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 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.)


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.


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.):


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.

Into that information vacuum stepped @BicycleLobby, a Twitter account with a bio that clearly states it is a parody. In spite of that, their joke tweet about being responsible was picked up by AP, the New York Daily News and others. Read more


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’

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 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


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


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”.

Read more
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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

Ben Affleck

Fact-checking the fallout from Bill Maher’s Muslim monologue

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

In this photo provided by HBO, Bill Maher hosts the season premiere of "Real Time with Bill Maher" Friday, Jan. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/HBO, Janet Van Ham)

In this photo provided by HBO, Bill Maher hosts the season premiere of “Real Time with Bill Maher” Friday, Jan. 18, 2013. (AP Photo/HBO, Janet Van Ham)

The comments about Islam from comedian, social critic, atheist and cable talk show host Bill Maher continue to stir reactions across the TV dial and across the political spectrum.

It started on Maher’s Sept. 26 HBO show. In a monologue, Maher said that when Muslim nations suppress political rights and deny freedoms to women, homosexuals and minorities, they are fair game for harsh criticism.

He singled out liberals for their unwillingness to criticize aspects of Muslim culture.

"We hear a lot about the Republican ‘War on Women.’ It’s not cool Rush Limbaugh called somebody a slut. Okay," Maher said. "But Saudi women can’t vote, or drive, or hold a job, or leave the house without a man. Overwhelming majorities in every Muslim country say a wife is always obliged to obey her husband. That all seems like a bigger issue than evangelical Christian bakeries refusing to make gay wedding cakes."

Maher’s comments have now fueled close to 10 days worth of reactions on cable news networks and on Maher’s HBO show. We’ve fact-checked several claims from the fallout.

Cherry-picking Saudi Arabia

Daily Beast columnist and comedian Dean Obeidallah zeroed in on Maher’s quote that we referenced in our introduction, the part where Maher said women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive.

"You can criticize Muslims," Obeidallah said on MSNBC’s The Ed Show on Oct. 6. "It’s about doing it responsibly. Don't pick and choose and cherry-pick facts to define us by our worst examples. … Like Saudi Arabia, women can't drive. That’s outrageous."

But, Obeidallah said, "that's the only Muslim country out of 47 Muslim-majority countries that does that."

Obeidallah’s claim that Saudi Arabia stands alone rates True.

We asked Obeidallah and he said not only is it accurate within the Muslim world, but Saudi Arabia might be the only country worldwide that doesn’t let women drive. He pointed to a NPR story that said the oil-rich nation holds that dubious distinction, although it clarified "while there is no law formally banning female drivers, the government does not give them licenses."

Some Saudi women have gotten behind the wheel and driven in plain sight to challenge the country’s policy.

We went through a list of Muslim-majority nations and from everything we found, Obeidallah is correct about Saudi Arabia’s unique status. Another country that blocked women from driving did not show up. (For the record, our list had 51 nations, not 47. And there's another list that has 49. But we won't quibble over that.)

John Esposito is a leading expert on Islam and a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. We asked him if Saudi Arabia was the sole Muslim nation with this policy regarding women.

"Yes," Esposito said.

FGM and Muslim countries

Another critic of Maher, Reza Aslan, an author and University of California-Riverside professor of religious studies, accused Maher of another misrepresentation.

Aslan criticized Maher for making "facile arguments" when he generalized about Muslims and mislabeled female genital mutilation an Islamic problem.

"It's a central African problem," Aslan said. "Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It's a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It's a Christian country."

We found that Aslan is right that female gender mutilation is a problem that also occurs outside of Muslim countries.

So Aslan’s claim rates Mostly True.

Female genital mutilation refers to procedures that remove, in part or in whole, external genitalia for a non-medical reason. International groups such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF and Human Rights Watch condemn the practice as a flagrant example of gender inequality — one that carries risks of prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and complications during birth. When performed, the procedure is usually done on young girls.

Seven of the top eight countries with very high rates of female circumcision are majority Muslim, including the "almost universal" levels in Somalia, Egypt, Guinea and Djibouti, according to UNICEF. But Eritrea, as Aslan said, is No. 5 among countries with high prevalence at 89 percent, and it is home to more Christians than Muslims.

