Media outlets from London to Croatia, from Brunei to Sydney last week pumped out a recycled story from the Papua New Guinea National newspaper online about women from the remote Gimi area of Okapa murdering their male babies to end a 20-year-old tribal war.
The story centres around dialogue at a three-day peace and reconciliation training session in Goroka, spearheaded and organised by the Salvation Army.
It was the biggest story to come out of PNG in months, with 78 articles published worldwide. Yet within 24 hours of it hitting the wires, the ABC released a counter story from the Salvation Army, who said the women were speaking hypothetically: there was no number of babies killed, because no babies had been killed.
In the week since, no other news outlet has run with the counter story.
It seems clarification makes the sensational story far less interesting. Melbourne University History Professor Shurlee Swain points to the popular myth of the primitive islanders to explain the rapid and widespread reproduction of the story.
“(It) provides striking evidence (of the) continued utility of infanticide as a marker of the boundary between savagery and civilisation,” Dr Swain said.
Aside from the romantic Hollywood appeal of barbaric islanders, there is also the fact that the babies in the story were male. Female infanticide is practised globally and regularly — it’s such an issue in India that it is illegal for radiographers to tell parents the sex of their unborn child after an ultrasound. Decades of female infanticide accompanying the one-child policy in China has resulted in a male-to-female ratio of 125 to every 100 in the country.
But stories of female infanticide are sadly so common, they don’t make for fresh copy anymore, whereas the PNG story clearly piqued the interest of churnalists world-wide when it rolled off the wires. What a shame it wasn’t actually true. Chalk up another casualty in the war against fact-checking and truth in favour of quick, cheap and sensationalist page-fillers currently taking place in newsrooms across the world.