Regret the Error

Craig Silverman reports on trends and issues regarding media accuracy and the discipline of verification.Stories about errors, corrections, fact checking and verification

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The lesson from the dress color debate that every journalist needs to know

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Yesterday’s insane Internet debate over the color of a dress offers a critical lesson that every journalist must incorporate into their daily work.

This lesson has nothing to do with viral content, fashion, BuzzFeed, social media, the future of media, Tumblr, or audience engagement.

Many of us looked at a very simple photo of a dress and saw something different. This had nothing to do with intelligence, experience, fashion sense or any other personal characteristic.

We are all at the mercy of our brains and its cognitive processes. Our eyes took in the information in front of us, our brains processed it, and in many cases it gave us the wrong answer. But the fact that it was coming from our brain meant that it seemed like exactly the right answer. People insisted on what they were seeing because it was what they were actually seeing.

We don’t go about our daily lives assuming that own brains — and our eye — can give us faulty information.

They do, all the time.

The simple truth is our brains process information in ways that can lead us astray. This is something every journalist needs to be aware of and account for in the work we do.

We have cognitive biases that affect how we gather, evaluate and retain information. We suffer from pareidolia, “the human tendency to read significance into random or vague stimuli (both visual and auditory).” We see patterns where there aren’t any.

Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor’s book “The Ravenous Brain” explains our desire to find order amidst chaos. Here’s a relevant excerpt quoted by Brain Pickings:

Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding.

It sound like a good thing, and it can be. But it can also lead us astray, Bor writes:

One problematic corollary of this passion for patterns is that we are the most advanced species in how elaborately and extensively we can get things wrong. We often jump to conclusions — for instance, with astrology or religion. We are so keen to search for patterns, and so satisfied when we’ve found them, that we do not typically perform sufficient checks on our apparent insights.

The dress is a reminder that we sometimes see things that aren’t there, misperceive what’s right in front of us, and otherwise fall victim to our own brains.

This is particularly true when it comes to the way we process information. Once we have made up our minds — or decided on an angle for our story — we assimilate information in accordance with that view.

“[W]e humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not,” wrote Cordelia Fine, the author of “A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, in The New York Times.”

Journalists are told to be aware of the biases of sources. But we must also be constantly aware of, and seeking to mitigate, our own cognitive biases.

My new Tow Centre research report about online rumors and how news organizations debunk misinformation offered a look at several cognitive biases that leads us and others astray, and that make debunking difficult.

Below is an edited excerpt from my report that outlines five phenomena and biases that every journalist needs to be aware of in our daily work.

So, from now on, when we’re gathering information, speaking with people, and selecting what to include and emphasize and what to exclude, think of that dress.

Let it be a reminder of the fact that what we think we are seeing, hearing and understanding may in fact have no connection to fact.

The Backfire Effect

In a post on the blog You Are Not So Smart, journalist David McRaney offered a helpful one-sentence definition of the backfire effect: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

McRaney delved further into the backfire effect in his book, You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself. He offered this summary of how it manifests itself in our minds and actions:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the process by which we cherry-pick data to support what we believe. If we are convinced of an outcome, we will pay more attention to the data points and information that support it. Our minds, in effect, are made up and everything we see and hear conforms to this idea. It’s tunnel vision.

A paper published in the “Review of General Psychology”defined it as “the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.”

Here’s how a Wall Street Journal article translated its effects for the business world: “In short, your own mind acts like a compulsive yes-man who echoes whatever you want to believe.”

Confirmation bias makes us blind to contradictory evidence and facts. For journalists, it often manifests itself as an unwillingness to pay attention to facts and information that go against our predetermined angle for a story.

Motivated Reasoning

Psychologist Leon Festinger wrote, “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

We think of ourselves as rational beings who consider the evidence and information placed in front of us. This is often not the case. We are easily persuaded by information that fits with our beliefs and we harshly judge and dismiss contradictory details and evidence. Our ability to reason is therefore affected (motivated) by our preexisting beliefs.

“In particular, people are motivated to not only seek out information consis- tent with their prior attitudes, beliefs, and opinions, but also readily accept attitude-confirming evidence while critically counterarguing attitude- challenging information,” wrote Brian E. Weeks, in his paper “Feeling is Believing? The Influence of Emotions on Citizens’ False Political Beliefs.” “Information supporting one’s prior attitude is more likely to be deemed credible and strong, while attitude-discrepant information is often viewed as weak and ultimately dismissed.”

Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are similar in many ways. In “Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind,” psychologist Gary Marcus expressed the difference this way: “Whereas confirmation bias is an automatic tendency to notice data that fit with our beliefs, motivated reasoning is the complementary tendency to scrutinize ideas more carefully if we don’t like them than if we do.”

Biased Assimilation

Fitting well with motivated reasoning is the process of biased assimilation. In “True Enough,” [Farhad] Manjoo defined it as the tendency for people to “interpret and understand new information in a way that accords with their own views.” (He cited research by psychologists Charles Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark Lepper from their paper, “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effect of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence.”) Simply put, we interpret and understand new information in a way that fits with what we already know or believe.

Group Polarization

Group polarization is what happens to existing beliefs when we engage in a group discussion. If we’re speaking with people who share our view, the tendency is for all of us to become even more vehement about it. “Suppose that members of a certain group are inclined to accept a rumor about, say, the malevolent intentions of an apparently unfriendly group or nation,” wrote Cass Sunstein in “On Rumors.” “In all likelihood, they will become more committed to that rumor after they have spoken among themselves.”

If we start a conversation with a tentative belief about an issue, being in a room with people who strongly believe it will inevitably pull us further in that direction. This is important to keep in mind in the context of online communities. A 2010 study by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Microsoft Research examined group polarization on Twitter. They saw that “replies between like-minded individuals strengthen group identity,” reflecting this group dynamic. When it came to engaging with people and viewpoints that were outside of what they personally felt, Twitter users were “limited in their ability to engage in meaningful discussion.” Read more

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Move quickly, keep it simple and other tips for debunking

I recently completed a research project that saw me spend several months studying how news organizations handle online rumors and unverified claims. I also examined best practices for debunking online misinformation. This work, which was the focus of my fellowship with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, is collected in a report I published this week.

