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If someone says eye-licking is causing infections, check it out

I wrote a blog entry for Copyediting about the failure of a reporter and editors at the Guardian to check the sources on a story about a newly popular eye-licking fetish causing an increase in eye infections in Japan. The fetish exists, though it’s hard to tell how prevalent it is.

But the story’s news peg, the increase in eye infections, is not supported. The story was posted in June, and the mea culpa by the Guardian’s readers’ editor came on Sunday.

I suggested in my column for Copyediting that the reporter or a copy editor ought to have dug a bit to verify the story. What I didn’t say because of space considerations was that getting to the source took me less than 10 minutes.

The reporter, Stuart Heritage, said he spent his time checking to see if the trend was real on Tumblr and YouTube, but failed to check into the alleged medical result. The story appeared on the with Guardian’s blog Shortcuts under the headline “Eyeball-licking: the fetish that is making Japanese teenagers sick.”

In Sunday’s Guardian piece, Heritage mentions one source as an article in the Huffington Post, which in turn uses the Daily Caller as a source. The Daily Caller attributes the story “to a teacher’s anecdote” on Shanghaiist, a website of the aggregator, Gothamist. The unbylined story on Shanghaiist refers to a Japanese-language blog in which a teacher writes about witnessing eyeball-licking. The only mentions of the spread of infections is a warning that it could happen and a headline that suggests that it is happening.

Heritage also cites an article on the website of the London-based National Student. That article also makes no claims about an increase in infections, but the writer interviews two experts who warn that eye infections are possible.

In checking Tumblr and YouTube, Heritage focused on the real reason for the story. It wasn’t a news story about an increase in Japanese eye infections. It was a chance to put “eyeball-licking” on a web page and boost pageviews.

The story made me think of advice from JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Mr. Weasley tells his daughter, Ginny: “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”

Never trust a claim in a news story if you can’t see who is making the claim.

I say that discovering the lack of foundation for this story took me less than 10 minutes. Sadly, with less and less attention paid to quality editing, 10 minutes is a luxury some reporters and editors don’t have.

That being said, the story was up for two months.

I don’t equate the Guardian with CNN with the Onion, but the Onion had a wonderful parody explanation of CNN’s Miley Cyrus coverage on Tuesday. Take a look and see if it doesn’t sound plausible.

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