Hoax Museum Blog: Journalism

Edward Mordake—A Mystery Solved

Edward Mordake is said to be an Englishman who was born with a second face on the back of his head — a face that eventually drove him mad. But was he a real person? I say no. I argue that he was actually the literary creation of the 19th-century poet Charles Lotin Hildreth. more…

Posted: Fri Apr 24, 2015.   Comments (7)

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Emergent — An article in the NY Times briefly profiles Emergent, a new website created by Craig Silverman which aims to track the dissemination of rumors online. It records how many shares a rumor has received, and also assesses whether the rumor is true, false, or unverified. Looks like a very useful site!

The NY Times article notes that the problem with false rumors is that "they're often much more interesting than the truth." Therefore, they get more widely shared. The challenge, says the Times, "is to make the facts as fun to share as the myths they seek to replace." Nice goal, but I don't see it ever happening. The false rumors can endlessly transform themselves to appeal to our deepest hopes and fears. Whereas the facts always have to remain boringly factual.
Posted: Wed Oct 01, 2014.   Comments (0)

Asahi Shimbun Corrects Itself — The Asahi Shimbun (circulation 7.6 million) recently issued some corrections. It was not true, despite previous statements, that writer Seiji Yoshida had kidnapped 200 women during World War II to act as "comfort women." Apparently Yoshida made up his claims.

Nor was it true that workers at the Fukushima plant had disobeyed orders and fled the plant during the nuclear disaster. The newspaper misinterpreted documents.

Finally, it wasn't true that the paper had interviewed the president of Nintendo. The paper had lifted responses from an interview published on the Nintendo website and passed them off as an Asahi Shimbun interview. iMediaEthics
Posted: Wed Oct 01, 2014.   Comments (0)

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Catching up with Stephen Glass — Stephen Glass can't catch a break. He burned his bridges in journalism, and now the lawyers don't want him either.
Stephen Glass, journalist fired for fake stories, denied law license

SAN FRANCISCO (KABC) -- Disgraced former journalist Stephen Glass was denied a license to practice law in California in a state supreme court ruling on Monday. The court ruled unanimously against Glass, a magazine writer who was fired after 31 of 42 high-profile stories were determined to contain fabrications and falsehoods.

Glass, 41, was fired from the The New Republic magazine in 1998 after working there for three years. After being exposed, he continued to cover up his work by creating fake business cards, websites and notes supposedly culled from interviews with non-existent sources. Glass' reluctance to cooperate with the magazine in identifying false stories was a substantial reason for the court's decision, according to a court statement.

Posted: Wed Jan 29, 2014.   Comments (2)

Beijing residents are not flocking to see virtual sunrises — Well, I fell for this.

A recent article posted on the Daily Mail was headlined, "China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog."

An accompanying photo showed a giant TV screen in a smoggy Tiananmen Square showing a sunrise.

The article elaborated:
The smog has become so thick in Beijing that the city’s natural light-starved masses have begun flocking to huge digital commercial television screens across the city to observe virtual sunrises. The futuristic screens installed in the Chinese capital usually advertize tourist destinations, but as the season’s first wave of extremely dangerous smog hit – residents donned air masks and left their homes to watch the only place where the sun would hail over the horizon that morning.

Beijing does, of course, have a horrendous smog problem. This made the Daily Mail article believable. And major media outlets rushed to repeat the claim about Beijing's light-starved masses flocking to see virtual sunrises. And I too repeated the story on the MOH Facebook page. But it turns out the claim was totally fake.

The Daily Mail article has been debunked by the Tech in Asia blog, which writes:
In truth, that sunrise was probably on the screen for less than 10 seconds at a time, as it was part of an ad for tourism in China’s Shandong province. The ad plays every day throughout the day all year round no matter how bad the pollution is. The photographer simply snapped the photo at the moment when the sunrise appeared. Look closely, and you can even see the Shandong tourism logo in the bottom right corner.

This can only serve to strengthen the Daily Mail's reputation for gutter journalism. As my pal Chuck Shepherd says, it's the Greatest Newspaper in the World!
Posted: Tue Jan 21, 2014.   Comments (0)

Pastor drowns trying to walk on water — A news story has been circulating recently about a west African preacher, Franck Kabele, who drowned while trying to show his congregation that he could walk on water just like Jesus Christ.

