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Uppdaterad : 22 november 2014
- Publicerad : 26 mars 2014

Dear journalist colleagues, this is why we shouldn't publish stories based on anonymous web comments

Sure, the story's awesome. But the only actual source is about as reliable as what you might find written on the face of a drunk guy at the party, writes Metro's Jack Werner.

Dear journalist colleagues, this is why we shouldn't publish stories based on anonymous web comments

Paul Schiraldi

Foto:

THE ARTICLE IN SWEDISH: "Storyn om Game of Thrones-läraren är Klintberg 2.0"

Sweden has an ongoing school crisis, and people are looking to whatever method they can find to solve it.

Perhaps that's why the story of the innovative teacher who managed to silence his rambunctious students by threatening to reveal who would be killed off in the upcoming season of hit series Game of Thrones has been doing the rounds in Swedish media. 

The story was published by three Swedish media outlets: Expressen, SVT and Nyheter24, and they all come from a few different sources. But if you follow the leads, they all point to the same site: Danstonchat.com, a site that publishes anonymously submitted humorous quotes from chats.
 
When I reach the site's administrator Rémi Cieplicki, he explains that the quote in question was submitted by a person who had been a member for almost a year.
 
– But our queue of submissions is always long, so this was probably sent in three or four months ago, he says.
 
The quote in question has been seen by some 170,000 people on Danstonchat.com's Facebook page, as well as being hugely popular on the site.
 
But it hasn't been at all possible to verify its authenticity. The person who provided the quote is as previously mentioned anonymous, and may just as well made it all up by himself.
 
Despite this, the story has been published in newspapers and media outlets not only in Sweden, but all over the world. The Guardian, Mashable, British Metro, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, CNET, The Telegraph, Time Magazine and so on.
 
Not that all this commotion has reached Rémi Cieplicki, though.
 
– You're only the second journalist to contact me about this. The first was French. The rest are probably just copy-pasting, I guess, he says.
 
Why is this a problem? Well, writing a news story based on an anonymous commenter on the Internet is akin to using what someone wrote on the face of a drunk guy sleeping at a home party as a source. Not many of the news outlets who've written about this even manage to point out just how unreliable the source is – instead, they link to other news sites reporting about it, thereby making the story seem more legitimate.
 
And if we are to make journalism out of what happens on the web, we ought to be able to treat the sources with the same kind of scrutiny that we would ordinarily, and at the very least describe the story like it is.
 
Anything other than that makes us look like fools who just logged on to the Internet for the first time.
 
That's not to say that this story's popularity is strange. See, it follows the exact anatomy of an urban legend.
 
A quick and easy trick to silence unruly students is more than just a wet dream for many teachers – it's also a symbol of the well-functioning school system so many of us are longing for these days. The story relates to a social problem currently affecting the public debate, and it does so using a feeling many will recognize: The desire to experience the thrill of a popular TV show undisturbed. The story is specifically designed to appeal to us. And it's when a story like that appears that warning bells in any journalist's head should begin ringing at full volume.
 
This is an anonymously published comment on the Internet. That's all.
 
It could be literally anything from a lie to a viral marketing stunt. The fourth season of Game of Thrones starts out in the beginning of April, so the timing would be impeccable. Rémi Cieplicki denies this has anything to do with that, but the good folks over at Guardian, Telegraph, Time and so on couldn't know that – as mentioned above, the French journalist and I were the only ones to even contact Cieplicki. 
 
Urban legends and such are very fascinating, and I personally don't see a problem with publishing them for people to read. But they should be marked as such.
 
And we as journalists really should strive for better sources than anonymous web comments.

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