Okay, so I’m perusing an online article in the Guardian and the first words to meet my eyes are “eyeball-licking.” Eyeball-licking! Yuck! Who in their right mind would ever do such a thing? Then I read where it says “this is an article about oculolinctus, an eye-licking fetish that is currently sweeping across the schools of Japan.”
So I say to myself, “Oh it’s about Japan, that explains it, 'nuff said.” There was really no reason for me or anybody else to bother lifting the lid on the story. It was nothing out of the ordinary, just another link in a long chain of weird news stories that seem to be more often than not made in Japan for some odd reason. Any experienced traveler of our reliable information highway knows for a fact that country produces more strange news stories than electronics and cars combined.
Then along comes Tokyo-based scribe, Mark Schreiber, who for some reason did take a second look. According to him this strange tale which was covered by reporters around the world not only stretched back to Japan but stretched the truth to its extreme limits. Writing in the Number 1 Shimbun, Schreiber says that “it was not especially difficult to at least cast doubts on the sweeping claim that large numbers of Japanese adolescents were suffering from an epidemic of tongue-induced pink eye.” I wasn’t about to take that statement at face value. The story was everywhere, from ABC to the New Zealand Herald. Just in case though, I thought I’d give the journalist from Japan the benefit of the doubt and continued to read on.
Our urban myth-busting man in Japan no doubt dug deep into his reporter’s bag of tricks to get to the bottom of this story. Using some sort of state-of-the-art journalistic communications device (perhaps a telephone) he went so far as to contact a couple of Japanese ophthalmological associations, a school clinicians’ organization and other medical professionals. “None of them had the faintest idea of what I was talking about,” Schreiber said. Right there I began to see he might be right. There was less to this "trend" than meets the eye.
While Schreiber noted that before the publication of his article, he urged a number of newspapers, etc. to correct their erroneous stories, none took his advice. I assumed once they saw the story of this hoax heard round the world in print, editors would be scrambling to repair their reputations.
Was I ever wrong. Out of forty news organizations contacted via the crowd-sourced news correction service, MediaBugs, only a handful have fixed their tangled yarns. Most notably, the Guardian has fessed up to falling for the phony fad in a revealing mea culpa column penned by its readers’ editor but it’s squarely in the minority. The majority are sticking to their original stories.
In taking a good hard look at the source of this eye-popping story, Schreiber discovered it to be Butch (Bucchi) News, a questionable website produced by Core Magazine. Core is a less-than-reputable institution whose offices, the urban legend buster notes, were recently “raided by police on suspicion of obscenity.” Not only that, Schreiber points out that the editor of one of Core’s biggest magazines “had the distinction of becoming the first person in Japan arrested under new laws banning child pornography.”
As a parent of a Japanese adolescent this hoax hit kind of close to home. Although I’m pretty sure no parent anywhere in the world would want to have his or her child looked upon through a distorted lens like the one held up by Butch News. Unfortunately that’s the dark lens CBS, Fox, Time, and countless other news operations have chosen to view this trend that never was. In his article Schreiber asks "does anybody really care?" I think the dearth of responses to the error reports from MediaBugs.org, clearly answers that question from the news industry’s point of view. While some do obviously care a lot, most don’t seem to. It also seems like the bigger they are, the less likely they are to set the record straight on their cockeyed stories. Schreiber’s findings coupled together with the response to MediaBugs paints a bleak picture of today’s media landscape. It’s a portrait of an environment where baseless rumors can take root and thrive as they creep across the pages of our newspapers, onto the airwaves, and beyond.
More than anything else though, I wonder exactly how so many news organizations could have so easily lost sight of the facts. Were they cutting corners in a race to get the story out as the Guardian suggests it was? It wasn’t a very big story. Would they play just as fast and loose with the facts if the story had more at stake, say thousands of lives?
As more war clouds continue to gather over the Middle East I wonder how clear a picture we will get of events on the ground from that same majority of news publishers who still don’t regret reporting the eyeball licking hoax. Unlike Syria, there was no fog of war in Japan to obstruct the media’s view. Still a lack of wariness and good old fashioned gumshoe work was blinding enough to lead a host of news outlets, and those who rely on them, into what the Guardian called “a trap.” It’s the kind of trap that should look vaguely familiar to most Americans. After all it was completely unverified claims about weapons of mass destruction, trumpeted by an unquestioning press, that became the clarion call that led us marching into the war in Iraq. We never did find any weapons of mass destruction there and if there had been a little more show-me spirit in the media, maybe we would have never gone looking for them in the first place.
There is definitely an epidemic out there but it's not a pinkeye outbreak triggered by some bizarre eye licking fetish. It's a debilitating ailment that has stricken our newsrooms and any real news doctor will tell you it all stems from the lack of a critical eye that blinds us to the truth. The cure is a healthy dose of skepticism. Take that and any journalist should be able to look a story in the eye and tell whether there is a lick of truth to it or not.
If you want a real eye-opener, take a look at "Lick This!" by Mark Schreiber and read how the tale of a fake fad made in Japan made its way into the pages of newspapers, magazines, and more all around the world.
Also see: The Guardian readers' editor on "How we fell into the trap of reporting Japan's eyeball licking craze as fact"
Related MediaBugs reports:
Not Raw Just Half-Baked (Raw Story); Much A-Buzz about Nothing (BuzzFeed); Eye for Accuracy (The National Student); Eye of the Beholder (Mommyish); Look Twice! (Morning Journal); Less than Meets the Eye (Denver Post); Shangheyed (Business Insider); Exploding a Media Myth (TNT); Poke in the Eye (The New Age); Weird Science (Science World Report); A Funny Sounding Story (AOL News); Fox Takes Eye off Eyeball Story (Fox 29 News, Philadelphia) Eye Network Loses Sight of Facts (CBS Atlanta); In the Shadow of Doubt (Toronto Sun); The Hot Trend That's Not (PIX 11 News, New York); Houston We Have a Problem (KRIV-TV, Fox 26 in Houston, Texas); The Spread (Houston Chronicle); Seeing Eye to Eye (Huffington Post/UK edition); Eye Witless News Report (ABC News); UPI Out of Focus (United Press International); Another Code Brown! (Medical Daily); Entertaining… Licks Telling the News (ABC2 News, WMAR-TV, Baltimore); Didn't Get the Memo (New Zealand Herald); Here is the Thing (MSN News Canada) Fatal Error (CTV News Canada); Time to Correct? (Time Magazine); More Than Meets the Eye (New York Post); A co*k-eyed Story (New York Daily News); Faking It (Syracuse.com/The Post-Standard); Bucking the Trend That Wasn't (The Times of India); If You Can't Lick 'Em Join 'Em (Fox News); Not a Lick of Truth (The Telegraph); Eye Network Lacks Nose for Fishy Stories (CBS News); Calling Out the Daily Caller (The Daily Caller); Code Brown (Medical News Today); Gawk at This! (Gawker); Not a Thing (The San Francisco Chronicle); Less Than Meets the Eye (The Guardian); A Blind Eye to the Truth (Huffington Post); Falling for a Fake Story… (The Washington Times)
(Portions of this post have appeared in various MediaBugs reports as well as The Temple Valley Times).