It examines the human factors that drive rumors, the challenge of debunking online misinformation, and it provides a data-driven look at the bad practices that cause news websites to spread dubious rumors, and to play a role in disseminating misinformation. Identifying the challenges and problems in this area also helped me formulate a set of recommendations for newsrooms. This guidance can help journalists do a better job of offering debunkings that can spread the truth.

Below is an excerpt from the report that includes recommendations for offering effective debunkings. I welcome suggestions and feedback, and I also encourage more journalists to include an element of debunking in their work. It’s all of our job to help the truth to spread.

Recommendations for Newsrooms: Debunking

Don’t be part of the problem.

It bears repeating that news organizations should not be in the business of spreading misinformation and dubious rumors. News sites that are perceived to be wastelands of unverified information will not be effective debunkers. They will simply not be trusted.

Move quickly.

False information becomes harder to dislodge the longer it goes unchallenged. The more that people see an incorrect headline, image, video, etc., in their social media feeds and emails, the more they are likely to believe it.

The first step is to be more active at flagging unconfirmed information when it begins to spread. Communicate what isn’t known and help people understand they need to apply a level of skepticism. When something is verified as false, be fast and aggressive in getting it out.

Don’t be negative or dismissive.

As the skeptics interviewed for this paper said, the goal is to debunk an idea or claim, not the person who may be sharing it. Debunkings should not make people feel stupid or attacked. Research has found that “conciliatory rebuttals were more effective than were inflammatory ones,” according to DiFonzo and Bordia in Rumor Psychology.

Provide a counter narrative.

This is one of the most important debunking strategies. The goal is to replace the existing narrative in a person’s mind with new facts. It’s more effective than a piecemeal approach to refuting rumors. Humans are attracted to stories, not a recitation of information.

Anthony Pratkanis, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told The Boston Globe that a denial alone isn’t effective. “The more vivid that replacement is, the better,” Pratkanis said. Journalists should use all the storytelling tools available to make a debunking compelling and persuasive. Don’t be a spoilsport denier—tell a great story.

Keep it simple.

Journalists are sometimes guilty of overkill. We think that laying out all the facts in detail is an effective way to convince someone that they are misinformed. The reality is that misinformation often takes hold because it is communicated in a simple way, or through powerful phrases (i.e., “rumor bombs”). A debunking must be equally efficient. “A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction,” according to The Debunking Handbook [PDF]. “The solution is to keep your content lean, mean and easy to read.” If people have to expend too much processing-power to grasp your point and evidence, they will retreat to what they already know.

Understand the role of emotion and passion in driving shares and traffic.

In a 2012 paper, a group of researchers, including the authors of The Debunking Handbook, outlined the role of emotions in helping information propagate:

“Stories containing content likely to evoke disgust, fear, or happiness are spread more readily from person to person and more widely through social media than are neutral stories.” Rumors and hoaxes often appeal to people’s emotions, as well as their existing beliefs and fears. Debunking should therefore also aim to evoke emotion in readers. (But to do so in a genuine, rather than manipulative, way.)

Find the right source(s).

Some of the most powerful purveyors of misinformation are people who passionately believe the claim. False information also spreads when people who have standing in particular communities give it authority and visibility.

“Accordingly, the most effective ‘misinformers’ about vaccines are parents who truly believe that their child has been injured by a vaccine,” according to a 2012 paper “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.”

Another 2012 paper from Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, “Misinformation and Fact-checking: Research Findings from Social Science,” outlined the important role sources play in communicating information:

A vast literature in psychology and political science has shown that statements are frequently more persuasive when they come from sources that are perceived as knowledgeable, trustworthy, or highly credible. Conversely, people are less likely to accept information from a source that is perceived as poorly informed, untrustworthy, not sharing the same values, etc.

Journalists need to think about how they can buttress a debunking through sourcing. Whenever possible, find a member of the community in question to voice the correct information. His or her words and presence will help reach the people who are most likely to suffer from the backfire effect.

Express in the positive.

Try to limit association with the incorrect information. The authors of The Debunking Handbook offer a diagram of an effective approach for presenting the correct information in a way that minimizes repeating misinformation:

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Make it visual.

Visual presentation of information can help people get past biases and instead focus on the information being communicated. “Graphics appear to be an effective means of communicating information, especially about trends that may be the subject of misperceptions (the state of the economy under a given president, the number of casualties in a war, etc.),” wrote Nyhan and Reifler.

Experiment.

The above is a summary of the best current advice regarding debunking …. Some suggestions have years of research to back them up. Others have yet to be tested experimentally, let alone in newsrooms.

This leads to perhaps the most important task for journalists: experiment. Digitally savvy journalists and news organizations must dedicate resources to testing and iterating on different debunking (and rumor reporting) approaches. By testing different story formats, we can collectively gather additional insight into what works. Read more

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Report: Online media are more a part of the problem of misinformation ‘than they are the solution’

On Tuesday evening, Craig Silverman will present his report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, where he is a fellow. In the more than 100-page paper entitled “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content,” Silverman examines the role online media plays in spreading rumors and hoaxes. In the report, Silverman, adjunct faculty for Poynter, writes:

Too often news organizations play a major role in propagating hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumors, and dubious viral content, thereby polluting the digital information stream. Indeed some so-called viral content doesn’t become truly viral until news websites choose to highlight it. In jumping on unverified information and publishing it alongside hedging language, such as “reportedly” or “claiming,” news organizations provide falsities significant exposure while also imbuing the content with credibility. This is at odds with journalism’s essence as “a discipline of verification” and its role as a trusted provider of information to society

Using Emergent, the rumor-tracking site he created, Silverman reports that he examined more than 1,500 news articles on more than 100 rumors appearing online in the last four months of 2014. Those rumors include total hoaxes, like the woman with three breasts, and real news events where reporting created or increased the spread of rumors, including the non-outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. and the crash of flight MH370.

