Rumors and hoaxes

Oops! Mistaking fiction for fact


Being taken for a ride.
Pierre Salinger embarrassed himself, as well as many other journalists, in 1996 when he reported that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a Navy missile during a training exercise gone wrong. He backed up his claims with "proof" found on a Web page.

Salinger -- a respected journalist, former ABC-TV reporter and press secretary under President Kennedy -- fell victim to an urban legend, one of the pitfalls of the Web.

Urban legends
Urban legends are rumors passed along and cleverly disguised as truth, sometimes with a basis in fact and often with interesting variations cropping up with the retelling. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand has documented and catalogued many urban legends in several books, including "The Choking Doberman" and "The Vanishing Hitchhiker."

Newspaperman Phil Reisman, in a 1989 Editor and Publisher article, suggests keeping these books around the newsroom.

If you've ever heard from a friend about a friend of a cousin who had his kidney stolen after a night of drunkenness in New Orleans -- accompanied by "I swear this is true" -- then you've encountered an urban legend. A popular urban legend on the loose currently involves unwary moviegoers and HIV-infected needles left in theater chairs. Supposedly it has happened in Dallas County, though the Centers for Disease Control have debunked the myth.

Perhaps the very nature of the Internet makes it ripe for rumors and urban legend to thrive, eventually finding their way into otherwise responsible reporting. As Amy Jackson said in a Web press release, "The best thing about the Internet is that everyone's a publisher." Jackson, managing director of Middleburg Interactive, a division of Middleburg + Associated in New York, added, "The most dangerous thing...on the Internet is that everyone's a publisher."

For example, she tracked a rumor spread online about Tommy Hilfiger and racist remarks on the Oprah show. The rumor was completely unfounded, but it found a life of its own online and caused the clothing designer to spend thousands of dollars on damage control.

Don't be fooled
As CNET points out, it doesn't take a computer network to perpetrate a hoax. Take for example the 1938 radio broadcast of the "War of the Worlds." Listeners were left believing Martians were invading Earth. And sloppy reporting resulted in the Chicago Tribune's famous blunder: the 1948 headline proclaiming DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

A good defense against falling victim to a hoax or unfounded rumor is skepticism. Also, there are many Web sites and books that catalogue common urban legends.

Reisman said that because the journalist's basic role is to seek the truth, he must often be a debunker.

And journalists should be careful not to add to misinformation with sloppy reporting or passing off these rumors as fact.

Believe it or not. Finding the truth. A grain of salt.
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