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Journalism
An article about "tornado oddities" on Yahoo! News leads off with this one:

As residents in Hugo begin to move on from last week's tornado, some say they noticed a few bizarre things amid all the damage. Jason Akins said the twister unwound a roll of toilet paper in his bathroom — draped it across the countertop, then rewound it in the sink. The toilet paper didn't even rip.
"All I could say was, 'You have got to be kidding me,'" Akins recalled.

'You've gotta be kidding me' is my reaction also. An article on twincities.com provides a few more details about this unlikely event:

In the bathroom, something unwound a roll of toilet paper. Without ripping it, it unspooled the paper across the countertop, then neatly rewound it in a sink — like a poltergeist making a soft white nest.

So the toilet paper didn't rewind into a perfect roll, which is what I thought when I first read the Yahoo! article. It just collected in the sink. Weird, but I'm willing to accept this could have happened. (Thanks, Big Gary)
Categories: Journalism
Posted by Alex on Tue Jun 03, 2008
Comments (10)
On May 9, money.co.uk published a story alleging that a 13-year-old kid in Texas had stolen his dad's credit card and used it to rent a motel room and some prostitutes. The cute/quirky part of the story was that the kids simply played Xbox with the "$1,000 a night girls." The story quickly spread throughout the media, appearing in The Sun, The Daily Telegraph, and Fox News, among others. But a few days later it was exposed as a hoax, since the police had no record of such an incident. David B posted about it here in the forum.

Online marketer Lyndon Antcliff admitted he had posted the story on the website of his client, money.co.uk, as an experiment in "linkbait." He said, "It's been a lesson in the power of social media and the power of people suspending their disbelief. [Traditional news organizations] are always banging about how inaccurate blogs are, but in this case, it was the opposite."

The story of the hoax and its exposure now has got a second wind, and is doing the rounds again, on account of some suggestion that google may punish linkbaiters by lowering their page rank. This doesn't sound like a good plan to me. Linkbait (or, more simply, hoaxes) may have publicity as a motive, but can also serve other, more socially useful purposes (i.e. exposing the pompous and gullible). Plus, once hoaxes are exposed, they become genuine news stories. So why try to artificially suppress their visibility?

However, Google hasn't actually said it will punish linkbait, but Wired's article about the hoax suggests the possibility. They write, "We didn't get an official response from Google about how the search engine might treat fake content that's used as a marketing tool, but search quality guru Matt Cutts implied that the company frowns upon this sort of practice." (Thanks, Joe)
Categories: Journalism
Posted by Alex on Sat May 24, 2008
Comments (16)
About two weeks ago a story started going around alleging that an Adolf Hitler doll, marketed to children, was being sold in the Ukraine. From the Daily Mail:

One saleswoman said: "It is like Barbie. Kids can undress fuhrer, pin on medals and there's a spare head in the kit to give him a kinder expression on his face.
"He has glasses that are round, in the manner of pacifist Jon Lennon".
The doll will also come with accessories like a miniature Blondi, Hitler's faithful Alsatian who died alongside the Nazi in his bunker in Berlin in 1945.
The doll is dressed in long light-brown cloak, military uniform and jackboots.
According to the saleswoman, should the demand be high, manufacturers will go further and launch a series of themed Third Reich toys, including interiors of Hitler's chancellery, toy concentration camps with barbed wire, barracks and operating models of gas chambers and crematoriums.

But now it seems that the reports of the Hitler Doll were a hoax. WikiNews reports:

The hoax first appeared two weeks ago and was spread rapidly, when a journalist found a model of Asian origin aimed at adult collecters in a specialist shop in Kiev, and misrepresented the find by failing to give basic details of the facts of the case when he publicised his find. The story propagated and expanded from there.
Categories: Journalism
Posted by Alex on Mon May 05, 2008
Comments (10)
From the March 19th edition of the Mahoning Valley Tribune Chronicle:

It was incorrectly reported in Tuesday’s Tribune Chronicle that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton answered questions from voters in a local congressman’s office.
Reporter John Goodall, who was assigned to the story, spoke by telephone with Hillary Wicai Viers, who is a communications director in U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson’s staff. According to the reporter, when Viers answered the phone with ‘‘This is Hillary,’’ he believed he was speaking with the Democratic presidential candidate, who had made several previous visits to the Mahoning Valley. The quotes from Viers were incorrectly attributed to Clinton.

You have to wonder how a reporter could be that clueless. Did he seriously imagine that Hillary Clinton would be there answering the phones? Or maybe he knew it wasn't Clinton, but thought it would make the story sound better if he attributed the quotes to her, and that no one would ever know the difference.
Categories: Identity/Imposters, Journalism, Politics
Posted by Alex on Sun Mar 23, 2008
Comments (8)
In what is one of the most absurd articles I've read in a while, Chicago Tribune reporter Nara Schoenberg tries to argue that "blue" is the new "green". In other words, green (as a symbol of environmentalism) is old hat. So people are now starting to say "blue" instead of "green".

