Earlier in 2013, a reporter for the Toronto Star stumbled upon the scoop of the decade, as far as scoops go in Canada. The Canadian minister for consumer services in Ontario, Margarett Best, had reported that she was on paid medical leave in April, but a Star journalist, bored and browsing through Facebook, noticed that she had uploaded a photograph of herself having a fancy meal at a Mexican resort.
Followed by several pictures of her screaming on the toilet after accidentally sipping the water.
There was only one conclusion to come to: Best had faked an illness in order to skip the country and take a tropical vacation on the taxpayers' dime. That she was dumb enough to openly post photos of it on her Facebook page didn't disillusion anyone as to the intelligence of public officials. The Star figured that, in order to claim an exclusive scoop, they would have to move fast and skip such time-consuming formalities as fact checking or contacting Best for comment.
Of course had they done any of this, they would have discovered that the vacation picture was almost five years old.
You would think the picture of Best watching Susan Boyle's video on an iPhone 3G would have been a dead giveaway.
Apparently, Best had dealt with suddenly having lots of spare time the way most of us would and decided to bore her friends by posting some old photos on Facebook, including the same shot that was now being used to accuse her of fraud.
The Star was forced to issue a front-page apology after it emerged that the editor who OKed the story hadn't even bothered to look at the photo before running the story. And the reporter responsible blamed "a lack of technical expertise" for his inability to understand that the date a picture is uploaded does not necessarily correspond to the date it was taken.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
Flashback to a decade ago and British newspaper the Sun and its sister publication the News of the World were in the middle of a controversial high-profile campaign to "name and shame" convicted sex offenders, which its detractors accused of encouraging vigilantism and mob violence. That seemed to be a valid fear after a man was attacked in the street because he happened to be wearing the same kind of neck brace as a convicted child molester described by the Sun.
Of course, Sun editor Rebekah Wade insisted that "our intention is not to provoke violence." And you can be sure the paper made every effort to be certain of the identity of the people they were accusing, right? Actually, no -- they farmed out obtaining photographs of released sex offenders to a freelance agency and published whatever the hell they handed over. In an astounding case of "of course this was going to happen," a staffer at the agency eventually grabbed the wrong picture and the Sun ran a photo of an innocent man under the headline "Face of Kid Ban Pervert."
Pictured here snorting pure ground-up baby.
To make matters worse, the man in the picture, David Gazley, actually lived in the same town as the real subject of the article, and the Sun had been warning for months about the possibility that convicted pedophiles might change their names after being released from prison.
The terrified Gazley was forced to flee his home and go into hiding for fear of being attacked by his neighbors. He was also presumably forced to have a series of awkward phone conversations with friends to explain that a terrible mistake had been made and that he definitely wasn't a pedophile and yes he knew that was exactly what he would say if he was.
Push/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"There is nothing weird about going to see Pixar movies by yourself!"
Meanwhile, the Sun was forced into a groveling apology and a huge compensation payout, while a chastened Rebekah Wade made sure to never become involved in any sort of horrible breach of ethics again. Except that time she was arrested for a phone hacking scandal.
Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images
The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was probably the most-photographed criminal act of all time. It took place at a heavily publicized event that was being recorded not just by the news, but by hundreds or thousands of iPhones and other bystander cameras -- the blast and aftermath were captured from every conceivable angle. So if there's one case where there should be no danger of false accusations, it would be here: We had the faces of the perpetrators right on camera. And because everybody wants to be Internet Sherlock Holmes, it's no surprise that amateur sleuths spent days poring over these images like they were playing a game of Where's Terrorist Waldo.
These Internet detectives gathered at sites like Reddit to compare notes, completely unfiltered by editors or fact checking. Not wanting to let a bunch of Redditors show them up, the media kept abreast of the crowdsourced detective effort and ultimately seized upon the image of two men that random Internet people thought looked particularly suspicious. With no time to waste, the New York Post ran the image on the front page beneath the banner headline "BAG MEN," with text implying that the feds were looking for these guys and falling just short of outright accusing them of mass murder.
New York Post
"But they almost certainly said 'Yankees rule!'"
Unfortunately, the Internet's definition of "suspicious," as far as that can be judged from a still photograph, seemed to come down to them having the wrong color skin at the scene of a terrorist attack. The guy in the blue jacket turned out to be 17-year-old Moroccan high school runner Salah Eddin Barhoum, and the bag that everyone assumed was full of explosives actually contained his running gear. You know, because he was at a marathon.
Salah Eddin Barhoum via Sky News
"Look! He has a trophy for killing Americans and a medal for hating freedom!"
After Barhoum shat himself to an entirely appropriate degree, he turned himself in to the authorities before he could take a Molotov cocktail to the face. Once there, the authorities informed him that he had never once been a suspect.
Luckily for Barhoum, the real bombers were identified by actual professional law enforcement officers, with badges and everything, later on that very same day. And although the New York Post did kindly run a story about the "bag men" having been cleared, they never apologized or retracted their original accusation. Because, you know, they were carrying bags, so the headline was technically accurate. Journalism!
Pascal le Segretain / Getty
As long as Rupert doesn't have an erection in this picture ...
Eric Yosomono writes for Gaijinass.com and you should like their Facebook page. N. Christie is currently traveling the world to determine once and for all what the Seven Wonders of the World really are.
Related Reading: Is your faith in the media still too high? Click here to read the story of Dan Rather getting knocked off his pedestal by Internet nerds. Down for some more media myth-busting? This article exposes the lie behind "blondes going extinct", "the 1% banker's 1% tip" and other bullshit news stories. Close out your media hate-a-thon with this column by Chris Bucholz.