Ethiopia, which is 63 percent Christian and 34 percent Muslim, has a moderately high rate of 74 percent, making it No. 11 on the list.

So the countries in which female genital cutting is a practice are mostly Muslim, but they are not exclusively Muslim. Of the 29 countries tracked by UNICEF, 14 are home to more Christians than Muslims.

Affleck on ISIS, minor league baseball

Maher invited actor and liberal activist Ben Affleck on his follow-up program Oct. 3, where the two debated Maher’s earlier comments.

Maher argued that the beliefs and actions of Islamic State, while widely decried as extreme, are not all that different from the core tenets of Islam practiced by Muslims around the world. Affleck called that an unfair generalization of Muslims, which number about 1.6 billion people and represent the world’s second-largest religion.

Affleck then offered a comparison to speak to the size of the Islamic State versus the number of Muslims worldwide.

"ISIS couldn't fill a Double A ballpark in Charleston, W. Va.," Affleck said.

It’s clear Affleck’s comment was at least partially intended to draw laughs, but he used it to strengthen his argument that the number of Islamic State fighters pales in comparison to the Muslim population overall.

That’s worth a second look. Because it’s False.

The U.S. government has had a hard time pinning down the precise number of jihadist fighters within the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Part of the problem is the group has grown quickly as it has captured more ground in Syria and Iraq.

Over the summer, it was widely reported that the U.S. government estimated about 10,000 fighters in the al-Qaida-linked group.

In September, the CIA more than doubled the group’s estimated size to between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. In a statement to PunditFact, the CIA public affairs office explained the figure is based on intelligence reports collected from May to August. The CIA attributes the growth to "stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence."

At least 2,000 of the fighters reportedly have Western passports, too.

Non-U.S. reports say the Islamic State is potentially much larger.  RT, the Russian government-sponsored English news organization, quoted an Iraqi intelligence adviser as saying the Islamic State numbered 100,000 in August. Al Jazeera reported that the Islamic State had an army of 50,000 troops in August. A Kurdish security official told 60 Minutes in September there were 40,000 Islamic State fighters.

Even the smallest estimate, 20,000, is too big for the West Virginia ballpark.

Charleston is home to the West Virginia Power, a Class A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates since 2009.

The Power plays at Appalachian Power Park, which has a maximum seating capacity of 4,500 for baseball games, said Adam Marco, the team’s radio broadcaster and marketing director. The park could hold up to 11,000 people for charity events and concerts that would allow people onto the field, he said.

So even the lowest estimate of Islamic State fighters would be way too much for the stadium.

The story for Double A teams, which is what Affleck said even though the West Virginia is Class A, is no different.

The largest Double A team stadium belongs to the Jacksonville Suns, which can hold 11,000 fans, said Minor League Baseball spokeswoman Mary Marandi. Read more


A fact-checker’s toast to ‘Crossfire’

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

The CNN show "Crossfire," which debuted Sept. 9, 2013, is on "indefinite hiatus," according to published reports.

The CNN show “Crossfire,” which debuted Sept. 9, 2013, is on “indefinite hiatus,” according to published reports.

After an eight-year hiatus, a revamped Crossfire was tapped to help launch a new era for CNN that focused less on news and more on the political back-and-forth that has become commonplace on MSNBC and Fox News.

But the show appears headed for extinction again, after less than a year on air.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the show has been "withdrawn," a term that is perfectly mushy, yet fairly clear. New York Magazine described the show as on "indefinite hiatus."

The show debuted Sept. 9, 2013, and featured an alternating cast of liberals and conservatives, hosted by S.E. Cupp, Newt Gingrich, Van Jones and Stephanie Cutter.

Crossfire has not aired since July 15, 2014, and took an extended break in the spring so that CNN could devote time to the Malaysia Airlines crash.

While the show may not have been a ratings winner, it was a good place to find interesting fact-checks.

Here’s a sample of some of our more interesting work.

Trouble in Syria

The show debuted with a big guest, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who made a claim that still holds relevance today.

