If a story seems too good to be true; well, it probably is. This is a lesson journalists must learn the hard way, time and again (and Metro's own newsroom is no exception).
According to a viral story recently reported by several media sources, notably Huffington Post and Metro, a boatload of members of populist Italian party Lega Nord overturned in a notoriously failed attempt to prove how "easy" it is for illegal immigrants to reach Italy via Malta.
Incredibly ironic, no?
Unfortunately, "incredibly" turns out to be rather a key word here. The original source of this story was the satirical blog Gazzetta del Nord – a blog that openly describes itself as ”a social experiment”. ”All contents, except for comments from others, are the result of the author's imagination. Anything bearing a resemblance to real persons or events is based completely on the author's imagination, and his only purpose is to write for the sake of writing," states the author in a clearly marked disclaimer.
The story first saw light on the satirical blog on March 20, but was reproduced by Maltese newspaper Malta Independent on April 6. Malta Independent, an established newspaper, suggested that Gazzetta del Nord – or "Lega Nord's own newspaper" as the paper described it – was but one of the many Italian news sources to have written about the debacle.
But this was not the case. The (real) local newspaper Gazzetta di Modena wrote about the satirical blog post as early as March 23, just three days after it was published, describing it as the fake story it clearly is. The paper quoted a Lega Nord-member from Modena who asserted he'd "never heard of" the seven named party members said to have undertaken the tragicomic boat journey.
So why did so many newsrooms, including Metro, fall for this fraud?
Partly because it was so well-performed. The party members who supposedly took part in the journey were all named, and seemed to have been mentioned online before the story broke. There were both exact geographic locations and times mentioned in the story. Also, the Malta Independent article lent the story an air of particular credibility by suggesting that most of the Italian press had written about it.'
But another reason so many journalists fell for this was that we didn't take the time to thoroughly check the sources. A quick glance at the original source, the satirical blog Gazzetta del Nord, would likely have sufficed to arouse suspicion, and a proper background check of the names mentioned in the story would have set warning bells ringing.
The lesson to take away from this is to always be cautious and suspicious. All journalists, not to mention the industry as a whole, stand to lose much more from swallowing a fake story than we do spending an extra minute checking our sources.
(Translated from Swedish by Clara Guibourg)