What's the Story?
The story was as inspiring as it was jaw-dropping: A Filipino student - the son of a tricycle driver and vendor from Negros Occidental announced on social media that he got accepted to 30 universities in the US and the UK and received offers of scholarships worth a cumulative Php106 million. Several news outfits, mostly little-known online news sites, reported the story as early as May 10, based largely on the post of the student, 20-year-old Julian Martir.
What the Stories Got Wrong
Some news outfits reported that Martir presented his story to them, which should have been a red flag. Not every organization accepted it but those that did scored a viral hit online. This led other online media, local and national, to pick it up. These included ABS-CBN News Online's ANCX, GMA News Online, and Philstar Life. Several television news programs of TV5 and DZRH Teleradyo interviewed Martir.
But a week after it went viral, some netizens began questioning the story. Some described the boy as a "fraud" and that his claims were "fake." They also called out the media for failing to check the facts before featuring him or retelling his story on their platforms.
Indeed, none of the above news outlets immediately questioned the veracity of Martir's claim, or at least sought more information to provide more clarity. By the time some of them did, Julian Martir for good or bad had become a viral sensation.
On May 17, DZRH interviewed a representative from the Negros Occidental High School who said they couldn't confirm their graduate's claim until they received a document to prove it. The school said they already emailed the concerned universities for confirmation.
ABS-CBN News Online deleted their post on May 18 and GMA News Online on May 20. Some local media organizations and TV5 started fact-checking. Philstar Life has since been updating their original post, with updates tracking the unraveling of the truth of the story.
As of posting time, only 10 of the 30 universities have responded to the media's requests for confirmation - with eight confirming Martir's acceptance and two invoking confidentiality. Martir himself has doubled down on his claim.
What Could Have Been Done?
Journalism's processes necessitate asking questions and corroborating claims. In telling Martir's seemingly fantastic story, journalists should have asked for documents and other forms of confirmation about his admission.
Confirmation from all 30 universities may have been impossible to do for timely publication. But journalists could have checked, for example, the process Martir used to apply to the schools as well as for financial aid. Since the student had revealed that he used an online application website, the media should have reviewed it and how it worked. The exercise could have opened up opportunities to clarify parts of his story and perhaps limit what their outlets would later publish to what could be verified.
Acceptance to eight universities abroad is an achievement, whether your father is a poor vendor or a millionaire. That should have been enough but, obviously, getting that confirmation required more time. And so the media outlets who ran Martir's story succumbed to the quick and immediate temptation of virality, at the expense of their profession and their credibility.
Why Is this Important?
For the media, verifying Martir's claim is the main issue. The problem here is that, in their almost instinctive desire to ride on the virality of Martir's story, they decided to disregard the core tenets of their profession. At a time when disinformation and "fake news" are rampant, when the news media are at the forefront of fighting these scourges in information, this rush to ride on virality is worrisome.
The mainstream media have been proud of their efforts in verification; their editorial processes set their content apart from other information provided by non-journalists, particularly from social media. The unfortunate Julian Martir saga, therefore, did not only deal a blow to the credibility of the news media - it set back the efforts to check disinformation.