Here are a few key points from Silverman’s report:

– Journalists write about rumors and use a few key words to show they know the rumors are dubious, but the public may not get that.

News organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations (“reportedly,” “claims,”etc.) to convey that information they are passing on is unverified. They frequently use headlines that express the unverified claim as a question (“Did a woman have a third breast added?”). However, research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences. These approaches lack consistency and journalists rarely use terms and disclosures that clearly convey which elements are unverified and why they are choosing to cover them.

– Journalists and news organizations are doing very little to confirm a story before writing about it.

Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well. The story’s point of origin, once traced back through the chain of links, is often something posted on social media or a thinly sourced claim from a person or entity.

– Journalists and news orgs often use headlines that make bolder claims than the actual facts of the story and, again, readers may not see the difference.

This has serious implications for how news consumers process information about rumors. The overall concern, which academic research backs up, is that readers retain information from headlines more so than from body text. If readers first see a declarative headline, subsequent nuance in the article’s text is unlikely to modify the original message.

– Journalists and news organizations rarely follow up after publishing a rumor.

News organizations are inconsistent at best at following up on the rumors and claims they offer initial coverage. This is likely connected to the fact that they pass them on without adding reporting or value. With such little effort put into the initial rewrite of a rumor, there is little thought or incentive to follow up. The potential for traffic is also greatest when a claim or rumor is new. So journalists jump fast, and frequently, to capture traffic. Then they move on.

In his research, Silverman quotes several people with advice on why debunking and verification matter, as well as times and places where it has worked successfully. He also has some recommendations. They include:

– “Set a standard.”
– “Evaluate before you propagate.”
– “Avoid dissonance.”
– “Plant a flag and update.”

You can watch Silverman’s presentation of his paper Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern here.

Related: Silverman has taught several Webinars at Poynter’s News University on verification, including “Getting It Right: Accuracy and Verification in the Digital Age” and “Don’t Get Fooled Again: Best Practices for Online Verification.” Read more

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Veterans force NBC’s Brian Williams to apologize

NBC News anchor Brian Williams said on the evening broadcast Wednesday that he made a mistake when he said on air last week that he had been in a military helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in the early days of the American invasion of Iraq 12 years ago.

On Friday, Williams had told a story on air about a veteran he met in Iraq. They stayed in touch over the years and Williams invited the soldier to a hockey game. At the game, they were surprised that the game announcer told the crowd about the chance encounter after Williams’ chopper was shot down.

Williams said on the air:

“The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG. Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”

The story was repeated by the announcer at the hockey game.

After the story aired, soldiers who served in Iraq began complaining.

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Stars and Stripes Capital Hill reporter Travis Tritten first reported  Wednesday that he noticed the chatter on Facebook and began “pulling threads.” Tritten told me, “Your gut tells you there is something there you have to look into.”

Tritten spoke with several officers and soldiers who were on the ground in Iraq and had first-hand knowledge of the RPG incident, he said.

Tritten became convinced that Williams was on a helicopter that was behind the one that was hit. “It appears they were far behind, in a different formation of aircraft,” he said.  Some of those who posted on Facebook said the NBC crew was up to an hour behind the chopper that was hit.

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“A lot of these crew members have been pissed off about this since 2003. One guy says every time he sees Brian Williams he starts to shake, he is so angry,” Tritten said.

This NBC Dateline video from March 26, 2003 — soon after the attack – has Williams reporting that one of the choppers ahead of him had taken a direct hit from an RPG. The video does not show the attack and it is not clear how close the attack was to Williams’ ride.

Go to 2:12 on this video to hear about the attack on the helicopter convoy.
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Contrary to what the soldiers who complained on Facebook claimed, the 2003 story appears to be reporting that the chopper hit by the RPG was in the same formation as Williams was flying in. In fact, Williams reported in 2003, the incident was so fresh when the helicopters landed that the crew from the helicopter that was hit by the RPG was too shaken to talk on camera.

NBC Publicity pointed me to a note that Williams posted on Facebook saying he “felt terrible” about making the mistake and he had “no desire to fictionalize the incident.” He said the “constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area and the fog of memory over 12 years made me conflate the two.”

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This was not the first time he told the story of the incident.

In May 2008, Williams wrote on NBC News’ blog that it was not the chopper he was riding in, but one in front of him that was hit by an RPG.

I was with my friend and NBC News Military Analyst Wayne Downing, a retired 4-Star Army General. Wayne and I were riding along as part of an Army mission to deliver bridge components to the Euphrates River, so that the invading forces of the 3rd Infantry could cross the river on their way to Baghdad. We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG’s and AK-47′s. The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down — for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights.

In early 2010, when Williams spoke at a commencement at Notre Dame, the school’s website included a bio that mentioned the RPG hitting a chopper, but that version of the story was different. The bio didn’t say the RPG hit the chopper Williams was in:

While covering the war in Iraq, Williams became the first NBC News correspondent to reach Baghdad after the U.S. military invasion of the city. Just days into the war, Williams was traveling on a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter mission when the lead helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. Williams spent three days and two nights in the Iraqi desert south of Najaf, with a mechanized armored tank platoon of the Army’s Third Infantry Division providing protection. During the war, Williams traveled to seven nations throughout the Middle East during his seven-week overseas deployment.

On March 23, 2013, 10 years to the day after the helicopter incident, Brian Williams appeared on the David Letterman Show and told the story of being shot at.
Go to 2:58 in the video to hear him tell the story.
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Williams said, “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK 47.”

He told Letterman, “We figure out how to land safely and we did. We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans.”

Williams mentioned the controversy Wednesday evening on NBC Nightly News:

“On this broadcast last week, in an effort to honor a veteran who protected me and so many others, after a ground-fire incident in the desert in the Iraq War invasion I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert.  I want to apologize.
I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. We landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert.

This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and by extension our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served everywhere while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect and also now, my apology.”

