Technology hasn't made journalism any easier. Or rather, it hasn't made good journalism any easier. When every news outlet feels like it has to break stories before Twitter has the chance, a lot of corners get cut. Specifically, the corner called "fact checking."
It doesn't help when the story is one you know your audience will love. That's why we see ridiculously untrue headlines like ...
#5. "Internet Explorer Users Have Low IQs"
We've always assumed that people who still use uninspiring and dull software like Microsoft's Internet Explorer (you know, the browser that, ugh, came with your computer) probably only surf the Web when they're not busy churning butter by hand while listening to their AM radio. Oh, and also they are monkeys savagely banging on computer keyboards.
You may laugh, but they'll finish writing the next A Song of Ice and Fire book before George does.
Well, our suspicions were confirmed when several tech news outlets including The Telegraph, Yahoo! News, The Huffington Post and Mashable all reported that a study of 100,000 computer users found that people who still use IE to surf the Web have lower IQs on average than those who use competing Web browsers like Firefox or Chrome.
They Believed It Because:
It fits a narrative we all love: Users of [insert product/technology here] are [prettier, smarter, better endowed] than users of [insert competing technology here]. It's like those stories that came out a while back saying that science shows that Apple users are brainwashed zealots. Windows users everywhere nodded and said, "Yep, that sounds right."
Then they torched an Apple Store and made a PowerPoint about their experiences.
The IE-user IQ study had supposedly been conducted by a Canadian firm called AptiQuant, whose website had only been on the Web for a full month at the time. Also, according to the BBC, some of the images used on the site, including photos of the company's staff, were copied directly from a French company called Central Test, which also provides online psychometric and IQ testing. Reporters saw it and ran with it, probably because it included important-looking and colorful graphs that could easily translate the data for those very same "dumb" Internet Explorer users they were secondhand insulting.
"By God, a Vennpie graph. This MUST be legit."
Eventually, a representative of the Canadian company confirmed that the whole story was just meant to be a joke about IE6's incompatibilities and was not intended to be taken seriously as actual news. However, even if it was meant to be a real press release, something else about the "study" should have tipped off reporters: The release stated that all of the interviews for the study were conducted through free online IQ tests. You know, the ones you've probably filled out by clicking on a banner ad somewhere, only to find out that you were in fact a genius. There was no mention of whether the data collected was verified in any way, or if it was just something your grandma was filling out with random answers because she thought she'd win a free iPad.
"That's a very impressive anus, Mr. Google. But I don't see what it has to do with goats."
And just in general, be wary of any story that tries to tie some broad population trend to IQ (like the election-season classic showing that voters for one party have higher IQs than the other). Ironically, the only people who think intelligence is that easy to measure and quantify are the stupid ones.
#4. "Fat Santa Claus to Blame for Childhood Obesity"
The British Medical Journal gave Santa a cheap shot right in his considerable gut in 2009 when they announced in a press release that a new study at Monash University in Australia had found that Santa's image as a bowl full of drunken, cookie-fueled diabetes actually encourages impressionable kids to lead similarly unhealthy lifestyles as they get older.
"I'm going to punch you full of presents."
The story went global overnight, being reported by Bloomberg News, The Telegraph, CBSNews and several other major news outlets where, apparently, turning off your ability to detect humor is a job requirement.
The study blamed Santa for influencing a wealth of unhealthy behaviors, including smoking, drinking and driving and spreading infectious diseases by letting kids sit on his filthy, filthy lap. They even tried to blame Santa for spreading the freaking swine flu epidemic.
And for mething up his reindeer to make better time.
They Believed It Because:
Christmas is under attack by the PC police! Best stock up on ornaments and wrapping paper while it lasts, boys and girls! And most importantly, you'd better buy our newspaper or come to our website, in order to keep tabs on these fun-killing bastards!
The author of the "study," Dr. Nathan Grills, admitted that the story was only meant to be a Christmas joke, something the British Medical Journal has often printed for its end-of-year issue. Beyond that, however, it's painfully clear that the outlets that reported the study only sourced the press release and the subscription page that featured excerpts from the report, rather than reading the actual report, probably because the additional $30 in research expenses would finally complete the collapse of the fragile newspaper industry.
They completely missed the real Yuletide danger: Frozen reindeer shit kills dozens each year.
You see, aside from the fact that the press release explicitly states "There were no peer reviewed publications on this issue," the report itself cites some questionable sources, such as Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser and Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock's book Don't Eat This Book. Hell, it even quotes a Yahoo! Answers page for the question "What do you leave for Santa?" Presumably the answer is "Lots of hand sanitizer, insulin, NicoDerm patches and the phone number of the local A.A."
#3. "Christopher Walken Confesses on Live Radio About an Actress's Death"
Highly acclaimed actor and scarer of small children Christopher Walken has rarely uttered a public word about the tragic events back in 1981 that led to the untimely death of American sweetheart and film star Natalie Wood. Walken was on a yacht with Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, when Wood fell into the water in a drunken stupor. So when Walken decided to break his long silence, of course he did it live on morning drive-time radio and on, of all places, a sports radio gabfest.
Between the wildly popular "What Are You Eating Right Now?" and "Frog or Dog?" features.
At least that's what the Associated Press reported at the tail end of 2011, when they ran a story stating that Walken had appeared on ESPN 980 AM in Washington, D.C., where he spilled new details about the events that led to Wood's death while discussing the case, which had recently been reopened by the LAPD. Walken claimed that the occupants of the yacht had been drinking obscene amounts of sambuca, followed by some shouting and finally (and you really have to imagine this next line in Walken's voice), "There was tragedy."
Also the look in his eyes.
They Believed It Because:
Celebrities all lead out-of-control lives and all become Charlie Sheen behind closed doors. Each time they talk frankly about it, we feel a little bit better about having spent an entire weekend in bed eating a huge tub of cheese puffs.
With the exception of a single Playboy interview, Walken has rarely spoken a public word about the incident. So it's understandable that hearing Walken's trademark staccato stammer leaking new details about that fateful night would be big celebrity news. The only problem is that the "Walken" in question was actually Marc Sterne -- one of the morning radio show's producers -- doing an impersonation of him as part of a weekly skit where he gives fantasy football advice in Walken's voice.
"The Jets are hidin' Tebow in the one place they know they can hide somethin'. Their ass."
But how was a lowly AP reporter supposed to know that?! Well, the previously mentioned fact that Walken had only publicly discussed the case once in 30 freaking years might have been the first clue. Another is that Sterne's Walken impersonation apparently isn't even that good -- he himself said, "Let's be honest, I'm sure Julia Roberts does a better Christopher Walken than I do and I'm embarrassed for the AP reporter."
Sterne isn't a gifted mimic -- this is his Cosby.
Though, to be fair, we have to admit that the reporter did his due diligence: He phoned the radio station and left a message regarding the Walken "interview" -- after the AP story was published.