The World’s Most Popular Online Newspaper Might Also Be Its Worst

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July 9 2014 7:30 PM

George Clooney Is Right About the Daily Mail

The world’s most popular online newspaper does not deserve to be taken seriously.

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Memo to my fellow reporters: Just because a website has a print newspaper attached to it doesn’t mean it checks its facts—or particularly cares whether or not they’re true.

To be clear, all journalists get things wrong sometimes. I get things wrong sometimes. But that shouldn’t prohibit us from pointing out that the Mail Online in particular is developing quite a pattern of getting things wrong and then failing to transparently correct them.

In one revealing instance, the Mail Online couldn’t even explain how a made-up story—concisely headlined “Dentist pulled out ALL boyfriend’s teeth after he dumped her (and new girlfriend leaves him because of his empty mouth)”—made it onto the site. “I’ve drawn a bit of a blank,” a Mail Online journalist told MSNBC.com when asked where the story came from. That didn’t stop the fake story from spreading to sites ranging from Yahoo News to the Huffington Post to the Los Angeles Times. At least those outlets ran updates admitting their errors and correcting the record. When the Mail Online is publicly confronted with evidence that it botched a story, this is usually all it leaves behind:

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The site’s laissez-faire approach to the truth is compounded by its nasty penchant for playing on racial, religious, and sexual stereotypes and phobias—one it appears to have inherited from the print Daily Mail. That paper’s 1993 headline for a story about a controversial study that claimed to identify the genetic roots of homosexuality—“Abortion hope after ‘gay genes’ finding”—is only one of the more infamous examples. In 2009 it used the occasion of a gay pop singer’s death to insinuate that homosexual relationships are unnatural. Last year a transgender schoolteacher committed suicide after being hounded by the press, including a Daily Mail columnist who wrote a column headlined “He’s not only in the wrong body … he’s in the wrong job.”

In an ideal world, the mainstream media and the public would treat Mail exclusives like they treat exclusive reports from TMZ or the National Enquirer. They might well be true, but they’re best viewed as unverified rumors until they can be independently confirmed. But for better and worse, the Web and social media have blurred the lines between reputable news organizations and tabloids, and the Mail has profited handsomely from the confusion.

I have no special insight into the facts behind the Clooney story. But the Mail’s public response to the actor’s op-ed is telling. It swiftly apologized to Clooney on Wednesday and removed the story from its website. In a statement, it added, “We only became aware of Mr. Clooney’s concerns this morning and have launched a full investigation. However, we accept Mr. Clooney’s assurance that the story is inaccurate.”

The show of contrition seems laudable. But more careful news organizations would be shocked by allegations like Clooney’s, and their first priority would be to go to their reporters and editors and find out what happened. The Mail story’s immediate removal—before the paper even begins its promised “full investigation” into the facts—implies that its leaders have no trouble believing that what it printed was essentially a pack of falsehoods.

It isn’t that the Mail sets out to get things wrong. It’s just that, when your mission is to attract page-views at any cost, you do so with the understanding that the truth may be collateral damage. The self-described gossip site Gawker, to its credit, has openly grappled with the consequences of this tradeoff. (Gawker, for the record, is another online-only media outlet that displays far more allegiance to the facts than the Mail.) The Mail has not.

Good for Clooney for calling it out—and for naming some of the sites that picked up the story without checking it out. Publicly shaming bad journalism may not deter an inveterate offender like the Mail, but at least maybe it will make the rest of us think twice before trusting it.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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