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Brian Williams apology on NBC News. Read more

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The year in media errors and corrections 2014

Correction of the Year

This New York Times correction combines Kimye, butts and a writer treating a fake news website and a fake radio station as real. Bravo:

An earlier version of this column was published in error. That version included what purported to be an interview that Kanye West gave to a Chicago radio station in which he compared his own derrière to that of his wife, Kim Kardashian. Mr. West’s quotes were taken, without attribution, from the satirical website The Daily Currant. There is no radio station WGYN in Chicago; the interview was fictitious, and should not have been included in the column.

Runner Up

The Sun (U.K.) offered a correction that detailed just how ridiculous their original “reporting” was:

In an article ‘London Bridge IS Falling Down’ (16 June) we stated that the iconic bridge, now a tourist attraction in Arizona, was falling into disrepair and could soon be bulldozed. We also stated that there were plans to turn the area into a centre for drug tourism. We have been assured by Lake Havasu City that there are no plans to knock down the bridge or to build a centre for drug tourism. We regret any misunderstanding and are happy to set the record straight.

A Lake Havasu spokesman also assures us there are plans to revitalise the English Village on the east side of the bridge and that they are committed to looking after the monument.

Other Favorites

Philadelphia Daily News (via Romenesko):

In yesterday’s “Chillin’ Wit” column, a fond farewell to former Daily News editor Zack Stallberg as he heads west to New Mexico, stall berg was misquoted as using the term “horse manure.” He responded: “I demand a correction. Does anyone really think I would use the word ‘manure’?” No. Stall berg actually said, “horse s—-.” And that’s no bull manure.

The Economist:

In a leader last month (Of bongs and bureaucrats, January 11th) we said that The Economist first proposed legalising drugs in 1993. In fact we argued for it in a cover story in 1988. Who says drug use doesn’t damage long-term memory?

The New York Times:

An article on Thursday about the latest Internet sensation of “Alex from Target,” a picture of a teenager bagging merchandise at the retailer that went viral online, described incorrectly a subsequent Internet posting of “Kel from Good Burger.” It was a frame from the 1997 film “Good Burger” starring the actor Kel Mitchell; it was not a photograph of a teenager in a job.

The Washington Post:

An earlier version of this story erroneously said that Joaquín Guzmán was found in bed with his secretary. He was found with his wife. This version has been corrected.

The Dartmouth (via Romenesko):

A front-page editorial published Oct. 17 calling for the abolition of the Greek system at Dartmouth stated that in the late 1980s, Alpha Delta fraternity pledges were forced to perform oral sex on an ejaculating dildo. The editorial should have stated that some pledges were required to simulate oral sex on an inanimate object, which the house’s advisor now says may have been a banana.

The New York Times:

An earlier version of this article described bald eagles and ospreys incorrectly. They eat fish, and their poop is white; they do not eat berries and excrete purple feces. (Other birds, like American robins, Eurasian starlings and cedar waxwings, do.)

Slate:

This post originally quoted photographer Tom Sanders as saying it takes him five years to get on the dance floor. It takes him five beers.

The Wall Street Journal:

The Minotaur is a monster in Greek mythology that is part bull, part human. A travel article in Saturday’s Off Duty section mistakenly called it a one-eyed monster.

The Sun (U.K.):

In a story ‘Britain’s biggest whinger’ {1 June] we stated that Marcus Stead, who appeard in the Channel 4 documentary The Complainers, ‘moans to the council every day for a year.’ Mr Stead says that, in fact, the number of complaints is closer to one or two per week. We are happy to put his position on record.

NPR:

An earlier version of this story said that the methane emissions associated with livestock come from their farts. In fact, most of those methane emissions come from belches.

I tried to get some background on why this girl’s mother felt the need to speak out, but you’ll just have to enjoy it for what it is. A correction from the Cumbernauld News (U.K.):

BuzzFeed:

This post originally identified the Kings as being from Sacramento, not Los Angeles. The author clearly cares much more about faceplants than sports. We regret the error.

VICE sports:

The original version of this article referred to a planet, not a place name in the Star Wars Universe. In fact, Fort Tusken, which sounds like Tustin, is located on Tatooine, Luke sky walker’s home planet. VICE Sports regrets this error. All staff editors take full responsibility and will re-watch Star Wars this weekend to ensure such errors are never repeated.

The Guardian:

An article about a conservation project to return mountain chicken frogs to Montserrat said that the endangered frog was the national dish of the island. Montserrat’s national dish is goat water, a stew; mountain chicken is the national dish of nearby Dominica.

The New York Times:

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a creature in the “Star Wars” universe. It is a wookiee, not a wookie.

Los Angeles Times:

“Big Little Man”: A review in the June 29 Arts & Books section of the book “Big Little Man” said that author Alex Tizon is in his 60s. He is 54. Also, the review described Tizon as an avid consumer of porn, but the book says the viewing was for research. It also described Tizon’s friend’s embarrassment about the size of his endowment, whereas the book states that “he liked being average.” 

San Francisco Chronicle:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post suggested that a singular being named Yar was getting his revenge in the Atari 2600 game Years’ Revenge. In fact, the Yarians were a race of aliens, and were collectively seeking revenge. The Big Event apologizes for the error.  (Thanks to TBE reader Marty for the e-mail pointing this out.)

Ayrshire Post  (U.K.):

Columbia, S.C. Free-Times Weekly (via Romenesko):

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Error of the Year: Rolling Stone’s Campus Rape Story

It should go down as one of the most cautionary tales of confirmation bias in journalism. It’s also an example of how to not to behave when your organization publishes a disastrous piece of reporting.

In November, Rolling Stone published a major feature about a shocking gang rape that allegedly occurred at a frat party at the University of Virginia. 

The story initially catalyzed the university and people around the country to do more to stamp out sexual assault on campus. The school even placed a temporary ban on all frats.

However, other news outlets — most notably The Washington Post — followed on the story and soon raised troubling details about the account that was at the center of the RS story, and the magazine’s failure to do basic reporting. One big problem was that the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, didn’t contact any of the men she accused of participating in the gang rape. Nor did she speak with key friends of the accused, even though the story includes scenes with verbatim dialogue attributed to them.

