This might surprise you, but I don’t mind what’s often referred to as “Process Journalism”.
Process Journalism, the idea of updating something even before you know anything, is a play for pageviews on the Web, and a play for ratings on television. By now, we all know that.
We also know that for major events like 9/11, the nuclear incident in Japan, and even the events of the Arab Spring, it can be as helpful as it is harmful.
But the idea that the suicide of an individual would merit the same kind of journalistic practices best reserved for major events should upset you.
The people who are hearing about the suicide without directly knowing the person will want all the facts, not “what you know right now”. “What you know right now” isn’t relevant. They’re upset and want the truth. “What you know right now” may prove to be inaccurate later and cause harm to those people.
Stories about suicide have a certain threshold they have to meet before they’re published. Most news outlets today don’t run the story unless they can tie it in with a larger narrative. That’s why you’ll hear about teens killing themselves but not necessarily the guy down the street who killed himself because he can’t pay on his mortgage.
Right now, “Teen Bullying” and “Teen Suicide” are two narrative threads the media is pushing.
The reason for not running stories involving suicide is that there is a demonstrated correlation and causation between someone’s suicide being covered in the press, and the increased likelihood that someone else will do the same.
In Mashable’s case, they’ve only covered four suicides in their history (as far as I can tell from searching their website). Three of them involved major media events: The Austin helicopter suicide, the suicide of the “Craigslist Killer”, and the kid who killed himself live on Justin.TV.
The fourth suicide, Trey Pennington’s, had no tie with a major media event. Mashable posted 176 words, exactly three hours before they knew anything for sure. The logic being, I can only assume, that he was an important figure in the social media world, which warranted a post.
They did no actual reporting, but relied on secondhand information from a local NBC affiliate in South Carolina. Three hours after their original post, they updated it to reveal they Trey had killed himself.
When the post was first rolled out on Twitter, before they knew for sure that it was Trey who died, they used his Twitter username in the headline.
Doing this meant that people who follow both Mashable and Trey, of which there were many because he was a social media marketer, would see the post and click on the link. Even though they didn’t know for sure that he was dead. They probably had a very good idea, but it wasn’t confirmed until three hours after the post went live.
I have to ask: What difference did the three hours make? No one else on the national level, save the UK tabloid The Mirror, covered the story. Mashable was essentially the go to source then. Given that, and given that this wasn’t a major media event, and that people looking for information on the guy’s death would be using Google, why didn’t they wait until they had the facts to make the post? They didn’t have any competition for the story. Mashable would have appeared first in the results.
One social media marketer pointed out that he knew of Trey’s death before Mashable made their post. If this was so, why didn’t Mashable reach out to other social media marketers and ask them for comment or to confirm the reports? Why the reliance on second hand information when they would be the only major source covering the story and confirmation and comment was just a tweet away?
The reason this story matters is because Mashable is an independent media outlet. They are not owned by a corporate media outlet, and in a lot of ways, they represent the future of news under the Web’s current economic model. A model Google can kill at any moment, but probably won’t. It’ll most likely atrophy on its own.
If the Internet is supposed to free us from information corrupted by corporations and sensationalized for the purpose of ratings and page views as people like Tim O’Reilly suggest, it simply hasn’t happened.
Instead we have more people doing the same old shit. And although people like Jeff Jarvis may tell you there are thousands of media outlets out there giving people unlimited choices (in other words, if you don’t like it, don’t read it), the paradox of choice keeps us from finding and enjoying them. Google and Facebook’s march toward “personalization” also means the sources we’re exposed to will be limited in the future.
We’ll just go with whatever shows up first in Google or whatever our friends are passing around, and for a long time now, that’s been mostly blogs regurgitating stuff from traditional media outlets, blogs like Mashable and The Huffington Post gaming Google, and a handful of online outlets producing original material, mostly owned by the same corporations we came to the Web to get away from.
That means, of the outlets we know, and those who are independent of corporate rule, we should expect, and demand better from them.
However, since 2009, Mashable has committed a long string of ethics violations that should warrant careful consideration by their advertisers, syndication partners, and readers as to whether or not they should continue supporting them as a media outlet.
-I mentioned the Austin Texas helicopter suicide. At the time it occurred, I was a contributor to Mashable. I quit because they posted the suicide note of the man who flew the helicopter into the IRS building. I didn’t think a blog that covers “tech, social media, and digital culture” needed to host a crazy person’s suicide note. Pete Cashmore, Mashable.com’s founder, pointed out that other blogs were doing it. That was the justification for the post.
