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The Sunday Times published an article claiming that students had been “told to use gender-neutral pronouns such as ‘ze’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’”. It was quickly reported almost verbatim by other outlets including the Huffington Post (since modified), Metro, the Independent and even Pink News.
It soon became clear that the story was at the very least an exaggeration. It had been written in vague terms, referring to “a students’ union leaflet” as the source of the claim, but the union quickly came out with a denial, saying that their advice had only ever been that people should identify their preferred pronoun when speaking at meetings. The Guardian reported on the OUSU statement and also published a comment piece by Jane Fae referring to the incident.
In recent weeks, talk of “fake news” has been the subject of much media discussion, and it’s worth considering our options when a false or misleading story starts doing the rounds.
Should we take the high road and ignore it completely? Perhaps, but if it’s become a talking point, we may have a responsibility to our readers to report on it.
Or should we publish a Snopes-style debunking? They can be very useful, but if we took that approach every time we were confronted with false or exaggerated claims that would quickly take up all our resources, as well as risking unhelpfully bringing attention to things (cf Pizzagate).
Another option is not to treat it as news and approach it through a comment piece or a Pass Notes, where it’s easier to explain the situation without giving it too much weight.
Even more tricky is how to deal with stories that are only revealed as false much later on – for example, the Intercept reporter who months later admitted he had fabricated messages or Rolling Stone’s notorious A Rape on Campus story. The Guardian has also recently had to retract articles after sources said they had not spoken to the reporter who quoted them.
From deliberately false stories to misleading exaggerations to honest mistakes, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. I’d be interested to know how our readers feel about these stories and how they think the Guardian should treat “fake news” in its various forms.