Her main evidence is that Mercedes-Benz calls its new clean-diesel technology BLUETEC. And a few environmental websites have blue pages.

I refer to this journalistic technique in Hippo Eats Dwarf as the "Generalization from a Single Example": "A reporter makes a sweeping statement, but backs it up with only one or two examples... [leading] audiences to believe they represent a larger trend, even if the reality is the opposite."

David Roberts of Grist Magazine offers this analysis of Schoenberg's article:

Culture reporter wants to write something on green, but needs something new, a counterintuitive trend piece that can get some attention.
PR shill pitches reporter on fake trend: blue is the new green! Perfect.
Reporter calls actual green journalist. Actual green journalist points out that trend is fake.
Even better! Now you've got a trend piece with some he-said she-said controversy attached!
Categories: Journalism
Posted by Alex on Fri Jan 25, 2008
Comments (7)
Last week this story was EVERYWHERE. A pair of twins in Britain, who had been adopted into different families, met and fell in love... without realizing they were twins. They then got married, only to discover the terrible secret they shared. Their marriage was promptly annulled.

When I first read about this, it sounded pretty fishy to me -- very much like an urban legend being reported as news -- but on a cursory reading of the story I also got the impression that there were officials involved who knew about the case but couldn't disclose the identity of the twins. So I accepted the news as true. I think the paragraph in the BBC report linked to above that got me was this one:

Mo O'Reilly, director of child placement for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said the situation was traumatic for the people involved, but incredibly rare.


To me, this sounded as if Mo O'Reilly actually knew about the case first-hand. Unfortunately, I didn't read the article closely enough. Apparently the only person who knew about the case was Lord Alton who used it as an example during a House of Lords debate on the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill. Lord Alton had heard about the case "from a judge who was involved." In other words, the source is a FOAF (friend of a friend), one of the classic signs of an urban legend.

Jon Henley of the Guardian summarizes the situation:

Here's the thing: it all came from a single remark more than a month ago by the vehemently anti-abortion Roman Catholic peer and father of four, Lord Alton, in favour of all children having the right to know the identity of their biological parents.
He had heard about this particular case, he said, from the judge who handled the annulment. Or perhaps (he later admitted) a judge who was "familiar with the case". Britain's top family judge, Sir Mark Potter, has never heard of the story. And, as the excellent Heresy Corner blog notes, the whole thing is statistically improbable, procedurally implausible (for 40 years, adoption practice has been to keep twins together) and based on the equivalent of a friend in the pub saying, "Hey, I heard the most amazing story the other day."


So it looks like this piece of news needs to be categorized as an urban-legend-reported-as-news until proven otherwise. (Thanks, Joe)
Categories: Birth/Babies, Journalism, Sex/Romance, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 15, 2008
Comments (15)
Last week quite a few papers ran this story:

NON-SMOKERS NEED NOT APPLY
BERLIN -- The owner of a small German computer company has fired three non-smoking workers because they were threatening to push demands for a smoke-free environment.
The manager of the 10-member IT company in Buesum, named Thomas J., told the Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper he had fired the trio because their non-smoking was causing disruptions.
"I can't be bothered with trouble-makers," Thomas said. "We're on the phone all the time and it's just easier to work while smoking. Everyone picks on smokers these days. It's time for revenge. I'm only going to hire smokers from now on."


Turns out, the story was a hoax. Stephanie Lamprecht, the reporter whose name appeared on the byline, said that her source -- some guy named Thomas Joschko -- just made it up: "He said it was a joke and worth the trouble. He said he's a chain-smoker himself and said he was tired of smokers being hassled so much."

From what I understand, it's not clear that Thomas Joschko even owns a business. He's just a guy who picked up a phone and told a reporter a wild story, trusting that the reporter would do minimal fact checking before running it.

This was the same modus operandi of Joseph Mulhattan, one of the most prolific hoaxers in America at the end of the nineteenth century. He would invent bizarre stories and wire them to papers, which would invariably print them. It's nice to see that the same tricks still work.
Categories: Journalism
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 15, 2008
Comments (5)
Here's a story I missed last month, even though it occurred right here in my backyard (figuratively speaking). FoxSports.com took the lead in disseminating it, but versions of it, such as the one below (from the Seattle Times) appeared in many papers:

The San Diego Chargers moved their practice operations to Arizona during last week's devastating fires in Southern California, depriving special-teams coach Steve Crosby of a genuine Kodak moment back home.
As Jay Glazer reported at FoxSports.com: "Crosby received a call from his wife informing him that she walked outside to assess the damage and get this she found a hippopotamus in their swimming pool! A hippo!
"She called the authorities, who came and tranquilized the animal and removed it."
The Crosbys live near the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Turns out there was no escaped hippo lounging in Steve Crosby's swimming pool. The San Diego Wild Animal Park doesn't even have hippos (though the San Diego Zoo does). Crosby claims that it was a locker-room joke that somehow got mistaken as real news.