Paul was discussing the situation in Syria and how the United States didn’t have a lot of good options. Paul claimed that Syrian President Bashar Assad probably is a war criminal, but that some of his political opponents are equally dangerous.

"We've seen priests beheaded by the Islamic rebels on the other side," Paul said. "We've also seen an Islamic rebel eating the heart of a soldier."

News reports show that Islamic rebels gunned down a priest but did not behead him.

Paul’s claim about a rebel eating a heart is more accurate, but the details are sketchy. Both the focus on a heart and the idea of cannibalism push strong emotional buttons. But it might not have been a heart, and there might not have been an actual bite, we found. Still, a rebel carved up a dead Syrian soldier, boasted about it as he did so, and at the very least, spoke and acted as though he were eating the dead man’s liver and heart.

We rate Paul’s claim Half True.

NRA’s political influence

A few days later, talk turned to the political successes and failures of the National Rifle Association.

Liberal host Van Jones claimed that the NRA’s reputation of invincibility is exaggerated.

"The NRA is not popular on a big scale," Jones said. "They can cherry-pick their focus. … 1 percent of candidates that they endorsed in 2012 won — 1 percent."

That’s quite a low number, but it also is wrong. It rates False.

An independent analysis did find that about 1 percent of money spent by one particular NRA affiliate either helped elect a winning candidate or helped defeat a losing one.

But that ignores a second NRA affiliate that did much better, and the study in question looked at dollars spent — not endorsements.

From the data we compiled, the NRA’s endorsements were about 60 percent successful.

Jones later acknowledged his mistake, saying, "Yup, I botched that stat."

Jobs tied to Keystone

Jones played a central figure in one or more popular fact-checks of 2014.

The topic: the Keystone XL pipeline.

"Every time we have a show, somebody says something … about Keystone, and somehow Keystone is going to create all these jobs," Jones said during a February episode. "Then it turns out, look at the actual numbers. It turns out the actual numbers are 3,900 temporary jobs in the construction sector and 35 permanent jobs."

There’s plenty of debate over how many jobs the project would create during construction.

The State Department report puts the total at 42,100 jobs, though the definition of a job in this sense is a position filled for one year. Much of the construction work would come in four- or or eight-month stretches. About 10,400 seasonal workers would be recruited for construction, the State Department said.

When looked at as "an average annual job," it works out to about 3,900 jobs over one year of construction or 1,950 jobs each year for two years.

The rest of the jobs would be the result of spillover spending (formally called indirect or induced economic activity) as Keystone workers buy equipment and materials to complete the project and spend their money on an array of services, including food, health care, and arts and entertainment. As you might expect, it’s much harder to measure the widespread effect on job creation.

There’s no doubting that most of the economic activity comes during construction. Jones honed in on jobs after construction, which aren’t really a source of sharp debate.

"There’s very few jobs operating pipelines," said Ian Goodman, president of the Goodman Group Ltd., an energy and economic consulting firm in Berkeley, Calif. "That’s one of the reasons why pipelines are attractive to the oil industry. They’re relatively inexpensive to build and operate."

The report says the project would provide jobs for about 35 permanent employees and 15 temporary contractors.

The full-timers would be "required for annual operations, including routine inspections, maintenance and repair." Some would work in Canada. The U.S. employees would work at pump stations along the pipeline route as well as a Nebraska office.

Jones’ focused claims is on the mark. We rate it True.

Corporate taxes in focus

The taxes paid, or not paid, by corporations is a perennial topic in Washington. There is broad agreement that the current rules should be changed but no consensus on what those changes ought to be.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pulled out a dramatic statistic during a September 2013 back-and-forth with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "One out of four corporations doesn't pay a nickel in taxes," Sanders said.

Sanders' office pointed us to a Government Accountability Office study from 2008. In one sense, that study found that Sanders understated the situation. For all corporations, about two-thirds, or about 1.2 million, paid no federal income taxes in 2005. But many of those firms are quite small — an owner and a couple of employees.

For large U.S.-controlled corporations, those with at least $250 million in assets or $50 million in gross receipts, one out of four paid no taxes, as Sanders said. The total revenues for those large companies was about $1.08 trillion.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

The GAO study did not distinguish between firms that had losses in the normal course of business and those that reported losses solely through the use of the tax code. That means businesses could have paid no taxes because they didn’t turn a profit.

