Fake News Abounds, but Vigilance on Rise

By: DAVID B. CARUSO, Associated Press Writer

(AP) With its official-looking BBC News banner, the Web site looked real enough, but the sick tale it told seemed too preposterous to be true.

“Lion Mutilates 42 Midgets in Cambodian Ring-Fight,” blared the headline. An article followed about a circus-like spectacle that went awry and resulted in many deaths.

The page was a hoax, but it exploded across the Internet. Soon it was being repeated by bloggers, radio show hosts and a few newspapers. The New York Post published the yarn in its “Weird but True” column on May 20.

The episode was another in a string of fabrications and manipulations that may be causing people to think twice about what they read, hear, or see on TV.

In recent weeks, Sony Pictures Entertainment agreed to pay $1.5 million to movie patrons duped by advertisements that contained fabricated quotes from a fictitious film critic.

Two reporters at a small newspaper in North Carolina, the Reidsville Review, resigned after a competitor reported that they had made up quotes for a man-on-the-street opinion feature.

The Pentagon was embarrassed after a military public relations office issued a press release containing a quote from an unidentified Iraqi civilian that appeared to have been fabricated. Journalists questioned its veracity after noticing that the quote had appeared in a previous military press release.

There are signs that these fiascos _ and past fabrication scandals involving USA Today reporter Jack Kelley, The New York Times’ Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass of The New Republic _ have led to a more skeptical public.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which conducts regular polling on attitudes toward the media, said that in 1985 about 84 percent of Americans said they believed most of what they read in their daily newspaper. By 2004, that had dropped to 54 percent.

What isn’t clear is whether fabrications have become more common, or just easier to uncover.

These days, an army of amateur and professional media critics have made a hobby out of attempting to discredit news reports and statements by politicians.

Their work has been aided by powerful Internet tools that have made it easier than ever to detect stolen or false material, confirm identities or troll public records.

“Certainly the tools of verification are better and more readily available than they were in the Janet Cooke era,” said Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school.

Cooke was a Washington Post writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict who didn’t actually exist.

The fraud went undetected for months at her paper, even after Washington D.C. police, social workers and other journalists launched a massive search for the boy, but couldn’t find him.

“While that kind of fabrication still takes place, the odds of it lasting very long are significantly reduced,” Mitchell said. “There is an intense demand for verification. Honestly, I think the current environment is a lot more healthy than it ever has been.”

Robert H. Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, said there is probably less fiction masquerading as real news, but more public attention.

“If you go back a generation or two ago, you could probably find an enormous amount of stuff where stuff was lifted or quotes were fabricated,” he said. He cited the work of A.J. Liebling, a revered journalist who occasionally embellished feature stories in the 1930s and 1940s with fictitious detail.

“Those days are gone, and I think our business is getting a heck of a lot more ethical,” Giles said.

Still, there are problems.

In recent years, fake beheadings and kidnappings staged by Internet jokers posing as Iraqi insurgents or have made their way into newscasts.

Dozens of television stations were embarrassed last winter when it became public that they had aired government-produced propaganda videos staged to look like legitimate news reports.

Most famously, CBS’ “60 Minutes Wednesday” had to retract a report on President Bush’s National Guard service after documents at the center of its story were challenged as forgeries.

And, public faith in the mass media has dwindled _ with the exception of the months following the 2001 terrorist attacks, when confidence in journalists briefly soared, said Pew Research Center editor Carroll Doherty.

“It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy like that for people to see the system working at its best,” Doherty said. “When the stakes are high, the press does a good job and the public responds … It just doesn’t come across in the daily barrage of cable shout shows.”

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