Not that it had anything to do with their coverage area, but that the suicide note was posted by other outlets.
-When Google deleted all corporate and business accounts from Google+, they deleted Mashable’s account. Mashable got around the deletion by renaming their account “Pete Cashmore”, and then Google restored it, even though it served the same function as the previous Mashable account. Details.
-Mashable’s Twitter following was inflated by the Suggested User List. This is rarely (if at all) mentioned anywhere. Especially on their website. To give you an idea of the impact that list had, I went from 3,000 followers to 999,999 in seven months. Everyone who has been on the list and was taken off it loses about 300 followers a day, but Mashable was on it essentially forever, and was later included in Twitter’s suggestions directory. This made any loses they encountered from the end of the Suggested User List invisible.
It’s also worth discussing that a media property is receiving a gift from a company that media property is supposed to cover impartially.
-On the day Osama Bin Laden was killed, Pete Cashmore declared Mashable had its best traffic day ever. What he didn’t mention was that the site ran 15, 200 word posts that had Bin Laden in the headline and first sentence.
-Mashable wrote a piece attacking The Village Voice for going after Ashton Kutcher for giving out bad information. No where did they disclose that Pete Cashmore appeared briefly in the campaign that Ashton Kutcher was running, that The Village Voice piece was addressing. The article also reads as if the author didn’t actually read the whole Village Voice piece.
-Mashable actively spammed people on Twitter and promoted a way for others to do the same. When they were caught, they didn’t bother to cover it up. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve spammed Twitter either.
- The stated rule by their managing editor for unpaid guests who contribute to Mashable is that “ Posts must be non-promotional (you cannot write about your own or friends’ projects)”. 10 of “Personal Branding” guru Dan Schwabel’s posts are on “Personal Branding”. The others are related to the field. There are many more examples of this including marketers who only do one post that’s directly tied to the services they provide to their clients.
-Mashable claims to have 13 million unique visitors, Quantcast puts it at 6 million, Compete.com puts it at 2 million. Many of the 4 million “social media users” Mashable advertisers came from the old Twitter Suggested User List, and many more are going to come from the Google+ Suggested User List.
On their advertising page, they claim to have 50 million monthly page views and 14 million unique monthly visitors.
-They also mention they were named a top 25 website by Time.com, who happens to be owned by Time Warner, who happens to own CNN, where they have a content arrangement.
-Mashable claims to have a syndication arrangement with Forbes (it doesn’t), USA Today (it doesn’t appear active), and ABC News (ditto). They do have an arrangement with CNN, which has lead to Pete Cashmore writing editorials that further his companies financial interests, like knocking the New York Times paywall, praising the new Digg, and praising the new Facebook revamp.
Forbes made it a point to add, “We won’t be partnering with them again in the future”.
-They put out that they’ve won three Webby Awards, but don’t disclose that you have to pay to be considered for a Webby, and that you have to pay to receive one.
-They mention on the advertising page that they are a “Top Influencer” on Twitter and site only one study, from early 2009, that was not peer reviewed.
I could go on. They’ve promoted Pepsi and other sponsors in posts that were not labeled as advertisements during my time there, and they also run their own conferences ($500 to get in) where they need to play nice with the people they cover in order to get them to appear, but I think you get the idea.
Some of the people who work at Mashable are good people. I am a big fan of Josh Catone, Brenna Ehrlich*, and Jolie O’Dell*
I also think that Mashable can clean up its act and do a lot of good. The problem is that countless times, both on this blog and numerous others, Pete Cashmore shows up and asks for feedback on how Mashable can improve, and it simply never happens.
In the first email I received from Pete Cashmore, from June of 2009, he said:
Can’t help noticing a lot of comments from you recently regarding Mashable – none of them entirely favorable. Is there anything specific we could do to improve Mashable in your eyes? What are the specific areas where we could improve?
All the best, and thanks in advance for any feedback you can provide.”
I wrote him back with essentially what I’ve said here: You can be so much better, but you have to step it up when it comes to how you report your stories.
Nothing has changed.
I really hope that, if it’s true Pete Cashmore is trying to sell the site, that whomever does buy it knows what they’re buying.
*Both are no longer there as I’ve been told.