In the pursuit of that amazing, once-in-a-lifetime scoop, media outfits sometimes skip over the whole boring process of ensuring that what they write is, you know, the truth. If that means that the occasional totally innocent person has to undergo a trial by media and risk the wrath of vigilante justice, then so be it.
You would think the birth of the Information Age and greater access to instant fact checking would make cases like this more rare. You would be wrong.
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Just before Christmas 2010 in Bristol, England, 25-year-old Joanna Yeates went missing from her home and was subsequently found murdered. The British media went crazy, which was predictable, since Yeates was young, attractive, popular, and successful, and there were many puzzling details. Her keys, phone, purse, and coat were still at her home, and there was no sign of a struggle or forced entry. Surely it must be someone known to her, but who? The media, however, thought they had busted this case wide open when they discovered that Yeates' landlord looked like this:
PA via The Independent
The kind of clue that could only come from shoddy, sensationalist journalism.
This is Chris Jefferies, a former teacher and, according to just about all of Britain's newspapers, "weird," "creepy," "a loner," and "a peeping Tom." Upon being arrested and questioned for a few days -- then released -- the tabloid press devoted themselves to proving to the British public that despite any evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever, this guy was just really weird, yo.
The problem was that everyone who actually knew him thought he was pretty damn cool, regarding him as a "pillar of society," his eccentricities not quite extreme enough to convict him of capital murder. The press were forced to dig deep, discovering that, although he had an unblemished record, his students had often given him funny nicknames, like "Professor Strange" and "Hannibal Lectern." In their increasingly desperate attempts to pin something on him, they even reported that a former colleague of his was a convicted pedophile, and also, Jefferies once had blue hair. Blue!
"Blue, the same color of his balls when he doesn't get to murder someone!"
In the end, the entirely innocent Jefferies had all the charges dropped -- at which point he sued the hell out of the papers. Eight different newspapers awarded him substantial damages, and two were prosecuted and fined for contempt of court, with the judges describing the articles as "substantial risks to the course of justice" and a "very serious risk" that any future court defense would be damaged.
And the real murderer? Well, it turned out to be a different neighbor. A younger one who didn't look particularly weird. He didn't make any front pages.
Rex Features via The Guardian
"What a lovely young man. You know, I have a daughter about your age."
Getty Images/Getty Images News/Getty Images
In 2009, a series of protests broke out in Iran in response to a presidential election that looked rigged as hell. The Iranian government decided they weren't going to let some peaceful activists make them look like pussies and made the dubious decision to shoot a few of them to show who was boss. Evidently, the team in charge of international PR had all taken the day off.
Getty Images/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"The worst that could happen is Neil Young writes a song about us."
One of those shot and killed was Neda Agha-Soltan, a woman who wasn't even participating in the protests, but had the bad luck to be getting out of a car nearby when the police opened fire. Her last moments were recorded by an onlooker with a camera phone, and her face suddenly became the symbol of international outrage when it spread all over the globe.
Well, not her face, exactly. See, when the Western media started trying to dig up some information on this woman, they turned to Facebook, where about a minute of searching led them to the profile of one Neda Soltani. After concluding that Soltani was indeed wearing a headscarf and was kind of good looking, they decided that she ticked all the boxes and, without a second of further research, spread her profile all over the globe as the martyred woman. The only problem was that Soltani was a different person, and in fact was still totally alive.
Whereupon she was captured and tried for necromancy.
Soltani, an English teacher, was greeted by hundreds of friend requests from people around the world who thought she was the dead woman. This first of all hints at a profound misunderstanding by the population about dead people's ability to check their Facebook requests, but it was also Soltani's first clue that a major news story had gone down. It was only later when students and colleagues told her that her face had been plastered all over CNN that she began to piece together why her day had suddenly taken a left turn down into Crazyville.
By the time the media corrected their error, Soltani's face was already stuck to placards and billboards in protests and candlelight vigils all over the world. Soltani found herself hunted by the Iranian government, who seized upon an opportunity to use the fact of her survival as proof that the entire event had been fabricated by the Western media. In the end, she had to bribe her way out of Iran and wound up spending time in a German refugee camp, and the whole situation could have been avoided if a single journalist had sent her a private message asking "Hi, are you this dead chick?"
Back in 2000, the Associated Press' Jerusalem office was hunting through freelance photographs of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence when they struck newspaper gold. The shocking image showed a snarling Israeli policeman standing, baton raised, over a badly wounded man. Unfortunately, the image had arrived accompanied only by some confusing Hebrew text that failed to explain the exact situation being depicted.
"WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT LETTING YOUR DOG OFF LEASH?!"
Since clarifying the matter would have taken costly minutes, the AP bypassed this tiny modicum of effort and ran the photo with their own caption reading "An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on Temple Mount" and threw it out on the wires. The inference that the police were responsible for the man's injuries was pretty clear (hell, just look at it -- that's what you'd think even with no caption at all). Before long, the picture had been featured in major media outlets around the world, including the New York Times and the front page of the Boston Globe, showing this Israeli policeman brutally beating the shit out of an innocent Palestinian.
The unfortunate reality of the situation was that the injured man was actually a Jewish-American named Tuvia Grossman who had been passing through Jerusalem when he was attacked by an angry crowd of Palestinians. Far from being responsible for his injuries, the police officer had actually saved Grossman's life by single-handedly facing down the entire mob, forcing them to back off. He then bandaged Grossman's head and waited with him until an ambulance arrived.
During which time he filed Grossman's taxes and helped the man's daughter with her algebra homework.
But shit, it's an easy mistake to make, right? You don't need a caption to come to the reasonable conclusion that this screaming, baton-wielding man is in the middle of a head-smacking rampage. Well, there actually were a couple of clues that the AP caption might not have been quite as exhaustively researched as you would expect from a major news agency. For one thing, the Temple Mount is one of the most sacred sites in the world, revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. It does not, in fact, contain a gas station. Not even a 7-Eleven.
The mistake went unnoticed until Grossman's father discovered the photo and wrote to the New York Times to complain. The Times then published a short retraction, but not before it flared up the already tense Arab-Israeli conflict, which really should warrant more delicate journalism than a guesstimate about some funny-looking foreign words.