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Thursday, June 03, 2004

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No one fact checks any more

Today the Associated Press had to retract an earlier story about a meteor hitting southwestern Washington state. link. There are several elements of this story that are typical of the incompetence (or laziness) of today's media.

First, the article states "The original story, which AP released at 7:03 a.m. EST, stated that someone identified as Bradley Hammermaster, and purported to be a University of Washington astronomy instructor, had told KIRO Radio in Seattle that a piece of meteor "about the size of a small car" had hit just before 3 a.m. PST."

You wouldn't even have to use a telephone to check the veracity of "Mr. Hammermaster"'s claim to be an astronomy instructor at UWash. Just go to the university's web page and search for his name. You can either use the Faculty Directory or simply go to the Astronomy home page and look at all the faculty there, and you will quickly discover that there is no "Hammermaster" on faculty. The entire search took me less than five minutes, yet AP couldn't even do that before publishing the story.

You can get a hint as to why the story ran without fact checking from this - "The bogus report followed genuine reports of bright lights being seen along a 60-mile stretch of the Puget Sound, which National Weather Service and U.S. Coast Guard officials were investigating as either a streaking meteor or other outer space activity, AP reported."

So someone at AP is making supposedly logical inferences based on previous reports and running the story without doing any fact checking. This is what passes for "reporting" these days. Even five minute Internet searches are too much work in the rush to be "first" with the story!

But there's a "fact" in the original story that should have set off alarms almost immediately. The caller to the radio station stated that the meteorite was "the size of a small car". A meteorite that large would cause extensive damage of a huge area. I know this without even asking an astronomer. Why wouldn't a reporter ask this simple question - What would the effect of a meteorite that large be?

A simple web search, and about five minutes time spent, results in this web page and the estimate that a meteor the size of a small car (5 meters in diameter) could create a crater 175 meters in diameter, depending upon the speed at impact. Gee, I wonder if anyone would notice a crater the size of a football field? Without doing any further research, I would guesstimate that there would be severe damage some distance from the crater, including fires, blunt force damage of particles separated at impact, deaths of animals and people within a wide area surrounding the crater, a huge explosion and noise at impact....Yeah, I'm pretty sure someone in the area would have noticed it.

So, why not call the mayor of Chehalis? Or the airport? Or Katie's Candies? Or the Centralia Chronicle, for crying out loud. They're all listed on the Internet.

Is this really the best the press can do? Rush a story to print and then retract it later when the facts are known? Is this what our universities teach as "journalism"?

One of the troubling aspects of this story is "This version was picked up by dozens of news sites, most of which later deleted the Hammermaster references." This is typical in today's "news" environment. The big, international agencies run a story and lots of local outlets pick it up and run with it. The local outlets are trusting the major outlets to get the story right, so they do no fact checking either. The story runs, and pretty soon it goes worldwide, and no one is the wiser that the story is completely false. AP later prints a retraction, but many of the same outlets that ran the original story never see nor run the retraction.

How is anyone supposed to make sense out of this? How in the world can news organizations expect the "average person" to believe anything they say? Does anyone in the media even care?