He should have said there was a hippo in his pool eating a dwarf.
Categories: Animals, Journalism
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 29, 2007
Comments (1)
When a Russian woman recently gave birth to quintuplets, it made news around the world. But BBC viewers who watched the footage of the babies might have thought something was a little odd. Why were the babies crying, even though they had respirators in their mouths? It turns out the cries were dubbed in:
The BBC has admitted that it added the sound of crying to a report yesterday on the birth of a set of quintuplets. It is the latest in a series of rows over fakery to hit the corporation in recent months...
Footage of the infants was distributed by the hospital, but it was silent. Yet when the BBC ran the story on its website, the images were accompanied by the sound of babies crying, even though the quintuplets had respirators in their mouths...
Other television networks broadcast the clips without the sound of crying...
A BBC spokesman said: "We received the film without sound and, although we do not believe viewers were materially misled, we should not have added sound to these pictures."
Categories: Birth/Babies, Journalism
Posted by Alex on Sun Nov 18, 2007
Comments (7)
Here's a news story that's been making the rounds recently. This case is said to have occurred in Chengdu city, China:
Jiang Ming promised his wife, He Ling, that he would not go on the internet any more and would spend more time at home. But he started to sneak into internet cafes again to have video chats with girls.
"I was on the internet, and suddenly the arrow on the screen stopped moving, " says Jiang Ming.
"Then I found that my right hand was on the mouse pad, and blood was shooting out."
In court, the husband pleaded with the judge to release his wife, since he was to blame for breaking his promise.

It was posted on Ananova.com, so right away that lessens the probability that it's true. It's also been reported in the London Sunday Times, the News of the World, the Sunday Herald, and the New York Post.

I can believe that a wife would chop her husband's hand off, but I find it hard to believe that this guy would a) not see his wife standing next to him with a huge knife, and b) not hear or feel a thing.
Categories: Body Manipulation, Journalism, Technology
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 10, 2007
Comments (3)
Joe Littrell alerted me to an amusing piece on slate.com which takes the air out of a Boston Globe story about the disturbing trend of "Vicious Attacks By Girl Cliques Seen Increasing." Jack Shafer points out that the article contradicts its premise in its own subtitle, where it admits, "Despite Police Statistics, Violence Causing Worries." In other words, police statistics show that girl-on-girl violence is decreasing, but the article tries to spin it the other way, presumably because a rise in girls fighting each other sounds more intriguing, especially when you can lead off with vivid descriptions of girls fighting such as this one:
They use fists, knives, and razors to hurt each other. Before fights, they smear their faces with petroleum jelly so their adversaries' fingernails glide off the slick surface and won't cause scars.

The Boston Globe article manages to use two of the journalistic ploys that I list in Hippo Eats Dwarf: The phony crime wave (in which reporters grab readers' attention on slow news days by reporting crimes that would normally go unmentioned), and the generalization from a single example (in which the reporter claims to have discovered a trend, based on a sample size of one or two examples).
Categories: Journalism, Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 07, 2007
Comments (3)
Newsgroper is a parody site full of fake celebrity blogs. To make sure that no one confuses its content with real news, it posts the warning "Fake Parody Blogs, Political Humor, Celebrity Satire, Funny Commentary" in the title bar of every page.

Apparently, this warning wasn't enough for MSNBC's Alex Johnson. In a piece about Michael Vick, he quoted from Newsgroper's fake Al Sharpton blog, presenting the following quotation as if it were something Sharpton really had said:
"If the police caught Brett Favre (a white quarterback for the Green Bay Packers) running a dolphin-fighting ring out of his pool, where dolphins with spears attached to their foreheads fought each other, would they bust him? Of course not," Sharpton wrote Tuesday on his personal blog.

Caught in the blunder, MSNBC quickly removed the quotation from the article and posted this correction:

image

To me, the self-serving correction is worse than the original mistake. The fake Al Sharpton blog isn't a hoax. A hoax is a deliberate deception. Since the Al Sharpton blog announces right in the title bar that it's a parody blog, it hardly counts as a hoax.

MSNBC should retract their correction, and admit they're victims of sloppy reporting, not of a hoax. (Thanks to Cranky Media Guy for the link.)
Categories: Journalism, Sports, Websites
Posted by Alex on Mon Aug 27, 2007
Comments (7)
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