Voice of Real Australia: When one story from 2014 is news again

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from Australian Community Media, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend. Today's newsletter is written by Newcastle Herald journalist Simon McCarthy.

When the tracking throws up an anomaly. Photo: Shutterstock

When the tracking throws up an anomaly. Photo: Shutterstock

In the middle of the Newcastle Herald newsroom, there's a TV that's never turned off.

It shows a realtime list of stories published on the Herald's website ranked by the number of people reading them.

It's one of about a half dozen different apps we use to measure how well the website is performing - how we track trends in reader behaviour - and what people are interested and disinterested in reading.

It's a handy tool for a digital journalist. The list changes every couple of seconds, but if you spend two years looking at it every day, you can start to see some interesting patterns emerge.

Stories come and go on the tide of the daily news cycle - it's rare for one story to stick in one place. But then an anomaly arises.

For around the past six weeks, we have been tracking one story that's will not unstick. It was was published in 2014.

It covered a secret lease conversions sale of 700 hectares of NSW land - including a significant natural landmark called The Drip - in 2010 to a Chinese mining company for $2084. It was a Labor state government who sealed the deal, and it wasn't publicised at the time.

The community around The Drip raised their concerns, the Herald reported on it, and The Drip became a key issue for the Hunter in the 2015 NSW state election campaign.

An agreement was signed during the campaign through which the mining company would relinquish 23 hectares, including The Drip, to the NSW state government to be turned into a state conversation area.

In 2018, the Herald reported that the company had failed to meet a March 2017 deed of agreement condition to transfer land around The Drip back to the government.

STICKY STORY: The 2014 report as it appears on the newsroom board.

STICKY STORY: The 2014 report as it appears on the newsroom board.

This is a complicated issue that has been going on for years, which is what makes this one 2014 story resurfacing most concerning.

All of the progress of this issue after that original report, which the Herald has been writing about for years, is now noticeably absent from the original story.

That's just the way news reporting works.

But, on the surface, this one story out of context still looks like Labor sold an iconic piece of Crown land in NSW to a Chinese mining company for a song.

Which it did.

But a lot has happened since then, and it's more complicated than it looks.

ICONIC: Scenes from area around The Drip.

ICONIC: Scenes from area around The Drip.

So, even though this story is true in 2014 - right now, without all the progress that happened in the months after it was published, the same report suddenly looks a lot like misinformation.

It's not. But it looks like it is.

In 2020, this one story and the way that people are responding to it is a good example of how misinformation and 'fake news' works on the internet. It's not always coming from the darkest corners of the interweb. Sometimes, it's good people with good intentions misusing good information.

This story raises some interesting questions about how newspapers and journalists should deal with a developing report online, over time.

In the old days, the report would never have had this large a readership almost 10 years after it was published.

In the digital news age, stories live forever. And they can resurface in unexpected ways.

There's an ethics problem here too. On the one hand, the report is still accurate in the context of the time it was published. But people aren't using it that way anymore.

Last week, we added an editor's note at the bottom of the report summarising what has happened since this story was published. And we've included a handful of links to our coverage on this issue as it developed, all signposted with respective publication dates.

But that could become a minefield as we toss-up the ethics of editing stories after they are published. Should the first rough draft of history be open to reinterpretation?

ICONIC: Scenes from area around The Drip.

ICONIC: Scenes from area around The Drip.

This is a rare story, with a rare problem that needed a rare solution. But it does show us some interesting things about how we use the internet, and whether or not, in the context of reading the news, we are using it properly.

Newspapers, especially these days, have a responsibility to deliver the news fairly and - most importantly - accurately. It's a responsibility we take very seriously.

But I'm not sure it's fair to lay all of the responsibility for this story coming back to life at the feet of reporters.

Every story on the Herald's website is stamped with a publication date. It's right next to the headline. And this is the reason why it's there. The publication date puts this story in its context.

It is also extremely rare for a Herald reporter - or any journalist for that matter - to write just one story about an issue as complicated as foreign ownership in NSW. These issues have countless and complex moving parts - they take a lot of words, written from a lot of different perspectives, to cover properly.

Foreign ownership in NSW, and around Australia, is an important issue right now. So, to see this story reappearing on the board is probably not as strange as it first seems, but, interestingly, no one (literally) has found any of the other reports published in the weeks and months and years after this story that covered the complicated parts of the issue.

Stories like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and many more like it, have not come back to life.

Finding this one story from 2014 stuck to the newsroom board shows us how we can sometimes misuse the internet to confirm our opinions, rather than inform them. And that is dangerous for everyone.

ICONIC: Scenes from area around The Drip.

ICONIC: Scenes from area around The Drip.

The internet has the potential to make all of our lives better. It can make us more informed about problems that have the potential to change the way we live - and it can be the megaphone that gives us all a voice to solve those problems.

But like most very powerful things, it's how we use it that counts.

Simon McCarthy

Newcastle Herald, journalist

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