In recent years it's been increasingly rare for any conference, seminar, workshop or other event on the topic of media not to include a discussion about the "death of journalism." The number of specialists and evangelizers of new media and digital technologies has grown exponentially, no doubt approaching that of the total global Internet population. At the same time, the number of those mourning the death of independent, serious, journalism is likewise growing impressively. This is a story about the latter.
In late January, the Romanian satirical website times.ro published an article saying that a battalion of troops were sent along with medical and food aid by the Romanian ministry of defense to the Polynesian island of Tahiti instead of Haiti. The article quoted the Romanian defense minister Gabriel Oprea as stating, “I say we should not make a big fuss of this thing. I mean, the names sound very, very similar. Haiti, Tahiti, Mahiti, Papiti. To hell with them, they all sound the same.”
What followed is perhaps beyond imagination for most of you. For others like me who paid his rent thanks to journalism for many years, it is quite usual and shameful.
After times.ro published the prank, Romanian TV channel KanalD called the site’s editors to ask for an interview with the author. They sent a TV crew to times.ro, and found out from Ionut Foltea, the site’s blogger who was behind the prank, that the whole story was a hoax. KanalD didn’t broadcast anything on the topic. Next day, their usual newscast aired reports on accidents, killings, and a piece about a donkey.
The following day, Russian news agency Rosbalt published the times.ro article as true. “All Romanians are a band of idiots,” they added. Visitorship of times.ro skyrocketed from its typical 5,000 visitors a day to some 19,000.
But on February 5, the hoax hit the fan, to put it mildly. Russia Today in Spanish aired the story. Later, they realized that it was a prank and deleted the news piece from their website. Romanian journalists and bloggers continued to spread the news, without making a phone call to double-check it.
On February 10, the Romanian ministry of defense finally issued a news release, saying that the story about the Romanian troops and aid sent to Tahiti instead of Haiti was “totally false” and was published on a website specializing in “lampoons.” The ministry castigated the site, saying that they didn’t label the story as such, thus misleading the readers. It went on to say that this encroached upon the “journalistic deontology.”
The story didn’t end here. Hordes of journalists from Latvia, Russia, Hungary, and Italy published the story. It was even aired by Colombian television. On Feb 18, French weekly Courrier internationale summarized the article from times.ro, stating that it was a hoax. But the next day, French mainstream private channel Canal+ presented the news as true in its L’edition speciale talk show. They later retracted the story.
Four days later, Mirel Bran, the Bucharest correspondent of the French daily Le Monde mocked Canal+ in a bitter article.
I can’t help ending with a quote from Foltea, the satire’s writer: “I can’t believe that. Our website is a platform for lampoons, false topics and jokes, which are read for fun. When you are a journalist, the first thing you do is to check the information. Nobody bothered to make a phone call.”