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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The moral of this *fake* story is: check your sources

A story did the rounds earlier this month of a Texan teenager who was convicted of fraud after stealing his father's credit card and using it to buy an X-box and the services of two prostitutes.

The source was a UK news site called The story was posted on news sites all around the world, including here in NZ.

It was 'dugg' 2,494 times on the social news aggregation site, Digg, it was plugged 200+ times on the website sharing service StumbleUpon, and it sparked blog posts and comments everywhere (see screengrab of Google news listings yesterday).

Only trouble is, the story was a hoax.

The original story on now carries a disclaimer - in red at the top of the story - which says 'this story is a parody and is not intended to be taken seriously'. The site has issued an apology for the ruse.

It was written by a marketer to help promote the site by generating links back to it (I'll let others debate the ethics and likely consequences of this kind of marketing, known as linkbait) - it was apparently intended to be so far-fetched that everyone would realise it was a fake. Clearly, there's not much left under the sun that shocks us anymore because newsroom editors, bloggers and readers didn't bat an eyelid. They just read it, published it and republished it.

Worryingly, the story was still live on TV3's website at the time of this blog post's writing, and a story on Stuff suggested it 'might' be a hoax but didn't say it definitely was. At least they - or their supplier - had taken the time to check the story with police in the US who said it 'didn't stack up'. On the other hand, it's a news site - they should know whether or not it's fake and not leave it kicking around for the sole purpose of drawing comments and generating traffic.

Two points here. One, some newsrooms clearly do not have robust enough systems for checking online news sources. Newsrooms take note: this should be a priority. Do some research, come up with a set of guidelines for your reporters, editors, web editors and sub-editors. Something along the lines of: read the story, check all the sources given with the story; run the headline/keywords through at least two search engines etc. And maybe make a diary note to revisit the story or return to the original source after a certain number of days. What else should we be looking for? I'd be interested to hear your ideas on checking validity of stories online.

Two, shouldn't news websites start listing some or all of their sources alongside stories? Something along the lines of: our sources for this story included x,y,z with links to any reports and websites used. (Without, of course, identifying sources who would be endangered.) It would be a step towards greater transparency; just maybe consumers of news have the right to be able to satisfy themselves that what they're reading is for real.

For the record, then: I heard about this via DigiDave on Twitter, who was retweeting a tweet from 0boy, aka JD Rucker, a search marketer and blogger who posted this story about the fake on the 'crowd powered' site From there I followed the links in his story, then checked them by searching for the keywords 'Texas' 'fraud' 'prostitute' in Google, Yahoo and Mahalo. Then I read Jonathan Crossfield's excellent blog post about it and some of the comments running about that he linked to.

So if I've made a mistake, you'll be able to spot it. And please, if you do find a mistake, let me know.


Kelly said...

Well that's interesting because after reading the story when it first came out, I never saw anymore about it either on the telly news or the web so didn't know until now that it was a hoax!

It was certainly not the most outlandish story I had ever heard so as to be obviously fake as per the marketers idea...which is a very sad reflection on society I think.