Home / Insights / The Difference Between Fake News and a Media Error: What We Can Learn from Las Vegas and Tom Petty

The Difference Between Fake News and a Media Error: What We Can Learn from Las Vegas and Tom Petty

by | Oct 7, 2017 | Media Law

Fake news. Like the tale of the Trojan Horse, the idea has been around a long time. Only today, fake news moves at light speed. And if we aren’t careful, fake news can deceive us just like the story says the Trojans were tricked centuries ago.

Consider two recent examples of false reporting: premature stories of rocker Tom Petty’s death and intentionally misleading reports of the Las Vegas shooters’ connection to ISIS and left-wing politics.

Early reports of Petty’s death were published while Petty was still alive. CBS, followed by others, reported in the early afternoon that Petty was dead. In reality, he had suffered a heart attack but didn’t die until hours later.

Then, just a few hours after the Las Vegas massacre, there were reports from far right-wing websites wrongly identifying the shooter as an anti-Trump, far-left man who the FBI had connected to ISIS.

Both reports were false. The difference between the two is the first was an arguably sloppy mistake by a long-established news organization (CBS), and the second was an intentional act of propaganda calculated to deceive people and worse, using the power of the internet to amplify its misleading potency.

CBS relied upon a source in the LAPD, a risky thing to do on that type of story. With no confirmation from the rocker’s family or publicist, CBS should have been asking itself how reliable the source was. That is, was the source in a reliable position to know the facts?

However, CBS quickly corrected its erroneous report, which caused confusion among those glued to TMZ, Twitter, and all other internet sources of news. Still, correcting the error was the right thing to do. The willingness to correct mistakes is a hallmark of established news organizations committed to finding and reporting accurate facts.

This was not a case of fake news. It was a mistake which was later corrected.

The Las Vegas shooter propaganda, on the other hand, contained numerous intentionally false “facts” and was designed to spread like wildfire through the automatic algorithms of Facebook and Google that would pick up and display the “news.” So far, no corrections.

Unlike traditional news organizations, those algorithms don’t have layers of editorial staff who exercise human judgment to determine whether a report is likely true, likely false, likely to mislead, likely to defame, or likely to cause havoc in a wrongly identified suspect’s life. The algorithms apparently have no way to distinguish between well-established websites, such as The Wall Street Journal or New York Times, and websites that profit from blatant propaganda.

How to Avoid Being Duped by Fake News

The key is to be skeptical of sources that haven’t been around that long.

Learn to tell the difference between established news organizations with editorial policies and staff on the one hand, and sources of intentionally fake news on the other. These websites are more interested in advancing a political agenda or ideology by inflaming the passions of interest groups or in generating ad revenue by distributing emotionally charged click-bait.

Get to know news organizations that have proven over time they are committed to reporting factually correct information and are willing to correct their mistakes when they occur.

And remember, news is not like a TV drama where everything is confirmed and resolved in thirty or sixty minutes. In spite of the speed of today’s communications, life doesn’t work like that.

In the early hours after a crisis like Las Vegas, information is likely to be volatile as public officials react to the situation. That can lead to the spread of misinformation – even occasionally from respected news organizations.

The solution? Rely on more than one source of news.

All news organizations make mistakes. The difference between fake news sources and legitimate news organization is that they correct mistakes when they make them. Credibility in the news business is earned, not proclaimed.


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