Another week, another hoax that was reported uncritically by dozens of news outlets. You may have heard in recent weeks about a woman who was offering to name her baby based on an online poll in exchange for $5,000. It now turns out that the woman is an actress, and the website that hosted the poll drummed up the idea as a publicity stunt.
CNN, NBC’s “Today,” Fox News and dozens and dozens of other outlets all reported the story as true.
Last week it was revealed that a fake “viral video” of a pig rescuing a goat that made the TV rounds was actually created for a Comedy Central Show. Early this year it was revealed that Notre Dame football star Manti T’eo’s girlfriend did not exist, despite long profiles of the star that mentioned her. Hoaxes are apparently in vogue now.
It is unrealistic to expect TV producers or bookers to catch every single hoax, especially when people are pushing it and deliberately trying to deceive. Working in TV is a grind, and staffers work long hours to fill endless minutes of airtime. Most of the people producers deal with are straight shooters, or at least not deliberately lying to them, but when you have liars, there is only so much you can do. In the case of the baby-naming hoax: the website was real, and was pushing it. The woman was an actress playing along. It sounded crazy, but people have actually, really named their babies off of Internet suggestions, so it wasn’t that crazy.
In other words, while it is tempting to chastise news outlets for going along with the hoax, in this case they deserve a pass. The website took advantage of the goodwill of the reporters and lied to news outlets to get free publicity. It worked, but they will have a hard time recovering from this mess.
The fake viral video should have set off red flags, and there was action that could have been taken (who posted the video? Why not talk to them?) but this case is different. It was a story that probably should have been approached more skeptically, but one side was lying and obfuscating, so it wasn’t a fair fight.