The UK's Press Gazette gleefully reproduced yesterday the screenshot of the year. The Daily Mail, the right wing conservative UK newspaper, ran the Amanda Knox verdict story on its website. Except it ran the wrong story. Knox was, of course, acquited.
The Press Gazette story is linked here. I do commend it as rather fun.
The Mail realised its awful mistake and took the story down after a couple of minutes but the internet she do not forgive lightly. The botched story became a news story in its own right, with even the Washington Post weighing in and enjoying the Mail's humiliation. As it happens, The Sun also blew it but nobody mainstream seems to have got a screen grab before the piece got taken down. These guys did, though.
So how could such an awful mistake happen? Well, as the Press Gazette piece points out, newspapers do prepare materials in advance - obituaries are written for celebrities while they're still in rude health, waiting for the day they peg it. And papers will also do 'yes' and 'no' pieces for highly anticipated events with only two possible outcomes, such as high profile trials. They're called 'set and hold' pieces. It's one of a number of journalistic practices that are not widely known and would cause some concern amongst a reading public used to depending on papers to tell the truth and deliver... are you ready for this... context and analysis.
Sure, but all the same, why were they in such a rush to push the button? Well, I rather suspect there's a new pressure on them, the pressure of social media. The first word the judge uttered was 'guilty' but that was to the charge of slander. The second word was actually the one the world was waiting for. The Mail and The Sun, under the pressure to show it they are still relevant as a news source online, both leaped into action too soon - the very thing that makes journalists get sniffy about Twitter.
We're being told all the time we can trust mainstream media. That's ever less the case as dubious practices come to light and as that media scrambles in an undignified rush to try and beat all of us eyewitnesses to the punch. They're better off not trying - but cleaning up their act and truly delivering added value to the voices of the people who are there at the time.