While special tax breaks and abuses of the tax code exist, an analysis from the progressive group Citizens for Tax Justice found that the ratio was, one out of six and possibly as small as one out of 16.

As such, we rate Sanders’ claim Half True. Read more


Fact-checking the war comparisons between Obama and Bush

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

The irony of President Barack Obama, Nobel Prize winner and putative anti-war candidate, launching extensive airstrikes in Syria, quickly led to comparisons with his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

President Barack Obama walks with former President George W. Bush during the unveiling of his official portraits in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama walks with former President George W. Bush during the unveiling of his official portraits in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

PunditFact heard two different comparisons in recent days that we thought we were worth exploring.

Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for the New Yorker summed it up in one tweet.

"Countries bombed: Obama 7, Bush 4."

That’s True.

We asked Lizza for his list and he sent us this:

Bush: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia.

Obama: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria.

As we fact-checked Lizza’s statement, we found little reason to challenge the nations he named. If anything, he shortchanged both presidents.

There is no dispute whatsoever about airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Bush launched wars in the first two countries and drone strikes in Pakistan have been in the news for a long time, with or without official acknowledgment. Airstrikes in those places continued under Obama.

Somalia falls largely in the same category as Pakistan. The New York Times, BBC News and other news organizations reported airstrikes as early as 2007 against people linked to the al-Qaida network.  

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit news service based at City University London, maintains a running list of U.S. military actions in a number of countries, including Somalia and Yemen. The bureau annotates each incident with links to press reports. By its tally, American drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Somalia occurred under both Bush and Obama.

The same pattern holds in Yemen. BBC News and Time magazine reported a CIA-directed drone attack in Yemen in 2002. This would increase Bush’s total to five countries, rather than the four Lizza cited. Lizza said he left Yemen off of Bush’s list because it was a "one-off strike, rather than a more sustained bombing campaign. Probably deserves an asterisk."

The air attacks on Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 under Obama are well documented. In March 2011, the United States and British warships fired over 100 cruise missiles to destroy Libyan air defenses. And, of course, there’s now Syria.

Lizza said that Obama has bombed seven countries to Bush’s four. Depending on your view of Bush’s reported drone strike into Yemen, he may have slightly undercounted Bush’s tally.

But it's hard to fault Lizza for the numbers we use.

Muslim targets

On CNN’s State of the Union Sept. 28, political commentator LZ Granderson took the comparison one step further.

Granderson said Obama is losing favor among his base supporters because of his recent foreign policy decisions. In 2008, they were tired of the wars started under Bush and were hoping that a new president would bring them to a close.

"They voted for him because he was supposed to end these wars and stop bombing people," Granderson said. "And when you look at the raw numbers, three times as much Special Forces were used than ‘W.’, twice as many strikes (on) countries that are predominantly Muslim. Those were not the numbers that his staunch progressive base voted for."

Granderson’s claim that there have been "twice as many strikes (on) countries that are predominantly Muslim" is Mostly True.

Granderson used the same tally as Lizza, and in fact, all of those countries are predominantly Muslim.

We found at a Pew report that said each of the seven countries with confirmed airstrikes under Obama are more than 90 percent Muslim, as of 2010.

Afghanistan: 99.8 percent

Iraq: 98.9 percent

Pakistan: 96.4 percent

Somalia: 98.6 percent

Yemen: 99.0 percent

Libya: 96.6 percent

Syria: 92.8 percent

Our only quibble is that Granderson said twice, when he would have been safer saying nearly twice. Read more


Toronto newsweekly falls short on Buffy The Vampire Slayer trivia

Toronto’s NOW magazine had to issue a correction due its lack of Buffy The Vampire Slayer knowledge:

This article originally stated that Joyce Summers, the mother of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s titular character, succumbed to a cancerous tumour. As pointed out by Queen’s Park Briefing’s John Michael McGrath, Summers in fact died from an aneurysm [sic] that resulted from the tumour’s removal.

  Read more


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