I woke up in London, England one morning last month and was greeted with news that the Queen had died.
A little later, the ‘news’ was revised. It wasn’t the monarch that had passed away after all, an Internet site clarified. It was her husband, Prince Phillip, who was dead.
These tales were being spread on social media across the UK, where I was staying for most of the month of May.
When I turned on the TV for more details the truth came out. The Queen and Prince, it turned out, were just fine. The BBC reported the real story – Prince Phillip, who is 96 years old, was simply cutting back on his royal duties.
So how did this misinformation get spread so quickly? Simple. When word got out that Buckingham Palace had summoned its staff for an announcement that morning, the so-called ‘journalists’ of social media rushed it with their scoops about deaths in the Royal Family.
None of the tales turned out to be true but you can bet none of those who spread the stories were punished in any way. Nor were their reputations damaged because they almost always hide behind fake names.
Had the BBC falsely reported the death of the Queen, heads would have rolled.
I thought of this last week when legendary Sarnia newspaperman Jack Fullerton died.
Jack started the Sarnia Gazette back in 1953, along with a guy he’d met on a Montreal park bench named Marceil Saddy.
Jack and Marceil were real journalists, trained at the University of Western Ontario. They would never have dreamed of rushing into print with something they hadn’t checked out first.
They started the old Sarnia Gazette weekly newspaper with one typewriter between them. For a time they lived off petty cash and barter. As Jack noted in a 1995 interview, they’d do things like offer a barber a free ad in return for a free haircut.
They realized that local news was important. No story was too small. They defended ‘Pete the Popcorn Man’ when city council tried to get him and his wagon kicked out of downtown. They stood up for a homeowner whom council wanted to prevent from making honey wine in his basement. They challenged many an authority figure.
As Jack said, “we wanted to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
The outspoken duo was not always right but they didn’t hesitate to correct mistakes. “Whenever we were wrong we were wrong out loud,” Jack remembered.
Today, the mainstream media is in retreat. Many people under the age of 30 have never held a newspaper in their hands. Most get their news from Facebook.
I fear the day isn’t far off when the mainstream media will have so little reach that it’ll be all but powerless to inform the public about much of anything. But at least we’ll have the social media ‘journalists’ to let us know when the Queen dies.