Joshua Fattal and the perils of Internet journalism

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

I’m a huge fan of the Internet – in fact, it’s a large part of my job.  Obviously,  I’m a blogger, and regard blogging as an essential ingredient in the newspaper of tomorrow.

But I’m also alarmed at how easily distortions and mistakes, reported as “news” by bloggers and disseminated to vast, worldwide audiences that uncritically accept their outpourings,  become indelible parts of the news background.

Case in point: the “Jewish Week” writer who accidentally hiked into Iran and is now being held in that country.

Problem is, the Joshua Fattal, who’s now in custody in Iran is not the same Joshua Fattal who has written for the Jewish week’s Fresh Ink supplement  (read Jonathan Mark’s news update on the subject here).

As Jonathan notes, the bloggers who first reported on the incident probably just Googled Joshua Fattal. When the first hits cited the Jewish Week, they figured their research was done and sent the story out.

This being the blogosphere, they didn’t have to deal with pushy editors demanding: “Are you sure?” “Where else did you look and who else did you talk to?”

The result: inaccurate information was disseminated and quickly spread. The inaccurate story was picked up by other blogs and by Mideast news agencies that don’t worry much about getting the facts straight when it comes to reporting about anything having to do with Israel.

Despite the Jewish Week’s story correcting the record, the Fattal now in Iranian custody will forever be labeled a Jewish Week writer – perhaps a matter of some peril to him.

We all sometimes fall into the trap of relying too heavily on the Internet to do our work. The Web has  changed our lives as journalists, but a Google search does not constitute the kind of drilling-down research any important story requires.  Google my name and you’ll learn I’m a college football star (not likely) and a defendant in a corruption trial (I hope not).

Journalism without editors who know the right questions to ask and publishers who demand accountability may be cost efficient and sometimes produce sensational headlines, but obviously it’s also adding to the morass of misinformation that surrounds every important issue in our world.  I love Google and use it countless times every day, but I also worry that too many colleagues regard its search results as – pardon the expression – gospel.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.