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People love stories, especially stories about wild adventures at sea, featuring threats of massive storms, vicious packs of blood thirsty sharks and unrelenting isolation.
Cinematic hits of this variety — including tales based on true stories, such as “Kon-Tiki,” “The Deep” and “A Perfect Storm” — have captured our collective imaginations for decades (if not millennia), so why wouldn’t the Sea Nymph story get local, national and international attention? It was amazing!
Two Hawaii women (Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava), and their dogs, claimed to have been lost at sea for months. They were sending out daily distress signals, and fighting off packs of sharks, until they miraculously were rescued by the Navy, just as their supplies were about to run out, or their boat was about to sink, or rogue Taiwanese fishermen were going to abduct them and, as Appel described it, get “two girls to do whatever they wanted to.”
Appel also asserted that, without the dramatic rescue, they probably wouldn’t have lived “another 24 hours.”
Though when asked by a journalist about the basis for that assessment, Appel demurred: “I would love to answer that question now. I’m not actually allowed to answer that as long as we are on the vessel.” Huh?
The women reported surviving gigantic storms, for example, but National Weather Service records indicated no such disturbances.
They said packs of huge tiger sharks attacked their vessels. A shark expert, though, told The New York Times, that sharks don’t act like that, adding, “It sounds like something a 4-year-old would tell you. … There’s not an iota of accuracy relative to our knowledge of the shark in any of that.”
The women had an emergency beacon, connected to satellites, but never turned it on. And so on.
While these women continue to defend their story, to date, it appears to be destined somewhere on the “fake news” spectrum between a wildly sensationalized tale and total fabrication.
Journalists deserve blame for inflating this story so quickly and broadly, of course, but they also deserve credit for deflating it rapidly, too, by asking tough questions and exposing inconsistencies in the narrative.
This is a news-to-fake-news transition, worthy of further study. Before we diverge into the “fake news” discussion, though, I want to make clear that “fake news” has a long and destructive history in journalism and public discourse.
It has been used by villainous characters throughout the ages, such as Donald Trump, in many nefarious ways, from propaganda to outright hoaxing. This lost-at-sea story might be a publicity stunt (financed by your tax dollars, funding the Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard). Yet it also illustrates an important aspect of news gathering and journalistic publishing policies and procedures that sometimes gets conflated into general discussions of “fake news.”
The most fundamental element of journalism is truth. If even a single word in a 20,000-word story is false, then the story is false, and it is not journalism. But truth is not a settled state, either.
Truth, in a journalistic sense, especially on breaking news stories, can be considered relative and under development. That means a truth could consist of someone saying something that is an opinion or even false, as long as the journalistic characterization relates to the statement being made (yes, this person did say that). Good journalists, for example, could build a story around the declaration of a specious statement by providing evidence to debunk it, like the Associated Press did with this Sea Nymph story.
Journalistic truth also can be considered provisionally (even iteratively) attained, over a period of time. Think of any recent breaking news story, such as the terrorist attack late last month in New York. The earliest stories were the most loosely sourced and speculative. As more reporters asked more questions, though, and the facts of the matter gained clarity, especially through authoritative sources, the stories sharpened in their details and focus.
The earliest stories might have had “factual” errors, but, in an ethical manner, journalists then acknowledged and corrected those errors in later versions of the story, until the final drafts were considered error-free and based on facts, supported by empirical evidence of those facts. Earlier mistakes, per the journalistic Code of Ethics, are noted and amended. That doesn’t mean the first stories were dishonest or “fake.” It means they were under construction.
So were the first stories “fake news,” because in hindsight they had mistakes? I don’t think so. For the most part, these were first drafts of history, recording interactions among fallible human actors, earnestly trying to make sense of what happened to them, the best that they could under the circumstances.
They are the starting point for a secondary role journalists must embody — one of verifiers. Journalists generally will document what people or documents are saying about a particular situation at first, which is where most of the inadvertent errors appear, then they will, in the best of circumstances, verify all of the information as true, which is where the Sea Nymph story collapsed.
If reporters intentionally inserted errors or failed to fix problems as they became aware of them, then you would have truly “fake news.” In the moment, in the process of news gathering, though, errors are correctable, and journalists should be given the opportunity to do that difficult work before judgement is passed on their results.
With no malice, journalists will make mistakes on their stories, and sources also make mistakes, too. Sometimes, miscommunication happens. Sometimes, careless assumptions are made. Sometimes people lie. But real journalists seek truth and always correct mistakes.
That’s one factor separating them from all other types of communicators, especially propagandists, like Trump and his cronies, who revel in propagating misinformation and disinformation.
Journalists also must verify, as part of their truth-telling imperative. A classic journalism mantra is: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Journalists deserve blame for inflating this story so quickly and broadly, of course, but they also deserve credit for deflating it rapidly, too.
In the case of the Sea Nymph, if castaways tell you they survived a massive storm, check the National Weather Service. If they tell you they were attacked by sharks, compare their account to usual shark behavior. If they tell you they thought they were near death, ask the most fundamental of follow-up questions: Why did you think that?
When these same people tell you they are eager to get back out on the water, and they plan to build an “unsinkable and unbreakable boat,” you might wonder if you’ve heard this story before, in something like a movie, and if your sources are credible. When a story like this sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and journalists can’t just stop on the first day’s coverage.
Truth emerges and solidifies throughout the process. That’s how we really separate news from “fake news.”
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.