The hoax ANZ/Whitehaven Coal press release sent out by environmental activist Jonathan Moylan this week not only exposed the fragile mind-sets of nervous investors, but highlighted the challenges facing time-poor journalists in the internet age of the 24 hour news cycle.
As has been pointed out by many different commentators including Eric Johnstone from The Age, a little research, a little consideration, even a little time spent mulling the press release over, should have alerted journalists and editors that it was fake.
“The press release read like the real thing. However there were several red flags. Banks don’t usually go about advertising the fact they have pulled a financing facility. They leave that to the company,” Johnstone writes.
Despite these red flags, respected publications like News Limited’s Business Spectator, Fairfax’s metro papers and the Australian Financial Review all bought it hook, line and sinker.
And yet while everyone has been focusing on the impact a press release written in a forest by a 25-year-old translater with basic Photoshop skills and dodgy internet connection had on investors and share prices and possible breaches of the Corporations Act, the bigger story is one about the challenges facing journalists expected to bash out stories in the time it takes to sip a cup of coffee.
Spend time in any online newsroom (as I have done for the past 10 years) and you’ll instantly understand the pressure journalists are under to file copy.
“I need that copy in 10 minutes
“I need it in five minutes.”
“Just file what you have.”
These are the exclamations that ring in the ears of journalists every day uttered by anxious editors.
In the brave new media world, where commercial success is measured by number of ‘hits’, ‘unique browsers’, ‘tweets’ and ‘likes’, there is hardly any time for journalist to sit back and take a moment to think.
The day begins. You turn on computer, put fingers to your keyboard and write, write, write. The day disappears in a flash.
Government reports running to 300 pages must be digested in a few hours, sometimes less, meaning journalists must resort to reading the executive summary and skimming over huge amounts of information.
Intricate legal judgements, deep economic analysis, complex new government policy – its all about finding the story as you skim the paragraphs (keyword searches are especially useful).
And always there is the pressure of time.
Sure there were (and still are) tight deadlines in the past for those journalists working on daily newspapers (I have not worked on one myself) but more than likely – when lucrative print advertising funded newspapers and magazines – they were manageable and editorial teams were large and well resourced.
Today, if journalists want to wear the mantle of true investigative reporters, they must devote their own time, outside of work hours and sometimes their own money to put a deeply researched story together.
And many do.
Jonathan Moylan may have been surprised at the impact his quickly hashed media statement had – wiping $300 million of value off Whitehaven coal and incensing investors and embarrasing editors – but he shouldn’t be.
As an online journalist myself, I have been all to eager on a few occasions to write the story based on research or a press release, which while not a hoax, was based on incorrect information and if I had taken the time to consider the facts before me, would have realised that it clearly was a load of nonsense.
But, a juicy headline as concocted by Moylan, more likely while he rested against a tree and listened to the birds tweeting, would have been impossible to resist for journalists and editors thinking about readers, hits and revenue.
Certainly, at a glance, it looked convincing enough.
Make no mistake, there will be others that will attempt similar guerrilla tactics, considering the enormous impact this hoax has had and the success of other stunts in the past (see this hoax involving Dow Chemicals, this one that caught out Harvey Norman and this recent one targeting MacMahon Holdings ).
Yes, journalists and editors will attempt to be more vigilant, but with the passing of time and the pressure to keep churning out story after story, their guards will slip and we will be easy pickings for activists, trouble-makers and those with more time on their hands than we have.