The hoax Gay Girl in Damascus blog saga has provided a cautionary tale for journalists on the dangers of using material taken from unverified websites.
It was revealed yesterday that the blog was not written by a gay woman in Damascus, Syria, at all but actually by 40-year-old Phd student Tom MacMaster, a married American studying at Edinburgh University.
The Guardian’s readers’ editor Chris Elliott yesterday wrote a piece on how the newspaper managed to ‘get it so wrong”.
The Guardian first wrote about the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ – later named as Amina Abdallah – on 7 May, describing how her blog was ‘capturing the imagination of the Syrian opposition”.
It used an accompanying picture of a ‘young woman with dark brown hair and a clearly visible mole over the left eyebrow”, which was supplied by Abdallah to the writer of the story – who lives in Damascus and writes for The Guardian under a pseudonym – by email.
Elliot said the journalist made an attempt to meet Abdallah and when that failed it was ‘explained as harassment from Syrian security police preventing the meeting”.
On 6 June, a post written on Abdallah’s blog by her ‘cousin’ said she had been abducted by three men. A Guardian story on her abduction was accompanied by a second picture of Abdallah that was taken from her Facebook campaign page.
The new picture ‘showed her looking down and with shorter hair, but with the same mole visible”.
The next day the newspaper received a call from a ‘distraught young woman’named Jelena Lecic, an administrator with the Royal College of Physicians, who insisted both pictures were of her.
Shortly after calling The Guardian said she contacted the Press Complaints Commission.
The Guardian removed the picture but within minutes it was replaced by the original photograph supplied by Abdallah for the 7 May story, which was also a picture of Lecic.
That photograph also made it into the newspaper in a story that appeared on 8 June.
The Guardian did not remove all the pictures until 6pm on Wednesday 8 June, 27 hours after Jelena Lecic first called the Guardian. It took too long for this to happen, for which we should apologise
We know for a fact that the two pictures are of Jelena Lecic, but we didn’t know much else until Sunday evening. But we do know that when using social media – as we will continue to do as part of our journalism – the Guardian will have to redouble its efforts in establishing not just methods of verification, but of signalling to the reader the level of verification we think we can reasonably claim.
The story took another twist today when it emerged another leading lesbian blogger that helped publicise the Gay Girl in Damascus blog is also a man.
The Washington Post revealed that the executive editor of a US-based lesbian site LezGetReal.com, Paula Brooks, is actually a 58-year-old retired construction worker from Ohio called Bill Graber.