Campus rape is a serious issue and deserves attention, but Rolling Stone and its reporter cherry picked this story and failed to properly verify it.

In an interview, Erdely described how she scoured the country for just the right rape story to be the focus of her article. Once she found it, the bias was set to believe it to be true, and to report it in a way the reinforced that. Here’s what she said in a Slate podcast:

First I looked around at a number of different campuses. It took me a while to figure out where I wanted to focus on. But when I finally decided on the University of Virginia — one of the compelling reasons that made me focus on the University of Virginia was when I found Jackie. I made contact with a student activist at the school who told me a lot about the culture of the school — that was one of the important things, sort of criteria that I wanted when I was looking for the right school to focus on.

As is the norm for the Error of the Year, the mistake was then compounded by the organization’s method of handling it. Managing editor Will Dana published “A Note to Our Readers” that acknowledged there were now “discrepancies” in the account of Jackie, the woman who was allegedly assaulted. The first version of that letter also blamed her, saying that the magazine now realized its trust in her had been “misplaced.” After objections, the magazine removed that line — and didn’t acknowledge the after-the-fact scrubbing. It also has not offered any real information about how the story was fact checked, where mistakes were made, and what it plans to do about it. It hunkered down and kept silent. Shameful.

Honorable Mention

A late breaking entrant for notable media error deserves a mention as well. This week New York Magazine had to admit that it was fooled by a teenager who claimed that he had earned many millions playing the stock market. In fact, as he later confessed to the NY Observer, he didn’t earn any actual money and is just a member of an investor club at his high school.

Yet, even with that admission, as of this writing the headline on the NY Mag article still reads: “12. Because a Stuyvesant Senior Made Millions Picking Stocks. His Hedge Fund Opens As Soon As He Turns 18.”

No, he didn’t.

Apology of the Year

Deadspin is unflinching when it has a target in its sights, and that approach apparently extends to itself. In October it published a story that questioned what U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner has said publicly about his time playing high school football. Deadspin’s piece suggested he didn’t play any football. But it was wrong. So editor Tommy Craggs wrote an apology with the headline, How Deadspin Fucked Up The Cory Gardner Story.” Yes, that will get readers’ attention.

The post gave details about what went wrong and Craggs also made it clear that he understood the irony arising from their mistakes:

… the most damning implication of our story, that Gardner didn’t actually play high school ball, is wrong. That’s shitty of us. As serial collectors of media fuck-ups, we add this self-portrait to the gallery. For more thorough coverage, you can read Erik Wemple over at the Post. As I told Wemple—and I sincerely meant it—given that our main source went and unsaid everything he’d said 24 hours earlier, the only thing for us to do now is to eat shit.

Obviously, not every publication can use the language and tone that Craggs deployed. But what matters is he gave himself and his staff the Deadspin treatment and made it clear that they really screwed up, and deserved criticism for it. It’s also great that he pointed people to a report from an external critic as well.

Runner Up

A fellow Gawker Media site also offered an honest and accountable apology for a bad piece of reporting. This time the story focused on animals that are used in research experiments. Annalee Newitz, the editor of io9, did not mince works when she admitted the story’s failings. Her first paragraph is a textbook example of how a top editor should handle this kind of failure:

On Wednesday, we published an article about animal welfare in research experiments. It was biased, factually incorrect, and should not have appeared on io9 in that form. As io9′s editor-in-chief, I’m the one who screwed up, and I’m sorry. Here’s how this mess happened, and what we’re doing about it.

I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana.

Other Favorites 

Yeah, just go ahead and read it: 

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I for one am deep into preparations for the coming war between man and goat.

The Economist:

Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We are therefore withdrawing the review but in the interests of transparency, anybody who wants to see the withdrawn review can click here.

And this is an excellent non-apology apology:

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Watchdogs of the Year: Our Bad Media

Sure, their pseudonyms are silly sounding (@blippoblappo & @crushingbort), but they’ve done the reporting. It’s a shame that there are still many in the journalism world who won’t take it seriously.

Blippoblappo & Crushingbort operate the blog Our Bad Media. Over the course of this year, they have provided ample, repeated evidence about the plagiarism of CNN host and magazine/newspaper contributor Fareed Zakaria. In his articles, on his show, in his books. They also pointed out failures of attribution on the part of Malcolm Gladwell.

When accusations first surfaced against Zakaria, CNN, The Washington Post and TIME all said they conducted reviews of his work and were satisfied. Then along came this duo who, in their telling, simply picked out some suspect sentences/paragraphs and passages and placed them in Google. Voila — hit after hit.

The media were admittedly slow to pick up on the pair’s work. The organizations that still publish Zakaria’s work have also had little to say about the evidence. (Though Zakaria’s former employer Newsweek eventually corrected seven of his articles that had issues.)

The pseudonymous plagiarism checkers proved something that has long been true: news organizations have very different standards in how they treat incidents of plagiarism, especially when it comes to big name stars. And let’s also stipulate that it doesn’t matter a damn if evidence of the offences comes from two people who choose to use pseudonyms. Evidence is evidence, and it’s unacceptable that Zakaria hasn’t faced anything close to real consequences for his offences.

Best Photo Error

The Oregonian had to follow up after a photo error led it to direct readers to very much the wrong ‘shroom in a food article.

A photo of an amanita muscaria mushroom, which can cause hallucinations, disorientation and wild behavior, mistakenly appeared with a story about the opening of matsutake mushroom season on page 7 of the Sunday A & E section of The Oregonian. 

The amanita muscaria, which often has a cap that is reddish with white spots, can impact the central nervous system and cause people who eat it to become extremely disoriented and be hard to control, according to Judy Roger of the Oregon Mycological Society.

