When is a story not a story?

PR and news sources have long been a tail-chomping serpent. There’s no doubt that there is a layer of ‘news’ that consists entirely of stories about film trailers being released, things people are sharing on the web a lot this week, self-serving corporate sponsored research that comes with a neatly-packaged provocative question  (Will asking a question get your paper cited more?) and anything to do with Katie Price, who is a sort of black hole of media solipsism and may have ceased to exist as a physical entity.

The Daily Mail has made this its forte, hence its terrifying success as a website. It can happily fill a page with a description of a film trailer or funny clip that people have been looking at online, followed by a link to the clip. It can have a load of follow-up articles about what people thought of its latest bit of misogynist shit-stirring, as though ‘Person overpaid to write cretinous bilge writes cretinous bilge’ is an earth-shattering event.

Web 2.0 is pretty much made for pseudo-news – we can all be generators, even if that news is ‘Look, my kitten fell off a table!’ If enough people look at your kitten falling off a table – mazel tov, it’s news. We can hurl abuse at people in response to some news, real or pseudo, and if enough of us hurl abuse, that’s news, too.

Nick Davies’ superb blast at modern journalism, ‘Flat Earth News’, unsurprisingly has a number of entries in the index under ‘pseudo’ – from research sponsored by corporations with a line to push, to carefully arranged paparazzi opportunities, to websites that appear to be one thing but are actually a front for something less cuddly.

‘Leaked’ sex tapes are also a favourite piece of pseudo news. Sex writer Violet Blue, in ‘The Smart Girls’ Guide to Porn’ points out that these leaks, in the US at least, have involved the participants signing necessary release forms in order to avoid being sued or going to prison. Any suggestion of a legal catfight is just a nice piece of grandstanding and good publicity.

In times when an ad for a leading smart phone asks ‘First to hear or last to know?’, we’re all especially vulnerable to pseudo news. We all want to be the first to tweet it or otherwise bring it to other people’s attention. And given the fact, according to Davies, that journalists often hardly bother to check the veracity and integrity of their sources, you can imagine what it means when news is spread around like a wet sneeze by you or me.

I will confess my sin as a novice Twitter user that I joined many in expressing my sadness at the imminent demise of Clive James, when it turned out that the humourist had merely been quoted out of context, and saying that he was ‘coming towards the end of [his] life’ actually meant that, in general, he felt he was the latter part of his life, not that his consultant had drawn up a chair and sombrely given him the measure of his days.

The internet is perhaps a perfect wrong-end-of-stick grabbing mechanism, with its lack of winks, nudges and pupils doing funny business, and people and organisations are likely to make more and more sophisticated use of this as time goes on; we can catch them in the act or be caught.

We need to curb our need to be Mr or Mrs News. By no means should we ‘leave it to the professionals’ – as Davies points out, they’re hardly reliable, but the price of useful and non (or minimally) manipulated information is eternal vigilance. Or at least being a tad discerning about what we pass on to others.

At one end there’s the fairly harmless but increasingly irritating ‘X is dead’ virus and celebrity gossip, but at the other there’s a world of highly partial corporate-sponsored research, sinister organisations in fluffy, woolly coats and various other carefully thought-through and constructed manipulations.

The ‘X is dead’ screening method is quite easy – I apply the BBC test. Whatever you think of Auntie, they are wont to check stuff before they commit it to the web. The Beeb isn’t first with the news, but that’s because they’re a tad more careful than some other sources about what they will put up. It’s not foolproof, but it’s pretty good.

As for everything else, the sad fact is it’s hard to do much other than have a default setting of ‘resolute cynicism’, a la Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’, which is ultimately less about science and more about the massive bullshit quotient of the media in general. Ask yourself who has an interest in what’s being discussed, think whether some of the statements in a piece seem as empty as a Nick Clegg fan convention, look out for phrases that ring alarm bells (eg indications of a tiny and/or self-selecting research sample, ‘research by Brand X suggests…’) and beware of pieces that seem just to have a gaping hole where you’d expect to find some sort of further detail.

We’ve seen the positive side, or at least what we hope will turn out to be the positive side, of Web 2.0 in events in the Middle East over the last two years. These were situations where people presumably tuned out the distracting hum of tits, writs and fake death rumours, grabbed the salient information and ran like hell with it.

An Anti-Coalition Spring? Not hugely likely, it must be said. A better informed and more discerning audience? We can all try to do it ourselves and influence others. Pass it on.