Journalists: Stop falling for hoaxes

Initially there were only a few viral hoaxes. Now, with the immense popularity of social media, they are happening almost daily.

You know how it goes. You are on Twitter. You see something outrageous. You click on the link. Really, they did that? And the next thing you know, you’re retweeting it, or posting it to Facebook.

Then you frantically move onto the next thing. But in a nanosecond your friends, colleagues, strangers are sure to correct you if you have fallen for a hoax.

You feel humbled. I know I did the other day when I posted a story about Kanye West saying he was going to be bigger than Nelson Mandela.

“Mandela was working in South Africa, which has, like what, six people? I started my magic here in the USA, and then I took my business global,” West supposedly told the Daily Currant on December 6. “I liberate minds with my music. That’s more important than liberating a few people from apartheid or whatever.”


“It’s official: Kanye West is insane,” I posted on Facebook. “He needs his mama to rein him in. but that isn’t going to happen since she’s gone.” Be fine if I just said that. But I also posted the fake story.

Imagine my humiliation when my friend, Kathleen Carroll, none other than the head of the AP, messages me on Facebook gently telling me it’s a hoax.

My next Facebook post: “Kanye is the next Nelson Mandela was a fake. I am embarrassed, and hanging head in shame. I should.”

Another colleague, Danelle Morton, “gleefully” reposted the story of a Google “employee” screaming at San Francisco protesters who were angry about high rent increases brought on by highly paid, high-tech employees. He puts on a quite a show for the cameras. Only thing was the Google employee was one of the protesters, who weren’t really protesters. The whole thing was a stunt.

But that didn’t prevent the San Francisco Bay Guardian from reporting it as a lively story about class tensions. Nor did Morton bring her innate journalism skepticism to it.

“The man, who seemed like he had just gotten off the bus, told the protesters that they should get better jobs if they want to live in SF, where the price of a one-bedroom apartment now averages $3,500 a month, a price that is driving out natives,” said Morton, a fourth-generation San Franciscan. “He was mean, ugly-sounding, and demonstrated the dismissive attitude I see all over the city. Turned out he was a labor organizer who staged the stunt to dramatize the point. He reflected what I believe, so I swallowed it without checking it out as I would for a real story.”

It seems like we’ve reached a tipping point. Initially there were only a few viral hoaxes. Now, with the immense popularity of social media, they are happening almost daily. We are deluged with information coming at us like a firehose—and news organizations and journalists are falling for them.

Morton and I are both long-time journalists. We should know better. Morton diagnoses our lapses as “an impulse-control problem fostered by the internet.” Another (unworthy) explanation for ‘posting first, questioning later’ is that both stories seemed believable.

In fact, journalist friends came to my rescue. “Actually, it sounds like something Kanye would say,” posted a former NPR colleague. Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics, said, “‘Don’t beat up on yourself. This is a man who once said in an interview, ‘How could you be me and want to be anybody else?’”

But I will. Had I taken ONE MINUTE to check the ‘about’ section on the Daily Currant, I would have read that their so-called news articles are purely fictional.

It would be nice if these were isolated incidents, but there’s been a raft of “believable” internet hoaxes recently: Elan Gale’s fake Thanksgiving Tweets fighting with an angry airplane passenger who didn’t exist, the woman describing a life of poverty who turns out to be well-off, a Twitter feud between a comedian and a Salsa company that turned out to be fake. I could go on.

These make great media stories. They have tension. Pathos. Comedy. (The passenger slapped Elan Gale!) The New York Times noted the other day just how comfortable news organizations have grown with reporting before verifying. People blame BuzzFeed, Gawker, or the Huffington Post, all sites that do good reporting, but that also have passed on these hoaxes.

In the Times piece, Gawker editor John Cook said he believes readers are sophisticated enough to know the difference between serious content and what’s thrown on a site without vetting.

Boy is he wrong. There’s a wide world of people—especially young folks—who desperately need to be taught news literacy skills, taught how to critically question news they read online and in other media.

Dean Miller with the Center of News Literacy at Stony Brook University told me my penance for the Kanye slip-up was to write endlessly about news literacy. I will try. Miller and Alan C. Miller (no relation) of the News Literacy Project are doing the Lord’s work on this topic.

Credibility is the only currency journalists have. If news organizations fall for this stuff, it hurts their and all other journalists’ credibility. It takes time to check something out, and we all feel like we don’t have the time. Just easier to copy and paste.

Make time.

And news organizations, don’t delete fake news you fell for. Acknowledge your mistake and apologize for it. And next time, be smarter. You can bet I will never do that again.

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Alicia Shepard is former NPR ombudsman and is training Afghan journalists on corruption reporting for Internews, an NGO that helps to develop local media around the world Tags: , ,