It also causes them to go into a deep sleep for several hours. But she said it is not considered deadly …

Runner Up

After an Israeli man was killed, the New Zealand Herald mistook him for Ryann Dunn, a deceased star of the “Jackass” show/films:

Best Dummy Copy

Dutch paper Volksrant made a very bad choice when testing out a new news app. They wrote up a fake news article announcing the death of well known foolballer and team manager Johan Cruyff. It of course ended up going out to readers, causing a lot of confusion. (Remember: Your worst dummy copy always gets out into the world. It’s some kind of newsroom law, folks.)

The Guardian reported

The paper’s editor, Philippe Remarque, called it a “stupid mistake”, and apologised to Cruyff, the former Ajax and Holland forward and manager of Barcelona.

“On behalf of Volkskrant I offer my apologies to Johan Cruyff and anyone who has been upset by this,” he said. “The app was tested this morning with fake stories, and a technician came up with this as a way of testing a major breaking news story. By mistake it appeared with this headline.”

Best Author’s Note

The article, “Variation in Melanism and Female Preference in Proximate but Ecologically Distinct Environments,” in journal Ethology went to press with a note from one of the authors that was clearly not meant for publication (emphasis mine and hat tip to Retraction Watch):

Although association preferences documented in our study theoretically could be a consequence of either mating or shoaling preferences in the different female groups investigated (should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?), shoaling preferences are unlikely drivers of the documented patterns both because of evidence from previous research and inconsistencies with a priori predictions.

Best Photo Cutline

Read the names carefully:

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Oh my, that’s some offensive stuff. Now, read the amazing details about the publication in question, from this Philadelphia magazine story:

In the August 21st print edition of the Philadelphia Public Record, the free weekly tabloid published by former Philadelphia City Councilman turned federal inmate Jimmy Tayoun Sr., current Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla is pictured at an event in Chinatown with, among others, “Chinky Winky,” “Me Too,” and “Dinky Doo.”

“It was a proofreading error,” Tayoun told Philadelphia magazine on Friday afternoon. According to Tayoun, the editor who used those names did so because he didn’t have the actual names. When we pointed out to Tayoun that there were actually more names than there were people, he reiterated, “It was a proofreading error.” And when we asked why the editor didn’t use a generic placeholder instead of an ethnic slur, he insisted that there’s no prejudice or bigotry involved here.

“That editor is a Britisher,” Tayoun explained, puzzlingly. “He didn’t mean anything by it. The Public Record is the most inclusive publication in Philadelphia.”

Obviously, the Record is an incredibly inclusive operation if they’re willing to hire Britishers.

Worst use of Unverified UGC in Reporting

So many news organizations will just grab something from Twitter or elsewhere and treat it as true. I could do an entire post of examples from the past year, but let’s go with one example that arose when someone placed two white flags on the Brooklyn Bridge. That set off speculation as to who was responsible, and what kind of message the flags were intended to send. Read more

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New York Times column used quote from fake news site ‘without attribution’

A late entry for 2014′s Correction of the Year comes from The New York Times. It features an early version of a column published in error; a quote taken from ludicrous article in a fake news website that was treated as real and used without attribution; and a reference to a non-existent Chicago radio station with the call letters WGYN.

The offending article was the latest edition of Joyce Wadler’s humor column, “I Was Misinformed.” Here is what has been added (as an Editor’s Note):

An earlier version of this column was published in error. That version included what purported to be an interview that Kanye West gave to a Chicago radio station in which he compared his own derrière to that of his wife, Kim Kardashian. Mr. West’s quotes were taken, without attribution, from the satirical website The Daily Currant. There is no radio station WGYN in Chicago; the interview was fictitious, and should not have been included in the column.

Just wow. Here’s the full, fake Kanye comment (I don’t know which part ended up in the Times):

“I don’t understand why everyone is focusing on Kim’s booty.”[sic] he said. “Obviously I love her ass. That’s why I married her. But nobody has an ass like mine. I have one of the top three asses of all time.

“My booty is like Michelangelo level, you feel me? It’s like a sculpture. It’s like something that should be sitting in a museum for thousands of thousands of years. Kim? She’s got a nice ass. But it’s not at that level.

“The media hates me. That’s why they’re ignoring my butt, and putting all their attention on Kim’s. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.” …

“Whatever. I guess,” Kanye responded. “All I’m saying is that comparing my ass to Kim’s ass is like comparing a Ferrari to a Mercedes. It’s not like a Mercedes is a bad car. But it’s no Ferrari.”

Update 9:37 p.m. ET: Joshua Benton reminded me that I could use NewsDiffs to view changes made to the column. So, here is what originally appeared:

“I don’t understand why everyone is focusing on Kim’s booty,” Kanye said in an interview on Chicago rap station WGYN, adding that he certainly loves it. “That’s why I married her,” he said. But, Kanye added, nobody has a rear end like his own.

“My booty is like Michelangelo level, you feel me?” Kanye said. “It’s like a sculpture. It’s like something that should be sitting in a museum for thousands of thousands of years.”

His wife’s behind? It was nice, Kanye said, “But it’s not at that level.”

Related: Craig Silverman’s best and worst media errors of 2013

Also related: Some classic NYT corrections. NYT corrects 161-year-old article about Solomon Northup | New York Times corrects: Writer’s name is not ‘Chillian J. Yikes’ | NYT corrects: Dick Cheney was never president | NYT corrects: It hasn’t been 924 years since Germany won the World Cup | NYT corrects date of corrections Read more

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3 lessons from the G20 Summit ‘Factcheckathon’

G20factcheckathon460
Earlier this week, nine fact-checking websites joined forces to fact-check the statements made by world leaders during the G20 summit in Australia. Glenn Kessler wrote about the results in The Washington Post. I coordinated this first factcheckathon with Cristina Tardàguila from O Globo and took home three important lessons.

  1. Global fact-checking experiments can yield useful results for comparative politics
    Our fact-checking network caught three of the eight world leaders we were monitoring saying essentially the same thing: Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, Barack Obama of the USA and Matteo Renzi of Italy all said something along the lines of “large amounts of jobs were created under my government” – and then proceeded to inflate their records. What was interesting was not so much that politicians chose to dabble with figures, but that they did so in such a similar manner. While the rhetoric and imagery deployed by politicians may vary greatly across countries, facts are facts everywhere.

