6 Insanely Reckless Media Accusations That Ruined Lives
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.
The Media Accuse a Guy of Murder (Because He's Weird)
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:
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.
"What a lovely young man. You know, I have a daughter about your age."
A Facial Similarity Ruins an Iranian Woman's Life
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.
"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?"
Journalists Make a False Accusation Because They Don't Understand a Foreign Caption
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.
Journalist Doesn't Understand Facebook, Accuses Politician of Fraud
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.
The Sun Accuses Random Man of Pedophilia
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.
"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.
The Media Pre-Emptively Accuse Man of Terrorism
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.
"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.
"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!
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.