Steering Clear of Misinformation  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2011

Steering Clear of Misinformation   

An ONA session helps journalists avoid online hoaxes. Fri., September 23, 2011

By Tim Ebner
Tim Ebner (tebner86@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


The speed at which breaking news moves online can result in embarrassing mistakes for journalists. Case in point: the spread of the inaccurate rumor that Piers Morgan had been suspended by CNN inspired by a fake tweet in late July.

To stop the dissemination of misinformation, journalists at the Online News Association Convention in Boston on Friday learned about the fine art of separating the true from the false. Dan Silverman, author of "Regret the Error" and founder of the website RegretTheError.com, and Mandy Jenkins, social news editor for The Huffington Post, taught several ways to help journalists avoid the pitfalls of online falsity.

Their presentation is available online and offers tips for journalists covering or tweeting breaking news.

When a hoax report was released this summer indicating that Internet Explorer users have lower IQs than those who use other Web browsers, CNN, NPR, the BBC and other news went for the fake, citing the bogus research.

In this case, Jenkins and Silverman said that a critical review of the reported data would have shown unbelievably low IQ scores, suggesting this was in fact a story too good to be true.

And running a correction does not always undo the damage of running an untrue report, Silverman said.

Jenkins and Silverman said that journalists should be skeptical of stories that play to specific biases, and should vet anyone claiming authenticity for news that is "confirmed" or "verified."

In the case of a tweet that might need further verification, Jenkins and Silverman suggested an old-school solution: Ask for a phone number and call the person to find out more.

And it's not just phony news that can lead a journalist astray. Jenkins and Silverman pointed to cases where photos were altered to appear real and newsworthy.

A picture of a New York City subway station flooding during Hurricane Irene was posted to Twitter after the hurricane, but it turned out to be a photo taken after a 1996 water main break.

But there are ways that journalists can avoid using phony images. For instance, a check of a photo's image file information, a file format known as EXIF, can reveal authenticity. And error level analysis and image forensics can help journalists determine whether a photo has been digitally altered.

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