    A fact-driven analysis of speeches made by global leaders in the same forum opens up new avenues to compare political discourse internationally. Do elected politicians fiddle with facts in ways different from non-elected ones? Are there relevant cultural differences? This basic experiment produced a few valuable insights; a more rigorous one could provide a unique perspective by which to analyse international political discourse.

  2. The fact-checking whole can be greater than the sum of its parts
    The factcheckathon was a small, if practical, output of a larger phenomenon. Independent fact-checking is growing across the globe. The nascent movement – largely inspired by Factcheck.org and PolitiFact, and energetically led by the former’s creator Bill Adair – met for its first “global summit” in London this June. But the fact-checking movement needs to grow much bigger, and making that happen will require innovations. Fortunately, greater collaboration should catalyse this innovation process.

    This was clear in a recent fact-checking conference in Buenos Aires, where I saw some impressive efforts in data visualization, and the open-source “DatoChq” platform the Argentinian site Chequeado has built to receive datasets live via Twitter. At Pagella Politica, the fact-checking site I edit, we are developing a “fact-checkers’ Google” aimed at giving citizens structured and user-friendly access to certified data. Computer scientists and journalism professors from Duke, Stanford and the University of Texas at Arlington are looking at ways to automatize certain steps of fact-checking. These experiments may not yield revolutions; but every day fact-checkers sift through an ocean of data with a teaspoon – and the ocean is only getting larger. Given fact-checkers’ shared methodologies, a breakthrough in one country would be rapidly transferrable.

    A lot of work remains to be done. This article published recently by The Guardianhas been haunting me. It shows the distance – often enormous – between public perception and reality on key indicators such as the unemployment level or the immigrant population. Factcheckathons and other efforts aimed at sharing fact-checks internationally can have an impact in defusing stereotypes across countries.

  3. Facts can be fun
    My colleague Peter Cunliffe-Jones of Africa Check has quipped that a world meeting of fact-checkers sounds as riveting as an International Congress of Actuaries. So fact-checking doesn’t set the heart racing; but it doesn’t need to be dull either.

    Pagella Politica submitted two fact-checks to the G20 factcheckathon. The first one concerned the jobs created during Prime Minister Renzi’s government. The second one verified Mr Renzi’s claims that there were more Sim cards than humans worldwide; and more kangaroos than humans in Australia. While everyone (half-heartedly) recognized the greater relevance of the first, I could see the joy with which colleagues from the US, Brazil and elsewhere lapped up the second one (you can read about it in Italian here).

    This is not meant to showcase my Prime Minister’s penchant for cutesy comparisons. It is supposed to show that facts can be fun. What is more, they translate well. There is space for more fact-driven analysis of international summits, and this week has shown that fact-checking websites are up for the challenge.

The experiment was not perfect. For one, our results came out more than 48 hours after the summit was over; that is eons in the current live-news cycle. Moreover, our sample of fact-checkable statements was quite small. Nevertheless, a rough template was set for a more structured experiment in the future. Watch this space.

Alexios Mantzarlis is the CEO and editor of Italian fact-checking site Pagella Politica Read more

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3 lessons in mobile, social and viral from Latin American newspapers

I recently spent two days at the beautiful offices of El Comercio, the largest and oldest newspaper in Peru. Grupo de Diarios América bought together journalists from newspapers all over Latin America for a seminar about social media. I was fortunate to be a speaker. But, mostly, I was lucky to spend a couple of days listening to journalists from news organizations I don’t read or follow. I want to share three things I heard that transcend any linguistic or regional concerns.

1. You are not in control of how people consume your content

Last year at this time, El Nuevo Día in Puerto Rico was getting 30 percent of its digital traffic from mobile devices, with the remaining 70 percent coming from the desktop. This year, according to deputy general director Benjamín Morales Melendez, those numbers have reversed. They get 70 percent of their traffic from mobile devices. It switched in less than 12 months.

What happened? First of all, it had nothing to do with any decisions or new products from their organization. That’s the point.

Last Christmas cellphone providers in Puerto Rico unveiled new offers that made it cheaper for people to get smartphones, according to Morales. They signed up in droves. So, as a result of the business strategy of a different industry, a news organization suddenly saw a dramatic and unpredictable sift in the consumption habits of its audience. This has touched every part of their digital business, and it was brought on by something they had no control over.

It’s also yet another example of how, as Benedict Evans put it, “Mobile is eating the world.”

2. Leading by letting go

Renata Cabrales is the social media editor for El Tiempo, a large newspaper in Bogota, Colombia. At the start of her presentation, she noted that they recently became the most followed Spanish language newspaper on Twitter, with more than 3 million followers. After seeing a sample of the work and approach of her team, I can understand why. Here’s one example.

She showed a Facebook post on their page that used an image to highlight the fact that Colombian actor Sofia Vergara was reported to be the highest paid actress on TV. Someone responded with a snide comment about that fact. The team discussed it and decided that this comment presented a perfect opportunity to respond by using a popular meme that had been circulating online.

The meme was a drawn image of a scowling face that was often used to playfully suggest disapproval of something someone had done or said. They posted it, and soon their reply was shown with likes. You can see a bit of the post and meme reply in the image behind Cabrales here:

This stood out to me for a few reasons. I like that they use the newspaper’s account to participate in comment threads. I like that they are willing to be playful and behave in ways that reflect the platform. I also like that they had a discussion as a group about how to respond to a particular comment.

One thing that also resonated with me was that Cabrales admitted she wasn’t familiar with the particular meme they used. As the leader, she trusted her younger colleagues to know what to choose. And as a group they trusted themselves to find a way to make El Tiempo more approachable without hurting the overall brand.

In the end, it was a nice, fun piece of engagement that fit the platform. And it demonstrated the importance of trust and collaboration.

