In this day and age of social media and 24-hour news outlets, information can spread across the globe in minutes and reach massive audiences. If an event were to occur in another country far away from home, we have the ability to find out what happened, track the event as it unfolds and receive further updates in real time. We also have access to a vast wealth of information right at our fingertips, thanks to internet access on devices that nearly all of us are surrounded by each day.
Of course, much like the old days of a pre-internet era, mistakes can be made, and occasionally, these mistakes can get published or aired.
Miscommunications and misinterpretations can often be the causes of these mistakes. A good example of this occurred on November 30th, 2012. WGN Morning News aired a breaking news segment in which they reported that a small single-engine airplane had crashed in the middle of Martin Luther King Drive on Chicago’s South Side. They cut to live footage from their helicopter and the anchors in the studio described the scene, as any professional news anchors would. The only problem is that this “plane crash on King Drive” was actually an outdoor set for the NBC series “Chicago Fire,” which filmed a plane crash scene for an episode and closed off a portion of Martin Luther King Drive to do so.
According to WGN’s news director Greg Caputo, there were numerous factors and misunderstandings that contributed to this mistake. WGN released a statement written by Caputo which read as follows:
“WGN News received a number of viewer phone calls and tweets about an airplane crash on King Drive. Our helicopter was close by and was the first news helicopter to arrive on the scene. Based on police radio traffic, several officers in the area were similarly alarmed that there was a plane crash. We contacted Chicago Police, Chicago Fire, and the FAA seeking information. All of those public agencies said they had no knowledge of a plane crash. But none of them said that it was a scene from a movie. Our previous experience with movies and TV shows filming in Chicago is that they inform the community that something is happening. A fire department spokesman later admitted that the information regarding the filming as not distributed widely enough. Since we had no such advisory, our news team began to describe the scene they could see from our helicopter shot.”
Luckily, despite the issues that led to the unfortunate breaking news segment, the WGN Morning News crew was able to laugh this off, and the whole incident became a running gag throughout the rest of the show. Even though the mistake was made, they were able to correct it and provide accurate information afterwards, while having fun with it and making fun of themselves, too. And it’s clear that, according to Caputo, people had called them up first to report this apparent “plane crash,” and whoever called them also likely called the police due the officers on the police scanner discussing a plane crash. WGN’s helicopter didn’t just stumble upon the television set and figured that they would go ahead and report on it right away.
And when anchor Robin Baumgarten said that the film crew should have informed news agencies about what they’re doing, she wasn’t making a ridiculous statement (as many YouTube commenters accuse her of doing, in much harsher language). They’ve had experience with film crews informing the news ahead of time. A Chicago Fire Department spokesman even admitted to the Chicago Tribune that the information about this “plane crash” set was not distributed widely enough, and that at the time they didn’t think it was a major enough production event to tell anyone besides people who lived in the general area that filming took place in.
In another incident, which involved newspapers and occurred nearly a century ago on November 7th, 1918, a misinterpretation of a rumor led to false information about World War 1 (then known as the ‘Great War’) being sent via telegram and reported in the United States.
Roy Howard, president of the United Press news service, was in France for a meeting with American naval commander Admiral Henry Wilson. A rumor regarding an armistice having been signed made its way to Wilson via telegram as a fact rather than an unconfirmed rumor, and Howard, who felt that he had one of the biggest scoops, immediately asked for permission to report on this, with Wilson allowing him to.
By the time the news made it to the US, celebrations broke out in public. People left work early, the stock exchange shut down earlier than usual, and people were genuinely happy at this news that the biggest war they had ever seen in their lifetimes was finally over. The government ended up having to issue a statement telling the people that fighting was still ongoing in Europe, and that no armistice had been signed. According to the New York Times, people became so angered at this news and were in such denial that when newsstands and paperboys received and tried to sell updated factual copies of the newspapers, people started taking the papers and destroying them.
As we have seen in both of these instances, one way that ‘fake news’ can make its way around is from plain and simple miscommunications and misinterpretations. The reporters or news outlet inadvertently give out the wrong information, often times due to the mistakes of others. While the WGN incident was rectified more easily and was something that the anchors could joke about and people could laugh at afterwards, the incident of the ‘False Armistice’ after World War 1 was much more serious in nature, and getting the details wrong on a story like that could easily cause many problems among the general public receiving this news, and it’s why facts should always be verified before being reported or published. The wrong information could, obviously, lead to some major issues, and it could destroy the reliability and credibility of a journalist or organization.
We’ve seen what happens when rumors are reported due to miscommunication, but what about when the news interviews a subject with made-up credentials, or someone who just isn’t who they said they were on the phone when they were booked? Look out for the next “Fact Check Yourself…,” we’ll take a look at a few different cases of poor research leading to guests who aren’t who they said they were, and who were easily avoidable for the interviewers had they done a bit of proper research beforehand while they had the time.
For more news and commentary, don’t forget to listen to my show! Newspoint, Tuesdays from 2pm to 4pm CST on UIC Radio