Globe and Mail falls for hoax tweet, falsely reports ex-NSA chief's death

A fake tweet by a Twitter account resembling that of the popular site Breaking News led at least one news organization, the Globe and Mail, to falsely report the death of ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden at today's shooting at Los Angeles International Airport.

The apparent hoax account @HeadIineNews, which only showed one tweet at the time, looked like Breaking News' @BreakingNews account, which has more than 6.3 million followers. The fake account used the same profile photo as Breaking News, and its Twitter handle substituted a capital "I" for a lower-case "L" in @HeadIineNews.

John Stackhouse, the Globe and Mail's editor-in-chief, tells Poynter via phone that the "embarrassing" mistake was an occasion to reiterate the newsroom's policies for verifying breaking news. "It was an unfortunate human error made by people not following the practices and procedures we have in place," he said.

Stackhouse said a reporter initially came across the hoax tweet and forwarded it via email to the editorial Web team. From there, a homepage editor notified a senior editor, who immediately made the call to send out breaking news alerts. Along the way, newsroom personnel failed to verify the legitimacy of the source, and the senior editor failed to confer with the news editor in charge before blasting out the information and adding it to the story.

The first tweet, sent at 1:40 p.m. ET, was quickly deleted. The second tweet at 1:45 p.m., labeled an "update," should have been labeled a correction, Stackhouse said. At 1:54 p.m., a third tweet correctly identified the report of Hayden's death as a hoax. He said deleting erroneous tweets isn't a written policy, but it's what editors do in practice.

The Globe and Mail's mobile news alerts aren't timestamped, Stackhouse said, but they followed the same sequence as the tweets. The newspaper's written guidelines offer clear advice on the dangers of alerting without verification: "Once sent, an alert cannot be deleted or changed. So if in doubt, wait."

Stackhouse added that any information added to a wire story should be properly attributed and that a lengthier correction was forthcoming.

A screenshot of the story on the Globe and Mail's website before it recognized the hoax shows the false report of Hayden's death under a Reuters and Associated Press byline. But those two outlets never reported it:

"At this point I would think there is some serious fence-mending to be done by the Globe with Reuters and AP after the paper wrongly attributed the Hayden information to them on its website," says Poynter's Craig Silverman, a former Globe and Mail columnist. "And I expect to see a report from the paper's public editor about how this happened, and why the information was wrongly attributed. One thing that also should have happened but hasn't: a correction tweet from the Globe that acknowledges the paper's mistake."

By email, Director of AP Media Relations Paul Colford said, "It was unfortunate that AP and Reuters were mistakenly made to appear in the wrong." But he said he was pleased to see a number of subsequent tweets from other users correct the report.

Meanwhile, Cory Bergman, general manager and co-founder of Breaking News, tweeted that he asked Twitter to remove the hoax account.

Another Canadian outlet, the Sun News Network, also appears to have tweeted the fake report, deleting the tweet after recognizing it as a hoax:

Some lessons here are obvious: Check the history of a Twitter feed before quoting it, and always seek a second and third source. In this case, the damage was fairly contained and the wrong information didn't appear to spread far.

  • Sam Kirkland

    Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor, where he helped launch digital magazines and ebooks in addition to other web duties.


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