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News Flash: Not Every Story On the Web Is True

Today's front page has a great tick-tock by my colleague Frank Ahrens about how a six-year-old wire-service story briefly sent United Airlines' stock into the toilet yesterday morning.

It's both amusing--"look at those Wall Street lemmings sprinting off the cliff!"--and slightly alarming. As the piece explains, it started with an innocent Web search:

The bizarre chain of events began yesterday, when a reporter at Income Securities Advisors -- a Miami area investment service that disseminates news about distressed companies -- typed in a Google search: "bankruptcy 2008."

Up popped the six-year-old article from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Dec. 10, 2002, the day after United declared bankruptcy. Tribune Co. owns the Tribune and the Sun-Sentinel.

Why did Google find a six-year-old article?

Largely because it was undated in the Sun-Sentinel Web archive. The Google Web crawler assigned the article the date it was found -- Sept. 6, 2008. The reporter from Income Securities Advisors saw the Saturday date and assumed it was a new article.... The reporter posted the story to the Bloomberg Professional service at 10:53 a.m. yesterday.

Whoops! United issued a "we're not dead yet" statement and Google yanked the story from its news index, but not before the airline's stock nose-dived, losing about three-quarters of its value in the time you might take to quaff a leisurely cup of coffee.

The story should have smelled a little fishy at the start: The news of United going bust wouldn't have been confined to one hit in a Google News story. But as the screenshot of the offending piece provided by Google in a Google News blog post indicates, it contains no obvious clue that it's years out of date--though somebody well-versed in United's history might have noticed the lead sentence referring to the airline's "76 years as a Chicago business icon" (it began flying to the city in 1926).

Wikipedia's entry on United fell prey to this old story as well--but was corrected two minutes later, according to the entry's revision history.

The obvious lesson here is the one taught in any good newsroom as "If your mother says she loves you, check it out"--don't believe any one source unless some other source backs it up. (Especially now that we're into the silly season of political campaigning; it continues to amaze me how smart, well-educated people can believe nonsense about one candidate or another just because they "saw it on the Internet.") But those of us in the news business would also do well to date- and even time-stamp our stories, so nobody can be confused if they blunder into our archives through some back door like a random Google search.

I'm sure none of you have been suckered like this hapless reporter--but if you want to talk about "a friend" or "somebody you know" who gave a little too much credence to an Internet fable, the comments are yours.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 9, 2008; 10:55 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , The Web  
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Comments

I've already received the Sarah Palin bikini/gun photo at least three times. Come on, guys -- snopes.com.

Posted by: moose | September 9, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Well said Rob.

But I won't believe you, until another Post blogger tells me it's true. :)

Posted by: Kim | September 9, 2008 12:02 PM | Report abuse

From a different angle:
After finding a news from a GOOGLE search,
verify it using a YAHOO search.
We should not allow a monoploy search engine to rule us all. We, the end-user will all loose, just like what happenned in Intel/AMD murder.

Posted by: Altero | September 9, 2008 1:05 PM | Report abuse

This "first to post" thing on the web is getting out of hand. Reporters need to have a higher standard than a web search. What happened to verifying sources? How about calling United?

And this reposting of articles, that's another problem. Listen, a webpage link, from a webpage link, from a webpage link, from a webpage link, said this... When articles aren't fully "vetted" misreporting can happen.

Posted by: gns100 | September 9, 2008 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Oh my God! All these years, I have been telling people that everything is double-checked before it goes out in cyber-space.

You mean to tell me everything that I read on the internet is NOT TRUE??? OH NO!!!

NNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!

I feel just terrible.

Posted by: charlie | September 9, 2008 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Reality is greater than perception.

Posted by: Joe | September 9, 2008 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Isn't date stamping something that has susposed to be happening for a long time now? It's a waste of time to have to open a link to try an figure out how old it is. Why can't Google display this in the search results? (someone's going to be very upset when they turn up at Dr. Dremos cause first hit was a review was from 07, instead of being able to display hits in date order)

Posted by: Karl Johnson | September 10, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

This actually gets to the root of one of my pet peeves on the web. The lack of clearly date stamping articles. Not just "hard" news but reviews, blog posts etc. As the old saying goes: if I had a nickle for every time I pulled up an article or review from a Google search and then had to waste time ascertaining how recently it was posted, I'd be a rich man. My preference would be for a clear date stamp at the top so I can decide immediately if the content is current enough to merit reading.

Posted by: Norm | September 10, 2008 11:49 AM | Report abuse

To hell with post stamping something, I want to see future stamping articles. ;)

Posted by: Sparky | September 11, 2008 8:17 PM | Report abuse

@Charlie - LOL!

Posted by: Mark H | September 12, 2008 5:58 PM | Report abuse

and yet the article or column or blog or whatever it is called (by Rob Pegoraro) has no time stamp OR DATE with it ! when WAS it written/published ?

Posted by: dorie | September 13, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

ok. my mistake. after reading an
older column (?) i found the date and time on it and sure 'nuff, its the same place on this one too ! (at the very end, in very SMALL print) it should also be at the begining where it is not so easy to overlook.

Posted by: dorie | September 13, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

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