News Flash: Not Every Story On the Web Is True
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offending piece provided by Google in a Google News blog post indicates, it contains no obvious clue that it's years out of date--though somebody well-versed in United's history might have noticed the lead sentence referring to the airline's "76 years as a Chicago business icon" (it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).
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.
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