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Season of false starts for news organizations

It's been a rough season for non-news. The recent spate of hoaxes and premature stories exposes a dangerous fault line for journalists in the world of second-by-second news.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A balloon racing across the Colorado sky without a 6-year-old boy inside. A major lobbyist not changing its position on climate change. A shootout with terrorists on the Potomac River that never happened.

It's been a rough season for non-news.

The recent spate of hoaxes and premature stories exposes a dangerous fault line for journalists in the world of second-by-second news.

Each situation was unique. But they all diminished the credibility of news organizations at a time when the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has reported that 63 percent of Americans believe news stories are often inaccurate — the worst report card it has ever seen.

"Speed is always a threat to accuracy, and the faster we can go, the more jeopardy the truth is in," said Deborah Potter, a former CBS News reporter and executive director of the News Lab think tank.

The balloon boy story riveted cable news viewers a week ago. A flying saucerlike balloon had escaped from its tethers and Richard Heene reported to authorities that he believed his son Falcon was aboard. CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC all turned to the story to the exclusion of virtually all others.

Even in retrospect, it's hard to argue against that judgment. It was an unusual story, with gripping visuals, of a young boy's life in danger. Later, investigators alleged it was a hoax perpetrated by a publicity-hungry father.

Where was the skepticism?
What the story missed at the time was a bigger dose of skepticism and caution — more emphasis on the uncertainty of the report and curiosity about how a boy could fly in the structure.

In live broadcasts, anchors need to take care in emphasizing what is not known, said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who is now a professor at George Washington University.

"We're not doing it enough," he said, "because it's too easy to seize on something that appears to be happening before our eyes and run with it."

Perhaps tinged by disgust at the hoax itself, the media has suffered a backlash among people who believe too much time was spent on the story, said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

A few days later in Washington, an official-looking press release from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced that the organization had reversed its position on climate change legislation.

Not so. It was an elaborate scam put on by members of the liberal activist group Yes Men, who were looking to draw attention to a policy stance with which it disagreed. Reuters moved a story based on the false press release, and both CNBC and Fox Business Network reported it — with the anchors correcting themselves mid-story upon learning it was false.

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In all the cases, a desire to push the story out fast took priority over a phone call to double-check.

"This is an example of how, when you get too careless and don't really do your homework, there's a price to pay," said Eric Wohlschlegel, communications chief for the Chamber of Commerce, who broke into the Yes Men's fake news conference to announce it was a hoax.

Mike Bonanno, a member of the Yes Men, said the group achieved its goal of spotlighting the policy. A day after its antics, a paper manufacturer in upstate New York resigned its membership in the chamber over the policy.

The frightening message: Hoaxes work.

No time to check facts?Social media seems to be increasing the opportunity for mischief. False reports that Britney Spears, George Clooney, Jeff Goldblum and Natalie Portman had died spread on Twitter and Facebook in recent months, compelling major news organizations to check them out. The latest unfounded death rumor, only this month, concerned Kanye West. There's even a Web site devoted to creating fake news stories about celebrities.

It wasn't a hoax, but CNN created a stir on the emotionally fraught Sept. 11 anniversary by reporting that the U.S. Coast Guard had fired shots on a suspicious vessel in the Potomac. Reuters picked up the story, and Fox News Channel quickly jumped on it. It turned out CNN had mistaken a training exercise for the real thing.

Fox anchors talked about the report for several minutes even with an important clue staring them in the face — a live picture of the Potomac with cars streaming across a bridge. If there really had been a terrorist episode, wouldn't authorities stop traffic?

In the pre-Internet and pre-cable news days, journalists would have time to suss out the accuracy of a report, Jurkowitz said. Even with a current atmosphere where "beats" are often measured by the second, there's plenty of evidence that consumers care more about getting the latest information and getting it right.

Good luck. "This is the immovable object meets the unstoppable force," Sesno said.

Nowhere was the new landscape more vividly illustrated than this month when Nick Denton, chief of the irreverent Web site, issued a memo scolding his staff for a few cases "where we've thought WAY too much before publishing" a story.

Get something out fast with what we know, Denton wrote. We can always update.

"At some media organizations, you might get rapped for running a premature story," he wrote. "At Gawker Media, you'll lose way more points for being scooped on a story you had in your hands."