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The Tricky issue of the man from Busted

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James McLaren James McLaren | 14:10 UK time, Wednesday, 16 November 2011

People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. I know this, and writing this blog is potentially very dangerous because 'there but for the grace of god go I'.

Last weekend The Daily Mirror published a story in which they said Matt Willis, manager of trip hop icon Tricky, was suing the Bristol artist. The trouble was, they stated that this Matt Willis was the very same who sang with boy band Busted, when in actual fact there are multiple Matt Willises in the world.

Matt Willis

Matt Willis. Out of Busted.

But then other media outlets began recycling the same story, including The Guardian, NME and contactmusic. The Guardian quickly took down the story when the mistake was pointed out to them, and many of the others have now been removed, but this farrago points to an ever-more-common phenomenon in the media, and often in music journalism.

Crusaders such as Tim Harford and Ben Goldacre point out the dangers of simply recycling stories or press releases' content as fact but - provided the stories are interesting and of public value - I often rewrite press releases or existing news stories for this blog. Luckily here at the BBC with its lovely compliance, we need two reliable sources before publication, so we're insulated a little from the horrendous error.

With a bit of nous I'm confident that it's not hard to avoid the absolute clanger. The trouble is, for media organisations like newspapers and websites which rely on traffic for advertising, the need to get there first is now greater than the need to get there correctly. Everyone operating in online media has traffic at the back of their minds.

Breaking a story, getting the benefits of being there first is great for Search Engine Optimisation. Then reacting as quickly as possible to someone else's breaking story is also important. But at what point does the desire to publish something as quickly as possible supersede the ability to detect a wrong fact, or a completely erroneous story? How hard actually is it to think 'Matt Willis is 28 and was once in Busted; Tricky is 43... I wonder if it's a different Matt Willis?'

Louis Pattison is a freelance music journalist of some 15 years who's worked for The Guardian, NME, BBC Music and Plan B among many others. He believes that the modern news mechanic means that things simply won't won't change:

Generally, over the last decade or so, the news cycle has sped up enormously. What once took place over weeks or days now, thanks to the internet, often takes place over hours or minutes. In this landscape, there's there's a lot to be gained from being first to a story - you don't just get the early hits, but you get other sites linking back to you, which can increase traffic exponentially.

On the flipside, there's not really much to be lost if the story is a dud, because there's another 10 stories up by midday - and even if the story is factually wrong... well, hey, you still got the hits, right?

The Daily Mail's entertainment site, I read recently, puts several hundred stories up daily, and of course, there's simply not the manpower to research and write this much original copy. So you get a situation where other stories, and press releases, are cannibalised and facts can spread very quickly across the internet, whether they're strictly true or no.

This Matt Willis thing is an excellent case of this, because it sounds at least semi-feasible: ex-boy band star goes into music management, and why not? Being in a boy band, you'd probably learn a whole lot about the music industry, knowledge you'd want to use in a subsequent career. Of course, it's not true; either someone in a news room has got the wrong end of the stick, or there's a page to be filled at short notice and it seemed like a funny thing to make up.

And let's be honest, it sounds slightly fishy too - one of Busted is managing Tricky, really? But as soon as it's published, it gains a sort of legitimacy - so you've immediately got other news organisations picking it up, passing on this story, and at no point do the facts receive the kind of scrutiny they should. At the end of the day, though, it doesn't really matter. The story is shown to be a dud. Perhaps there's a few red faces in a few newsrooms. But no one has really lost out, and besides, there's another five stories due to go up before lunch. And so, the practice continues.

Lewis Jamieson, whose acid tweets first brought this story to my attention, runs Loudhailer Press, a music PR company. He has been in the business for many years, previously at the famous Hall Or Nothing agency, and has seen the industry from the inside and at a high level. His criticism of the media outlets which reported this story was scathing. He believes that there's more damage done in these instances than Louis does:

Yesterday's mistaken revelation may well cause a few giggles but, behind a straightforward case of mistaken identity there is a serious point to be made about how the media deal with news in an online world.

There is certainly an increasing issue with what has been called 'churnalism'. Once organisations with history post stories on their sites that demonstrate a complete lack of basic fact checking, they abandon all claim to be reporting news and we are in a media world where trusted information sources are no more accurate than hearsay.

There are clear reasons for the spread of churnalism. The first is cost. At even the biggest organisations the relentless cutting and pruning has led to news rooms where sub editing and fact checking has been relegated for entirely practical reasons.

The second is profit motive. Being first is everything in current media theory. Breaking the story is far more important than actually reporting the story. This is tabloid theory in extremis, from 'Print and be damned' to 'Print and count hits and damn the truth'. If you are a big site then retaining readers is locked into being first. In a world of Twitter and Google simply keeping up is almost impossible and as for filtering the 'possibles' and 'maybes' from the hearsay is a tall order if you want to keep up. If you are a new site or media outlet, grabbing a reputation for telling the world something first can shift you up the pecking order fast and drive that investment and advertising revenue that everyone so badly needs.

The third is a little more insidious. My personal concern is that we are developing a culture where, if it runs it is true and, once proven to be untrue, you just move on and kill the web page. Trying to recover a story once it is out has always been difficult and the 'apologies are smaller than the story' line holds even truer in a multi-media world.

Plus, like I say, the piece may go but the headlines stay on Google. The general reaction to the story from those who have realised it is wrong (several are still running it) was either silence and a blank webpage or a somewhat jokey 'What a shame, would have been a great story'. Where the story has now been taken down the headline lives on in Google world and the public is unlikely to return to check facts once it is read.

When they get Tricky's manager wrong it is poor but not dangerous. When The Daily Mail post the Knox verdict on a guess to be first it is wrong and verging on dangerous. Either way it shows how media is being downgraded and becoming less trustworthy which is very dangerous.

Tim Chester, deputy editor of NME.com, one of the outlets which republished the story told me: "We always check sources of stories, and that mistake was made across numerous sites including the Guardian".

This is a lesson for all of us who write content for the web: harvesting hits and getting the stories out there is all very well, but perhaps we're in danger of risking the 'leverage' of trust. It can't be that difficult to pass a story through a few minutes of thoughtful research, surely? But for some, the checking of facts now feels increasingly old-fashioned.

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