29 Jan 2017

No shortage of silly season fake news

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 29 January 2017

Donald Trump’s staff put “alternative facts” into the headlines this week, but Mediawatch found plenty of stories in the news this summer that didn't stack up - or weren't really news in the first place.

The sad story of a terminally-ill 5-year old dying in the arms of a man dressed as Santa made headlines around the world in the run-up to Christmas.

Eric Schmitt-Matzen told the Knoxville News Sentinel it happened when he answered a call from a hospital in Tennessee to grant a dying child's final Christmas wish.

He gave a series of emotional TV interviews including this one on CNN where the host cut him off just as he was getting to the end of the story:


Here, the sad seasonal saga ran on TVNZ’s One News, the New Zealand Women’s Weekly put the story in its 'Real Life' section and the New Zealand Herald carried it under the headline:

Terminally ill boy dies in the arms of Santa Claus impersonator

. . . displaying the touching belief that Santa must be an actual person who can be impersonated.

But after that story went viral, the Knoxville News Sentinel said attempts to verify it “proved unsuccessful”.

"We are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen’s account", the paper said.

Oh dear.

“It was the feel-good story of the Christmas season. It was so feel-good, in fact, that it may have been too good to check," was the verdict of The Washington Post.

The Washington Post said hospitals near Schmitt-Matzen's home and workplace had no record of the events described - and then the International Business Times trawled through his social media feeds and weighed in with this exclusive:

Bad Santa: Father Christmas who 'faked' dying child story is a far-right sympathiser who rants about 'towelheads'

“He is also an avid consumer and distributor of online fake news,” said the International Business Times. 

That was ironic given that the rest of the media - including New Zealand’s - were only too happy to take the unsubstantiated story at face value at first.

Too good to be true?

On New Year’s Day, CNN picked up another uplifting tale - quite literally uplifting in this case: a two-year old boy who heroically rescued his tiny twin brother who had been trapped by a falling chest of drawers.

This had been captured on camera and posted online by the twins’ relieved father with this message:

"I've been a little hesitant to post this. Please make sure all your dressers are bolted and secured to the wall. Please share"


TV broadcasters had no hesitation in sharing the video - and interviewing the obliging family.   

But big questions were raised by those who saw the video in the news and concluded it was staged.

The father of the twins turned out to be a sales manager for the company sells the brand of nanny-cam that captured the incident.

That led to a fresh round of more awkward media interviews featuring the entire family:

The Shoff family in another awkward interview about their viral video.

The Shoff family in one of several awkward interviews about the backlash to their viral video. Photo: screenshot

Flushing out the truth

The 'evidence' for the coin-operated toilet story.

The 'evidence' for the coin-operated toilet story. Photo: screenshot

Another social media story which really didn't pass the sniff test also made news here after the New Year.  

"A Melbourne landlord has been blasted online after a tenant revealed he had installed a coin-operated toilet in the house, requiring the tenants to pay per flush," said The Herald, which asked readers:

Have you ever been stung by a landlord? Send us an email.

The story, from Australia's biggest publisher News Limited, sparked outrage on Australian TV and quickly went viral.

But the picture of the supposedly coin-operated toilet was a pretty obvious mock-up.

Across the ditch, News Limited quietly added this to its online story.

Potential plot holes — widely debated online — include the lack of sophisticated wiring likely needed  - and the fact that a user could presumably just access the flush mechanism by lifting the lid of the toilet tank. Without genuine clarification from the supposed tenant, one can only assume it was an elaborate trolling exercise rather than some unconscionable penny-pinching landlord.

Indeed it was - and it was the media being trolled.

"I've been contacted by so many news and media outlets." said the hoaxer in a post the following day.

"Seriously people, can we have a discussion about the current state of "news" media? Is clickbait really more important than the truth to those we trust to inform us of current affairs?"

A vigourous online discussion ensued in which most participants answered ‘yes’.

Turning the brains back on

With the holiday period over, The AA reported last Thursday that hundreds of kiwi kids had been put in danger by parents carelessly losing the keys.

“Holiday brain definitely takes its toll at this time of year, but the real danger is when there are children and pets locked inside the car,” AA national manager John Healy explained in a statement.

But holiday brain seems to have afflicted Newshub's reporting of the AA's stats:

That's a lot of kids in one car  - for a very long time.

That's a lot of kids in one car - for a very long time. Photo: screenshot