "Huffington Ghost" has highlighted is how the need of an online news and blog site to attract audiences makes it vulnerable to this kind of misstep. The article worked very well as clickbait, and at one point the site crowed on Twitter about the spike in traffic it got whenever it promoted the blog. Although the tweet has been removed, it was in many ways the most worrying aspect of the affair as it demonstrated an attitude that the hunt of traffic reigns supreme, overshadowing editorial standards.

News organisations have always lived with the tension between the need to attract an audience and the danger of overstating the case. Headline writing has always been about making an article interesting. But when the facts are exaggerated, the accusation of sensationalism can easily be made.

However, the online environment has added some factors to the mix which make it harder to maintain editorial standards. Decisions have to be taken much more quickly in the online space, and the demand for constantly new material is that much greater than in traditional media. There is no limitation of space, so where a newspaper editor would choose the best one or two articles to fill a page of opinion, the Internet is literally bottomless. Many news sites of this kind use a business model that relies heavily on voluntary contributions, mostly opinion pieces, rather than reporting.

And the big prize, fervently pursued by online news organisations, is for an article to go viral, to get a life of its own as readers share it in large numbers. Huffington Post SA has shown itself adept at working in this environment.

And that makes it vulnerable to a trick of this kind. The article's outrageous argument made it an excellent candidate to attract audience. It is the logic of trolling, the practice of starting arguments online just for the sake of attracting attention.

It is clear that the "Huffington Ghost" was in fact a troll. As the site found, when trolls are invited in, they can cause a lot of damage.