This story is almost certainly a hoax that media outlets are repeating as real news.

The Christian Post notes that this story about Franck Kabele was first reported in British papers back in August 2006. They say it first appeared in the Scottish Daily Record, but I found it printed a day earlier (Aug 29, 2006) in the London Evening Standard, as follows:
Priest drowns 'walking on water'
The Evening Standard (London) - Aug 29, 2006

A PRIEST in Gabon has drowned as he tried to demonstrate how Jesus walked on water.
Franck Kabele, 35, told churchgoers in the west African country's capital Libreville that after a revelation he realised that if he had enough faith he could walk on water like Jesus. "He took his congregation to the beach in Libreville saying he would walk across the Komo estuary, which takes 20 minutes by boat," said an onlooker. "He walked into the water, which soon passed over his head and he never came back."

The story had no byline. No details were provided about what church this priest belonged to. And further information never materialized. The story eventually ran in quite a few papers, but always with the exact same details and lack of sources. All of which raises red flags.

So where could this story have come from? Well, digging deeper back into news archives, I found a similar Reuters story that ran back in October 1993. Here's the version that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Minister, Students Drown Trying to Walk on Water
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE - Friday, October 29, 1993

A group of Tanzanian students and a minister who tried to walk on water have drowned in Lake Victoria, police said yesterday.

The members of the Seventh-day Adventist church were traveling in a flotilla of canoes to a religious festival when they decided to make the walk on water .

"They decided to test their faith by walking on the water like Jesus, but they all drowned,'' a police spokesman said.

Other participants in the pilgrimage looked on helplessly from the shore as the victims drowned. Police are questioning four ministers who arranged the pilgrimage, but they said parents and relatives of the dead will not press charges.

This story had a lot more details, but it turned out to be a case of incorrect reporting. A week later the Seventh-day Adventist Church issued an official statement denying the report:
"Contrary to what Reuters reported, the fact is that on Sat., Oct. 23, a group of Pathfinders (a Scout-like organization) who had gone by boat to attend a Pathfinder rally on a nearby island met with a tragic accident on their way back. Their boat capsized. Of the 20 people in the boat, eight girls and two adults drowned. Ten other young people swam to safety... None of the church members involved was trying to 'walk on water'."

So here's my guess about what happened. The 1993 story about the Tanzanian students and minister drowning must have transformed into an urban legend that circulated in Africa. Details were changed. The students were omitted. The location shifted. But the key detail about a church leader drowning while trying to walk on water remained.

Until eventually, in 2006, the story was heard by a reporter, who wrote it up as a news story and sent it out via a news-wire service, from which it was picked up by British papers that never bothered to fact-check it.

And seven years later it's surfaced again. Proving that a good story never dies. It just gets recycled endlessly.

(Thanks to LaMa for first calling attention to this story in the Hoax Forum.)
Posted: Wed Jan 15, 2014.   Comments (1)

Lions at large in the Hamptons —

Dan's Papers, which serves the Hamptons in New York, recently reported that lions were going to be released in order to cull the growing deer population in the region. The lions would be supplied, free of charge, by a wealthy South African industrialist who had recently bought a home there.

The report disturbed some of the locals. According to southampton.patch.com: "[The police] fielded anywhere between 10 and 15 calls from residents voicing their anger at the 'news,' and at least one caller claimed to have seen a lion stalking her back yard."

The report was actually the latest effort from Dan Rattiner, the "hoaxer of the Hamptons" — the owner and founder of Dan's Papers. He's been salting his papers with fake stories since the 1960s. Way longer than all these johhny-come-lately fake-news sites online nowadays.
Posted: Sun Jan 05, 2014.   Comments (2)

North Korean leader fed to hungry dogs? —
A report is circulating, sourced to "a newspaper with close ties to China's ruling Communist Party" (according to NBC), alleging that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, eaten alive last month by a pack of 120 ravenous dogs. Gruesome stuff, if true.

But Max Fisher of the Washington Post cautions that there are good reasons to doubt this story. The report comes from a small Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po, which has a reputation for sensationalism.

Somehow it got this incredible scoop just a day after the execution. No one else reported it, and Wen Wei Po cited no source. The rest of the media in Asia (including, most importantly, the media in South Korea which has the best sources inside North Korea), have ignored the story.

