As I See It

A year of frauds, myths, urban legends and spoofs

Updated: 2013-12-17T23:50:19Z

By Hampton Stevens

Special to The Star

In January we learned that linebacker Manti Te’o does not have a dead girlfriend. Te’o, playing for Notre Dame at the time, had a sad, yet inspirational story of a girlfriend felled by leukemia. It was pure fiction.

Whether Te’o was a victim, victimized, or some combination of the two doesn’t matter. Not as much as how the story was covered. Te’o’s tale was repeated endlessly by purportedly reputable news outlets including; Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NBC, CBS. Yet not a single journalist in all those well-funded, highly professional media organizations ever bothered to pick up a phone and find out see if the dead girl actually existed.

The Te’o hoax set the tone for a year of frauds, myths, urban legends and spoofs reported as fact.

Consider the New Jersey couple who supposedly didn’t tip their server, and left a nasty note because of her sexual orientation. They were pilloried nationwide for a lack of Christian values. Except it wasn’t true. The couple did tip. They didn’t write a disparaging note. The server apparently faked the whole incident in a weird bid for attention.

A more recent example of fraud reported as fact came on Thanksgiving Day. TV producer Elan Gale used Twitter to create an imaginary squabble with a surly airline passenger. The story, compete with counterfeited notes between the two, was reported as truth by hundreds of news outlets. Again, no one bothered to investigate — to simply call the airline or Gale himself.

A faked conflict on Twitter or disparaging note to a waitress may not seem like much, but each little lie offered as fact erodes the trust on which journalism must be built. If we can’t believe the news media on the so-called small stuff, how can we trust them on the issues that matter?

Besides, some of the lies aren’t so small. Maybe the most egregious and destructive case of late is the so-called “Knockout Game.” Many of us read about a grandmother who shot one of her attackers. But not only is the vigilante grandma fictional, the “Knockout Game” itself appears to be mostly urban myth. There’s no substantive evidence to suggest that so-called “knockout” attacks are a growing trend, but that hasn’t kept everyone from CNN to local news outlets from reporting on the game as a spreading menace.

Broadcasting “knockout game” stories is not only unhelpful, making no one safer or better informed. It actually seems to be worsening the problem, stirring up racial hostilities and encouraging scapegoating of young black males.

A St. Louis woman who recently claimed to be a “knockout” victim, blaming a group of marauding youth, was actually covering up for a boyfriend who hit her. In Brooklyn, reports of the game prompted councilwoman-elect Laurie Cumbo to release an open letter saying that many of her black constituents feel threatened by the growth of the neighborhood's Jewish community — and those feelings could be a cause of rising violence. That is violence, keep in mind, which may not even be real.

Perhaps the most telling incident in this year of news hoaxes was a publicity stunt. Last weekend Will Ferrell co-anchored a North Dakota newscast portraying his “Anchorman” character Ron Burgundy. In other words, a fake person shilling for a film delivered real news. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant disregard for the responsibility of a news organization to be factual.

The Year of the Hoax plays up a few sad, obvious truths. One is simple: “check your facts.” Don’t post if you don’t know.

The more crucial point, though, is the impact of social media on journalism. At its best, social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can create armies of citizen journalists, giving the public more access to the truth, making mainstream media smarter and more honest.

At its worst, social media has the opposite effect. The hoaxes, fabrications, pranks, spoofs and outright lies, all spread at the speed of the Internet, have infected reputable news organizations, eroding their credibility. Citizen journalism, in short, is supposed to make mass media smarter. Instead, social media seems to be making us all a little bit more dumb.

Hampton Stevens is a former Midwest Voices columnist for The Star.

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