Contributing Editor Bryan Pirolli weighs in on the latest “news” fail and the bigger issue of why this keeps happening.
It’s been in the headlines for the past few weeks. I didn’t really pay attention, mostly because I always finish my food at dinner. The press, however, was fascinated with a new law requiring restaurants to offer doggy bags in France.
The only problem was that no such new law existed and no one in France was forcing doggy bags on anyone.
Travel writing, especially in Paris, has shifted away from facts and stories and towards sensationalism (scroll to “France in the Press: Good, Bad and Ugly”) and outright false information. It’s something that trained professionals rally against, but we are too few to be effective in a mediascape perforated by TripAdvisor, blogs, wikis, and other questionable information. So how then did a routine suggestion to use doggy bags turn into “Doggy Bag-gate 2016”? How did so many writers get the story so blatantly wrong? Are writers just too lazy to seek our actual true stories to share with their readers? Is it even possible anymore to separate fact from fiction, to write engaging yet accurate articles?
Of course it’s possible, but we might have to go back to the basics. In the case of the doggy bag rumor, a lack of verification, the cornerstone of journalism, was the culprit.
Much of the misinformation stemmed from an article in Le Parisien that was later deleted and corrected in another piece. L’Express was quick to jump on the error, but the damage was done. Other publications picked up the piece without verifying the story. And it spread to the English-speaking world quickly.
The Washington Post was quoting misinformation found on France 24’s website, while both The Telegraph and The Guardian seemed to have copied each other in England, citing the “new law” requiring doggy bags. Then there were the blogs and social media shares that, once unleashed, left us all confused.
It’s a textbook case of bad journalism. A look at the law on the government’s website clearly says that the provisions will “promote doggy bags” and nothing more. Few, if any publications cited a source for the new law. Where were they getting their information? How did journalists all over the world know about this new law if even I had difficulty tracking down the information?
Over the first few days of January, stories came out in the French media debunking the required doggy bags, explaining that certain restaurants are actually required to recycle food waste if they produce 10 metric tons per year. Try turning that story into clickbait.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all the time. Everyone wants to write about Paris, but no one wants to put in the effort required for well-written or even accurate stories. It’s just so much easier to hitch a ride on the viral bandwagon by fanning the flames of scandal and public indignation. Anyone who looked closer would realize that the actual doggy bag provision was akin to putting warning labels on cigarettes. “We can’t stop you from doing what you’re doing, but we’ll suggest you do,” is the message. That’s not news. That’s not a story. That’s not even really interesting, if we’re being honest.
So why does this keep happening?
Paris sells, and editors know that. They just don’t think they need journalists to sell it anymore. As a journalist, however, it’s a hard pill to swallow. We all, unfortunately, have to make ends meet, and that often means writing fluff pieces that we’d rather not. Even these can be done well, with a little effort. Only days after the doggy bag business, a friend put me in touch with an editor at a major US publication who wanted a piece on why Paris is embracing the doggy bag. It’s just an example, but it shows how editors tend to ask journalists to write stories with a predetermined premise, scheduling the article before they know if it’s actually a story. The misinformation had reached the top of the food chain and was cycling back through. Madness.
The responsibility falls back onto us, the writers, and we are far from helpless. Fortunately, editors are not closed to the truth, if journalists can provide it. Instead of simply writing around the issue, vaguely rehashing what other writers have already published, I suggested discussing the bad coverage and how this news item isn’t really a news item. Fortunately the editor agreed, and some vague notion of journalistic integrity prevailed. Today, however, readers also have to shoulder the responsibility for identifying accurate information, especially about travel. Sorry, everyone.
Learning how to recognize when a journalist is citing a primary source, or just quoting another newspaper who may have gotten it wrong, is a good first step. Does it seem like a lot of work? Maybe, but it’s what we’re already doing whether we realize it or not. We’re all detectives when it comes to TripAdvisor or Yelp reviews, double-checking comments with other sources like news articles and blogs. If doggy bag-gate is any indication, we should be doing the same thing with our news sources, at least until they wisen up a bit.
We don’t have to settle for bad information, whether it’s writing it or reading it. I just hope more writers will realize that, and that more readers will become critical. If we’re going to get in a huff about soggy leftover French food, I’d hope we can get equally as riled up over bad rehashed journalism.