Fisher suggests that the official report, that Jang was executed by a firing squad, is far more plausible.

Update: So it looks like people have gotten to the bottom of this story and how it spread. Trevor Powell, a Chicago-based software engineer who's fluent in both Chinese and English, gets the credit for being the first to figure out exactly what happened.

This is the timeline of events:

1) On Dec 11, someone posing as the well-known Chinese satirist Pyongyang Choi Seongho posted a tweet (screenshot below) to Tencent Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) describing how Jang Song Thaek had been devoured by ravenous dogs.

2) The next day, the Hong Kong paper Wen Wei Po published an article in which they quoted this tweet word-for-word. The article cited Pyongyang Choi Seongho as the original source. (Although Pyongyang Choi Seongho has denied posting the tweet.)

3) On Dec 24, the Singapore Straits Times published an English-language article referencing the claim that Jang had been fed to dogs. The article cited Wen Wei Po as the source, but failed to mention that Wen Wei Po had, in turn, cited a known satirist as its source.

4) Once the claim was in English, it snowballed across the world.

Powell offers this take on how the story spread:

To be fair, Wen Wei Po cited their source and the Straits Times cited their source and so on and so forth. What you have is a chain of sources of increasing credibility each quoting from a source that may be slightly less dependable. In all fairness, Wen Wei Po fairly openly, honestly, and unabashedly wrote an article around a social media report they were comfortable sharing in spite of its dubious source. The Straits Times article built on the Wen Wei Po piece by giving it a more official tone and failing to mention the social media source. From there it exploded around the world and none of the slew of articles that discussed the Wen Wei Po source mentioned the original source Wen Wei Po had cited.

Posted: Sat Jan 04, 2014.   Comments (1)

Man emerges from Y2K bunker after 15 years — The news of Norman Feller's emergence from his underground bunker has gone viral. The story is that Feller went into the bunker shortly before January 1, 2000, convinced that the Y2K virus was going to bring about the collapse of civilization. He finally came out because he was curious if the world really had ended.

However, the source of the story is the CBC's satirical This is That radio show. The show has a history of these spoof pieces that get mistaken for real news. The last one that went viral was their piece three months ago about the Youth Athletic Association that had decided to eliminate the ball from its soccer program in order to address "some of the negative side of competition."

Posted: Wed Dec 18, 2013.   Comments (4)

News anchors brave the elements, indoors — Everyone assumed that the Duluth Northland News Center team was outside during the coverage of the "Christmas City of the North" Parade on Nov 22. After all, they were wearing heavy jackets. But it turns out they were inside, in front of a green screen. But the News Director insists there was no deception because, if you want to get technical about it, they never actually said they were outside. [jimromenesko, mix108.com]

Posted: Thu Nov 28, 2013.   Comments (0)

King Tut’s Golden Typewriter — The Canadian journalist Hector Charlesworth included the following story in the second volume of his memoirs (More Candid Chronicles) published in 1928:

A man designed by providence to add to the gaiety of nations was Charles Langdon Clarke, the cable editor [at Toronto's The Mail and Empire], a position he still holds as I write. Clarke, the son of an English rector, was the best educated of all the staff and had been a school mate of Lord Curzon. He had come to Canada originally as one of the engineering staff of the old Grand Trunk Railroad, but he could find no real content outside an editorial room…

A few years ago, when The Mail and Empire was publishing The Sunday World as a week-end publication, and the discoveries in the tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amen were a newspaper sensation, I chanced upon an article on its front page relating to "King Tut's Golden Typewriter", with revelations as to the fresh sheet of papyrus which had been found inserted in the machine, an alabaster cuspidor near the desk, and the other details of sumptuous office equipment prophetic of our own times. When I glanced at the author's name "Charles Langdon Clarke, Special Correspondent of The Sunday World", I realized that my old friend's hand had not lost its cunning.

There was an amusing sequel. The newspaper came out on a Saturday evening, and bright and early on Monday morning the city editor of an evening newspaper despatched a reporter to see Dr. C.T. Currelly, Curator of the Royal Ontario Museum, and a renowned Egyptologist who had worked under Sir Flinders Petrie, and ask his opinion of the new discoveries. What passed between Professor Currelly and the reporter remains a secret but the retort of the savant is believed to have been vitriolic.

