Kim Jong Un’s untrue buzzcut story went viral

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This week, a story about North Korean leader Kim Jung Un spread across the World Wide Web. It was reported that the leader would force every male university student in his country to get the same haircut as his. However, today, many news sources such as the Globe and Mail, claim that this statement is false and there are no signs of this being true. This Internet rumour is a particularly interesting story because of North Korea’s completely closed-off society; there are not many ways to verify if it is indeed accurate. So how to verify if it’s true? The Globe and Mail found a plausible source:

“I was there just a few days ago, and no sign of that,” said Simon Cockerell of Koyro Tours, which specializes in bringing foreign tourists to North Korea. “It’s definitely not true.”

A serious question does remain. How does a story like this spread across media outlets around the world when it isn’t even true?

It is one of the consequences of the Internet news and one we must be aware of when writing stories. With the rapid news flow on the Internet nowadays, there is a sense of urgency and need to get the story out first, without properly fact-checking or verifying sources.

In Natalie Fentons’ article “News in the Digital Age”, she describes the way reporting is done in our era of new media: “speed it up and spread it thin.”  She continues by saying:

“Researchers describe how established news organizations are encouraged by the speed of the Internet to release and update stories before the usual checks for journalistic integrity have taken place. The increasing emphasis on immediacy in news coverage is frequently satisfied by news agencies to the detriment of reportage.”

Indeed, the urgency to be the first to make news may not be the best for our source of news. How do we know when something is true once we see it as breaking news on Twitter?

In this case, the source of the story came from a report from Radio Free Asia, which cited unnamed sources that had this information. Most news stations took this source with confidence, without properly verifying with North Korean sources. But then again, it is North Korea. It probably would have been very difficult for news agencies to get a fact checked in North Korea. This case is particularly interesting in that sense.

However, journalists should always be careful when spreading the news, and shouldn’t have to rush to be the first to break a story when that information can be false.

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