Separating Fact from Speculation
I had fully intended on a more lighthearted topic for the next Bruery post, but the flood of posts of a certain article in my social media feeds this morning brings up an increasing problem in media today: using the gullibility of the audience for the sake of publicity based on speculation.
On December 29, 2013, legendary Formula 1 driver Michael Schumacher fell and hit his head on a rock while skiing in the French Alps. He was quickly airlifted to a hospital and put into a medically induced coma. At the end of January, Michael’s camp confirmed doctors at Grenoble University Hospital began trying slowly bringing him out of the induced coma. Michael’s long time media manager and spokeswoman Sabine Kehm stood as the official source for Schumacher’s camp during this time, providing the media with several statements before the end of January, when the doctors started the process to bring Michael out of the induced coma. At that point, Ms. Kehm stated there would be no more updates and asked the public to respect their privacy during this time.
Unfortunately, many so-called news sources did little to respect the family and hospital’s privacy at the time, releasing a barrage of reports speculating on Michael’s condition, stating it as fact. Since the moment the accident was first released, media were drafting their own stories, racing against each other to get the word out first, despite any official statement. As the first days and weeks in the hospital went by, despite the official reports from Ms. Kehm, media still clamored to become “the source” for Schumacher’s condition. The worst of it happened once the official update ceased, leaving media to their own devices in the silence.
Like a horrific game of telephone, these articles can spread like wildfire and speculation hit an all-time high, somehow be deemed as credible. One of the worst of these sources is The Daily Mirror, a self-proclaimed “Intelligent Tabloid” (Why a tabloid is given even five seconds of anyone’s time is beyond me). However, The Mirror’s posts spread all over the web, taken as fact. Here’s a quote from one such article:
Translation: An unnamed magazine quoted unnamed people who said that doctors abandoned attempts. Is this “German magazine” (name give later in the write up) a legitimate source? Is there a link to their story? Who are their “insiders?” How did these insiders overhear the doctors at this hospital in a situation where privacy is at an all-time high? Do we really think Michael’s world renowned doctors are walking around talking to anyone who will listen?
I asked a buddy of mine, Peter Leung, a freelance journalist for RichlandF1, his thoughts on the motorsports news cycle surrounding the events of Schumacher’s accident and the months that have followed. He had been covering the event from day one and was one of the few who posted information that came only from Ms. Kehm.
Peter’s thoughts on the subject:
I can’t speak to the entire profession but as a rule of thumb for big stories like these, unimpeachable confirmation is required before going ahead. In this case, longtime personal manager Sabine Kehm has been the only reliable conduit in relating information about Schumacher’s condition, and through various press conferences we were able to hear what the crash investigators and doctors had to say about his accident and his rate of recovery.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a dedicated “outlet” to all of the statements made so far, which adds to the confusion. M.s Kehm e-mails out the statements to journalists who then report them through their respective outlets. To clear out the noise I’ve curated all of the statements and facts into handy fact sheets, a sample of which you can find here.
Having kept on the Schumacher beat since day one, disturbing patterns in the news cycle began to emerge. In lieu of any concrete information, certain publications would quote unidentified sources, often of dubious origin, about Schumacher’s condition. Those reports would then gain traction by being circulated via social media and picked up by major news outlets, who then go on to aggregate those reports…The story subsides for a few days and then the cycle begins anew.
The 24 hour news cycle has dramatically altered the landscape of journalism and the way the media works, cultivating a voracious, incessant appetite for current, up to date information. As journalists we have an obligation to our readers to refrain from speculation and stick to reporting facts. Michael Schumacher is a public figure, and he has a very large, loyal following who all want to know how he is doing. But he and his family are entitled to privacy the same as everyone else. That needs to be respected.
The media is looking to make a quick buck, preying on the love the public has for Michael Schumacher. Worst of all: the public is eating it up. Media, experts and fans can comment and speculate all we want, but to what end? In cases like this were lives hang in the balance, what are we hoping to accomplish by spreading false stories or prognoses? Only Michael’s family and his doctors know the full reality of the situation. Almost every article and expert opinion (save for a few) is based on the assumption that the public has been told the full story of Michael’s condition.
How We Can Be the Change
1) Start by reading smarter. Look for key words that show whether or not this source has any real, reliable information. Are they quoting an official representative of the main object of the article? Do they have more than one reliable source to add further credibility to the article? If they use another article or interview as a source, do they link to it? If not, who is to say that interview even ever took place? Do they establish that source’s credibility, or do they just want anything to back up their own article?
The story from which I grabbed that quote has shown up in my social media feed eleven times this morning. If any of those eleven people would have done any research, they’d know Michael’s camp has stated that the German magazine Focus is purely speculating and anything that does not come from official Schumacher representatives cannot be taken as fact.
2) You, the readers, have far more influence than you give yourselves credit for. The next time you see a “news” source or friend share a story with weak information and a lack of reliable sources, comment, express your disappointment, and ask them to be more credible with their reporting.
3) Don’t spread the hype! These media sources main concerns are for increased publicity and readership. By sharing their links and stories, you’re giving them exactly what they want.
This doesn’t just apply to the Schumacher media circus but news of any kind. If you want journalistic integrity, then read and share your news intelligently.
Thank you to Peter for his insight and opinion on this topic. If you’d like to learn more or connect with him, you can find him on twitter at @BaronVonClutch.