My close shave with fake news

9:10 pm on 19 April 2017

First Person: Figuring out whether a news story is too good to be true can be difficult, even for seasoned journalists, writes RNZ Deputy Foreign Editor Liz Brown.

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I've heard a lot about fake news but have always thought it's something "over there" - something for people and the media in the US, Russia or Europe to contend with.

My job is to provide RNZ with overseas news. Those items come from trusted sources for our bulletins, programmes and website. Trusted - that's important.

My recent close shave with fake news involves a New Zealander, an alligator and a Florida newspaper, and the Florida connection turned out to be significant.

I was working away when I noticed a tweet from New Zealand's Newshub, with a breaking news alert saying that a New Zealander had been killed by an alligator in Florida while taking a selfie.

Thinking "wow, there's a story", I alerted others in the newsroom and said I would start checking it out.

I put in alligator, New Zealand and Florida into Google and, lo and behold, there was a story from the Florida Sun Post, which Newshub had clearly based its report on. And it wasn't a small headline type of story. It had a lot of interesting, plausible details like a description of the area and witness accounts. It also said the woman who had been killed was a 26-year-old New Zealander who was believed to be visiting relatives in Pensacola.

The only thing that I thought was odd initially was that it said the incident had happened four days earlier. Hmmm... Why had we heard nothing about it before?

I still began writing a story, attributing it all to the Florida Sun Post, and then prepared to start trying to get more details.

Our bureau chief rightly asked whether the Post was a reputable source. I went to the website, and while there were some ugly, questionable ads, the site looked legit, featuring what looked like strong local stories which would interest the people of Florida.

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Then I looked more closely and at the bottom where it said "in other Florida news" there was a reference to a story about a man whose testicles had been blown off by a bong, and another about a man who had been arrested for farting in a stripper's face while lap dancing. Dear Lord! That's when I started hearing sirens and seeing red lights.

But I had hastily filed a story based on the Florida Sun Post's report. Thankfully - I'll say that again - thankfully, it had not run on the bulletin and our online staff, who were also starting to see flashing lights, had not put it up. Phew!

Still shaking with relief, one of my online colleagues sent me an article indicating I had been caught out be a fake news site or a fake news story at least.

According to a Mashable article, weird stories are one of Florida's newest exports and the Sun Post has been a serial offender.

So I began thinking about fake news in a whole new way, because suddenly I had touched it.

Who is expending all this energy, resource, whatever, to run and generate these stories? And why? What's the end goal? To get a buzz if other agencies pick up their crazy stories and dodgy copy and run with them?

I kinda get the motives behind political fake news or the type which is used to skew a message, but New Zealanders, alligators and selfies - really?

I was curious to know what Newshub did after running the story. They did post a story saying the Florida Sun Post article was a cruel hoax.

Stuff and the Herald also ran a story about the story… saying it was likely fake news, but in the true spirit of competition, pointing out that Newshub had been duped.

For me - definitely - lessons learned.

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