The New York Times tweeted “Up to 30 Dismembered Bodies Found Near Houston, Reuters Reports.” CNN covered the story. ABC News tweeted it. Several other news organizations piled on to make the gruesome story international news. One problem: the story wasn’t true. Bigger problem: it was really really not true - it was all based on a tip from a psychic. Bob looks into how this crazy media frenzy went down.
BOB GARFIELD: What does it take for an American police story to pop up on the Australian evening news? Here's what:
MAN: Authorities in Texas have found as many as 30 bodies, including possibly those of children buried in a mass grave at the intersection of two county roads in the southeast part of the state, according to…
BOB GARFIELD: It was a grisly and disturbing scenario, triggering all of the revulsion and titillation TV producers count on when true crime intrudes upon our mundane lives.
The only problem here was that this incident was actually untrue crime. Yes, local, state and federal law enforcement did converge on Hardin, Texas but they found no mass grave, no single grave, no dead children, no dead adults, nothing but the temporary vacant home of a long haul trucker and a convoy of satellite vans, including, of course, CNN.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: CNN has now confirmed that at least, at least 20 bodies have been found in a home in Hardin, Texas….
MALE CORRESPONDENT: …appears to be a mass grave containing, according to a sheriff's department official, 25 to 30 bodies, including, we are told tonight, the bodies of children.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And the Liberty County Sheriff's Office says 25 to 30 bodies discovered outside the home there, investigators said someone told them about the location. They are not elaborating on where that information comes from just yet.
BOB GARFIELD: It would rapidly emerge that the whole wild corpse chase began with a phone tip to the Liberty County Sheriff's Department from a woman identifying herself as a psychic, a twist that within three hours began to sober up the hysterical domestic news organizations, but not before the Texas "ain't saw no massacre" was misreported with various forms of attribution the world round, including Agence France Presse, Reuters, The Guardian, Sky News, the BBC and The New York Times.
But how? How does it come to pass that so many newsrooms could be so careless, so credulous, so clumsy? OTM this week tried to reconstruct the trail of misinformation, to find out, as it were, where the bodies weren't buried.
Though many outlets cleansed their web sites of early versions of the story, our digging was a lot more productive than Liberty County's. It was apparent that London's The Guardian, for instance, grafted its stories from wired dispatches from AFP and Reuters. The New York Times also cited Reuters. But where did Reuters get its information?
KRISTEN HAYS: Well, I believe it shortly before 5 p.m., central time, we got a breaking news alert from a Houston television station.
BOB GARFIELD: Kristen Hays is a Reuters correspondent in Houston, Texas.
KRISTEN HAYS: Yes, you know, we - we sign up email-wise to get breaking news alerts from all the local media around here, so the typical Reuters way to handle that is to flash out the initial news and cite it to local media. So that's what we did, you know, Texas authorities find up to 30 bodies, including children, buried at house, dash, local media.
Reuters was not alone. By this stage, Twitter was ringing off the hook with re-tweets of the same news alerts. Breaking news.com on its website and on Twitter passed this along to its 2.6 million followers: "Dozens of bodies found buried in Texas, KPRC." This was re-tweeted hundreds of times, and at least it had some sort of source, KPRC. KPRC's original news alert contained no source. If flatly stated, "Dozens of bodies have been found in Liberty County. Join us for KPRC at 5 p.m. for the latest information."
All of those organizations stayed with the story, later fleshing it out, both with gory details and attribution to law enforcement officials. But by then the Internet had long since exploded.
CAPTAIN REX EVANS: I believe that the dissemination of incorrect information was actually twofold.
BOB GARFIELD: Captain Rex Evans is public information officer for the Liberty County Sheriff's Department."
CAPTAIN REX EVANS: I believe that not only mainstream media but social media played an integral part in that. And by that I mean not any one particular person or any one particular station, news or radio, heard information that they had not yet been able to completely verify, yet that information was released. Now, in social media, obviously, nobody has to verify anything. You can get on to Facebook, emails, even —
BOB GARFIELD: Twitter.
CAPTAIN REX EVANS: — even Twitter, and you can disseminate whatever information you want. The problem with is that some people perhaps don't stop and think what they are releasing or putting out there could actually be harmful to someone else. It certainly slowed us down and impaired our investigation, due to the fact we were dealing with so much of a media onslaught, if you will.
BOB GARFIELD: Evans neglects to mention that the media circus would likely have been a one-ring affair had his office mentioned from the get-go that the whole investigation hinged on a phone tip from a self-professed psychic. The moment that detail emerged, about two hours into the frenzy, journalistic skepticism began to materialize.