Curtis MacDougall repeated the story in his 1940 book Hoaxes, crediting it to Charlesworth, and after that it began appearing in quite a few collections of stories about hoaxes, such as here and here. Although no one ever added any more details, and typically no one credited it back to Charlesworth either. It become one of those classic stories of hoaxes, frequently repeated but short on details and totally unresearched.

So I decided to see if I could find out more about King Tut's golden typewriter, but unfortunately I've come up empty since I don't have access to back issues of the Toronto Sunday World (which ceased publication in 1924). The Toronto public library has it on microfilm, but I ain't in Toronto. Often librarians are willing to look up old newspaper articles upon request, but since Charlesworth didn't provide a specific date, I wouldn't be able to narrow the search down enough for a librarian to look it up.

Back then, stories would often get reprinted by other papers. So I searched through digital archives of papers from the early 1920s to try to find any references to King Tut's typewriter, but found nothing.

Which makes me wonder whether the story ever did appear in print. Or is it just one of those urban legends of journalism? For now, I'm willing to take the word of Charlesworth that it did appear, at some point, in the Toronto Sunday World. But if I'm ever in Toronto, I'd like to spend a few hours in the public library there and see if I can track down the original story myself.
Posted: Fri Aug 16, 2013.   Comments (1)

Banksy Arrest Hoax — A press release posted yesterday on PRLog.com announced that not only had Banksy been arrested (on charges of vandalism, conspiracy, racketeering and counterfeiting), but that his identity had been revealed—his real name supposedly being "Paul William Horner." The press release was a hoax, but a number of media outlets ran with the story before cottoning on to the deception. A humor site, IYWIB.com, appears to be behind the hoax.

How a Fake Press Release Convinced the Internet Banksy Had Been Arrested

The release stated that Banksy is a 39-year-old Bristol man named Paul William Horner, and he’d been arrested during a police sting. But the document is riddled with inconsistencies, including quotes from fake CNN and BBC stories and an incorrect identification of the London Chief of Police, who the press release claims to quote. (City of London Police Commissioner is named Adrian Leppard, not Wayne Leppard, as the release stated.) Furthermore, the email address for the press release is at the domain name IYWIB, a little-known humor site. As it turns out, a man named Paul Horner is the editor of Super Official News, a site that appears to be part of the same family as IYWIB. Super Official News was the first site to publish a post saying Banksy had been arrested.

And here's the text of the fake press release (since PRLog has removed it):

Banksy Arrested In London, Identity Revealed
London, England — The England-based graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter that for years has gone by the pseudonymous name of Banksy, was arrested yesterday by police in London.


PRLog (Press Release) - Feb. 22, 2013 - London, England — The England-based graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter that for years has gone by the pseudonymous name of Banksy, was arrested yesterday by police in London. After hours of questioning and a raid of his London art studio, his true name and identity have finally been revealed.
London Police say Banksy's real name is Paul William Horner, a 39-year old male born in Bristol, England. The BBC has also confirmed this information with his PR agent Jo Brooks and the website that acts as a handling service on behalf of the artist, Pest Control.
London Police Chief Wayne Leppard held a press conference to answer questions about how Banksy was finally apprehended. "We had a 24-hour Anti-Graffiti Task Force monitoring different groups known to have associated with Banksy. We received word that around 2am a group of individuals left a flat speculated to be one of Banky's art studios. This group was followed by agents and once vandalism had occurred, we then arrested the group, 5 men total. These individuals all had ID on them except for one, and that is the one we believed to be Banksy," Leppard said. "We then raided the studio where this group was last seen leaving from. Inside we found thousands of dollars of counterfeit money along with future projects of vandalism. We also found a passport and ID of a Paul William Horner who matched the description of the man that we are currently holding." Leppard continued, "Horner is currently being held without bail on charges of vandalism, conspiracy, racketeering and counterfeiting. We are also holding the other four individuals whose names we are not releasing at this time."
After today's arrest it is unclear who else will be sought in connection with Banksy's arrest. CNN spoke with Kyle Brock who is a project manager for Banksy says he is now worried that charges could be brought against him also. "If they spent this many man-hours and brought this many charges against Banksy, I can't imagine that he'll be the only one to go down in all of this," Brock said. "All the beauty Paul Horner brought to this world, and the London Police can only see it as vandalism. It's such a shame."
The graffiti artist that goes by the name Space Invader told reporters he does not agree with the arrest or outing of Banksy's identity. "He's just doing art. That's what he was doing and that's what he'll continue to do," Invader said. "For the London Police to setup some 24-hour task force just to catch Banksy is ridiculous. I hope we hear plenty of noise from the good tax-paying citizens of London about this."
Banksy's identity was long speculated to be Robin Gunningham, a man born in Bristol, England in 1973. Known for his contempt for the government in labeling graffiti as vandalism, Banksy displays his art on public walls and even going as far as to build physical prop pieces. He does not sell his work directly; however, art auctioneers have been known to attempt to sell his street art on location and leave the problem of its removal in the hands of the winning bidder.
London Police are not releasing any pictures of Horner or any further information at this time.