3. The Anti-Viral Viral strategy

I spoke on the last panel of the event, but by the time I presented the challenges of verifying UGC and of correcting mistakes on social media had already been raised by several speakers. News organizations everywhere are struggling with these issues.

What I also heard was that their newsrooms have come to see the risks in jumping on anything that is out there circulating on social media. In same cases, they have been burned; in other cases they are disillusioned when they see other outlets that  aggregate, retweet or otherwise promote anything that seems like it could generate attention and traffic.

I won’t be so bold as to predict that the tide is turning in favor of restraint and verification; there will always be outlets that reap early traffic by pointing to unverified claims and content that grab attention, regardless of veracity.

But I do see a growing number of news organizations who view restraint and verification as viable counter-strategies that can deliver a different form of viral value. By waiting and checking the content they are still able to participate in these stories, and to grab some traffic. The difference is they do so by debunking false information, or underlining what is suspect or unconfirmed. It requires more thought and effort, and it means being willing to forgo quick-hit traffic.

When much of the competition is playing the short game for clicks, you can play a slightly longer game and still carve out a place in the viral content space. It was nice to see that this strategy is taking hold among some Latin American media. Read more

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Heat mag to Jessica Biel: Sorry we made up your quotes. Also that JT ‘gets flirty’

The Guardian | Irish Times

Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake settled a defamation suit with a celebrity magazine in Ireland, The Guardian reported on Tuesday. A September edition of Heat quotes Biel and writes about Timberlake’s behavior at a nightclub in Paris. Irish Times reports that Heat is published by Bauer Consumer Media, a German company.

From The Guardian:

In the agreed statement read in the high court, a lawyer for the Bauer group admitted the article – headlined “Justin Timberlake gets flirty with another woman, “It is not his wife!” and “The flirty photos that rocked Justin and Jessica’s marriage” – was based on an unfounded report.

The article also included purported statements improperly attributed to Biel which the publishers said Heat now understands the actor never made.

Irish Times reported that the couple was satisfied with the ruling. And don’t mess with their marriage.

(Solicitor Paul Tweed) said the couple will not be making any further comment in relation to the matter. However, he added, they will “not hesitate to take similar legal action if false allegations regarding the state of their marriage are repeated”.

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Top 5 falsehoods about Ebola

This story originally appeared on the PunditFact website. Poynter is republishing with permission.

The spread of Ebola in West Africa, and now into Dallas, has stoked plenty of misinformation about the Ebola virus, its origins and the government’s response.

PolitiFact and PunditFact have been fact-checking claims about the Ebola outbreak since July. Here are our top five falsehoods.

No, illegal immigrants haven’t carried Ebola across the border

In July, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claiming that people are crossing the southern U.S. border carrying Ebola, citing "reports."

But none of the reports were credible, and the experts we talked to said Gingrey was wrong. (And since he said this in July, it’s safe to say we’d know by now if he was right.)

Gingrey’s claim rates Pants on Fire.

No, the Ebola outbreak isn’t a Bill Gates/George Soros conspiracy

Several conspiracy websites raised questions about a "bioweapons lab" in Sierra Leone being the source of the virus. Questions like, "What's behind the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone? Could it possibly be a U.S. bioweapons project gone amuck?"

Some of the websites tie the "bioweapons lab" to billionaires George Soros and Bill and Melinda Gates.

But, like Gingrey’s claim, there is no proof of Soros and Gates funding a bioweapons lab in Kenema, one of the largest cities in Sierra Leone with a population of about 150,000. And there’s really no case that a bioweapons lab in Kenema is behind the outbreak.

There are, however, a group of Tulane University researchers who have worked in the area for about a decade to better understand Lassa fever.

"We were there working 10 years and then Ebola came here," said Dr. Robert Garry, a Tulane University professor who is leading the research. "We’re not here to turn Lassa and Ebola into a kind of superweapon. It can do that on its own.

"The conspiracy theories really just kind of, wow," Garry said. "Our teammates are dying, and you’re talking this trash about us."

This claim is Pants on Fire.

No, Obama didn’t sign an order mandating detention of Americans

Bloggers are also behind a bogus claim that "President (Barack) Obama signed an executive order mandating the detention of Americans who show signs of ‘respiratory illness’."

The executive order in question is much more targeted than the article lets on, it isn’t aimed at Ebola, and while it allows health officials to quarantine someone with a highly contagious disease, it does not mandate it.

The executive order deals with respiratory diseases, but Ebola is not a respiratory disease.

Also, because public health matters are controlled by the states, the Department of Health and Human Services could only isolate people as they enter the country or attempt to travel from one state to another.

So this claim, too, is Pants on Fire.

No, we weren’t promised an Ebola-free America

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., claimed recently that the isolated cases of Ebola in the United States directly contradict the assurances of President Barack Obama and his administration.

"We were told there would never be a case of Ebola in the United States," McCain said.

Best we can tell, we were never told that.

We searched the public comments both of Obama and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found no such matter-of-fact assurances. What officials and Obama have repeatedly said is that while there’s a chance an Ebola case could appear in the United States, the possibility of an outbreak is extremely low.

McCain’s claim rates False.

No, the United States hasn’t been secretly anticipating a widespread outbreak

On the flipside of McCain is former Dallas star Morgan Brittany, who wrote a blog suggesting that  that Ebola is part of a larger White House plan to control the nation.

Brittany’s column describes a Los Angeles dinner party where the conversation turned grim.

"One of the men brought up the fact that Washington has known for months if not years that we were at risk for some sort of global pandemic," Brittany wrote. "According to a government supplier of emergency products, the Disaster Assistance Response Team was told to be prepared to be activated in the month of October for an outbreak of Ebola."

Brittany’s story was based on tweets from a private California medical and safety services company, which now says the tweets were based on nothing.

"A couple of EMS guys were talking about conspiracy theories," said Ed Castillo, president of Golden State FIRE EMS, the organization behind the chatter. "There are no facts to support it. It can be written off as a couple of guys shooting the breeze."

Brittany’s claim rates Pants on Fire. Read more

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