MIKE TOLSON: I mean, we were already somewhat skeptical but, of course, that immediately sent off all the alarms and whistles that this was, in all likelihood a — a bogus story.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike Tolson covered the story for The Houston Chronicle, which never told readers in print or online that the mass grave story was anything more than an unconfirmed report.
But there was a bear market for skepticism in Texas that afternoon. For most newsrooms, citing other newsrooms as the source was a good enough first step.
MIKE TOLSON: Oh no, we never reported that. And I don't know how anyone in their right mind or with an iota of professionalism in their veins could have reported such a thing, absent any confirmation from anybody.
You know, I think one of our editors said he gives it a 10 percent chance of panning out.
And then when we heard from some law enforcement source that it was a person claiming to be psychic, well, you know, then it was a one percent chance of panning out.
MALE TV HOST: It made headlines all around the world after reports of 30 decomposing bodies, including children, said to be, in some cases, mutilated and dumped in a rural area outside Houston. The FBI got involved, the cops brought. It was a crazy scene, but they found nothing.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: No graves, no evidence of any murder. Now the investigation is turning to the tipster, authorities saying it was from a woman claiming to be a psychic.
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FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Police and news crews took the tip seriously because the woman gave very detailed information about that house. Authorities found no bodies and no evidence of foul play.
BOB GARFIELD: When the lurid details began to be impeached by on-the-scene reality, one after another, the gathering truth was disturbing in its own right. Reuters Kristen Hays:
KRISTEN HAYS: Well, the best way to describe it is an extremely ice cold feeling in the pit of your stomach, when you begin to realize, wait a minute, this — this is probably — this may not be — this may not be right, this may not be true.
BOB GARFIELD: That sickening feeling still lingered on Thursday over at KPRC, Houston's Channel 2, whose original unequivocal news alerts seems to have been the first journalistic salvo in the worldwide bombardment. News Director Deborah Collura, in a speaker phone interview, along with the general manager Jerry Martin, was adamant in pointing out that the newsroom does observe standards of sourcing, which is why she insisted that she didn't let the mass grave story go on her 4 p.m. broadcast, absent official confirmation.
DEBORAH COLLURA: I'm never gonna go on the air unless my reporters are on the scene telling me there are 25 to 30 children's bodies, you know, being dug up in a grave. And the — and we never said anything on the air.
BOB GARFIELD: But why do you keep making this distinction between on the air and on the web and on Twitter? I mean, this is 2011. They're all the same! Aren't they? Aren't the rules the same covering each of those channels of news distribution?
JERRY MARTIN: You've got a whole newsroom that has access to tweeting. Someone who isn't going to be on air, like an anchor or a reporter -
DEBORAH COLLURA: Obviously got overly aggressive with the story and tweeted something —
JERRY MARTIN: We — yes.
DEBORAH COLLURA: — that we — that did not go through the checks and balance system.
JERRY MARTIN: And, and we — we can't find the source at the moment.
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, the TV news is delivered by your Channel 2 news team. The web site is controlled by the Click 2 Houston web team, but anyone of 30 KPRC employees can tweet about anything under KPRC's handle, and management can't even identify who tweeted what when.
DEBORAH COLLURA: And I have to tell you, I — just to learn later that it was because of a psychic tip, we all went on this chase because we thought we were covering a story? I mean, I — I just got to be honest with you, we're all upset at this point.
BOB GARFIELD: Not just because they uncritically passed along bad information without attribution, but because, Collura insists, they did have attribution, which they used in all subsequent reports. Their source? The cops.
DEBORAH COLLURA: The way the eveny unfolded was probably around 3: 30, 3: 45 in our newsroom we received a call from the Liberty County Sheriff's Department. And that would be the PIO, the person we get our information from.
BOB GARFIELD: Rex Evans?
DEBORAH COLLURA: Yes, saying that there was a report of 25 to 30 bodies that had been found on the County Road 2048, County Road 2049, and that police were on the way to the scene. That's how the whole of that started. So it did not start with a tweet from us, just so you — so I can set the record straight.
BOB GARFIELD: Oddly, in his conversation with us, Captain Evans talked a lot about unverified information but didn't mention any 3: 30 call to his contacts at the TV stations. He instead offered a different theory for rumors of the investigation leaking out.
CAPTAIN REX EVANS: People see multiple patrol cars in an area and they start tweeting or texting or Facebooking from their iPads and what have you that hey, the cops were over here looking at whatever. And, and it just — it just goes from there. And it — it just spreads like a wildfire.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, and it spreads even faster when the cops are lighting the match.
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But, in any case, like they always say, bad news travels fast.
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