Posted: Sat Feb 23, 2013.   Comments (3)

Johan Lehrer tries to understand himself — In July 2012, science writer Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker under a cloud of shame, after it was revealed that his latest book, Imagine, was full of fabricated quotations. Yesterday, he took what he may have been hoping was a first step toward rehabilitating his public image by giving a confessional talk at a Knight Foundation seminar in Miami.

If image-rehabilitation was his goal, it probably didn't work, because most of the coverage of his talk was snarky and cynical about his intents, especially after poynter.org reported that he was paid $20,000 for speaking.

As Lehrer spoke, a giant screen behind him showed real-time tweets about the talk, many of which were openly derisive of him, adding a surreal element of public shaming to the event.

source: palewire

During the talk, Lehrer delved into the scientific literature about error, trying to apply what he found to his own errors and figure out how not to do it again. Craig Silverman offers a good response to what he said:

Lehrer went looking for answers in the same places he used to mine for his articles and books — research papers, cognitive science, and in seemingly surprising places, such as the FBI. He drew oversimplified and in some cases incorrect conclusions about what he found. Then he packaged it all into a polished story, and cashed a nice cheque in the process.
It's all too familiar, and worst of all I think Lehrer is completely ignorant of the fact that he fell into his old methods, his old practices, as he worked to try and understand why he did what he did.
Take Lehrer's example of how a car is built to make a noise when you forget to put on your seat belt. This is meant to "force" you to take the proper action. He compared that to his new commitment to always have his work fact-checked, to adhere to his own set of SOPs meant to combat his seemingly inherent desire to cut corners and lie.
It's a false comparison. 
Forcing mechanisms are meant to guide us to make the right decision. They help remind us and usher us away from an unintentional error. They do nothing for someone who consciously chooses to subvert the system.
Lehrer isn't the guy who forgot to put on a seat belt and got into an accident. He's the guy who heard the seat belt reminder dinging and said, "F**k it, that belt is just going to put wrinkles in my shirt."
Lehrer didn't make accidental mistakes. He repeatedly and consciously committed serious ethical transgressions, then lied about them.

Update: The Knight Foundation now says it was a mistake to pay Lehrer so much. That doing so was "tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism." Also, a Forbes reporter managed to contact Lehrer and asked him if he would consider donating the money to charity. Lehrer replied, "I have nothing to say to you."
Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2013.   Comments (0)

Sarah Palin isn’t joining the Al-Jazeera Network —
File this under Satire Mistaken As News. Washington Post blogger Suzi Parker reported that Sarah Palin was going to start contributing to the Al Jazeera America news network, as a way to "stay relevant." The source for this info was an article on the humor site Daily Currant. Parker's blog post is now prefaced by a correction, and the erroneous info has been deleted. What Parker originally wrote was:

Late last week Al Jazeera America announced the former vice-presidential candidate would be joining their news network. "As you all know, I'm not a big fan of newspapers, journalists, news anchors and the liberal media in general," Palin told the Web site The Daily Currant. "But I met with the folks at Al-Jazeera and they told me they reach millions of devoutly religious people who don't watch CBS or CNN. That tells me they don't have a liberal bias."

Update: Sarah palin tweeted a response to Suzi Parker: "Hey @washingtonpost, I'm having coffee with Elvis this week. He works at the Mocha Moose in Wasilla. #suziparkerscoops #idiotmedia"
Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2013.   Comments (0)

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