Texas hoax had the media digging their own grave
By Bob Garfield, Thursday 9 June 2011 13.30 BST
Europe woke up to a tremendous disappointment on Wednesday. Despite the lurid promises of the 11 o’clock news, authorities in Texas had failed to unearth 30 dismembered corpses from a property in rural Liberty County. Not even 15 bodies. Not even one stinking cadaver, with or without extremities – much less the poor mutilated children TV viewers were all prepared to be horrified/titillated to learn all about.
Dang, what if they held a Texas Chainsaw Massacre and no bodies came?
Within four hours of the first reports, over here in the Greater Texas area, the mass-grave bombshell had utterly fizzled. Turned out that Liberty County sheriff’s deputies had been acting on a tip from a woman who may or may not have been claiming to be a psychic, and who may or may not have had an ulterior motive in directing police to the home of the long-haul trucker who owns the place. But by then it was too late for media, in or near Greenwich mean time. They’d long since launched a journalistic corpse-a-palooza.
And why not? It all seemed like such a done deal, verification-wise. Agence France Presse reported that “Texas police, acting on a tip-off, found a mass grave containing ‘a lot of bodies,’ including the corpses of children”. This is AFP we’re talking about, not the hairdresser – although there was a red flag embedded in the opening paragraph. The wire service’s source? “US media.” That’s not the hairdresser; it is equally not the horse’s mouth. Reuters reported approximately the same shocking headline, but would not be so sloppy to source the news to something so vague and unaccountable as “US media”. Reuters cited “local media”.
Ah. Now there’s some due diligence. But these were two apparently independent wire sources, giving Sky News and others the journalistic cover to play the story up as big as Texas. And there was more supposed confirmation still. CNN tweeted the grisly discovery as an uncontested fact, perhaps relying on @BreakingNews, which aggregates flashes from around the Twitterverse and told its 2.6 million followers: “Dozens of bodies found buried in Texas – KPRC.” And KPRC? That is a Houston TV station, which moments earlier had tweeted: “Dozens of bodies have been found in Liberty County. Join us for KPRC at 5pm for the latest information.” The source there, evidently, was “just sayin'”.
TV and the internet are, of course, notoriously haphazard about journalistic rigour. Luckily, there are quality broadsheet newspapers such as the Guardian, which, in grafting together wire-service copy under a staff byline, responsibly hedged its bets in the opening paragraph by inserting the words “may have” before “found a mass grave” – even though the second paragraph reported the official police denial of any such discovery.
As the poets said, oy vey.
So how does such a thing take place? Well, that’s a sadly easy question to answer, because this is becoming a tragically common phenomenon. The first trap is the 24/7 news cycle. News organisations are in competition not only with one another, but with every doofus with a Twitter account. Once a story is in play – no matter how unconfirmed, no matter how thinly sourced – newsrooms are at pains to weigh in with something. In such circumstances, a premature tweet from (most likely the lowest-ranked employee of) a Houston TV station can suddenly look like the word of God.
NPR, which distributes my own radio show, learned this the hard way earlier this year when it reported the death of US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a Tucson, Arizona shooting. The source was a law-enforcement official – ie some cop who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. But NPR rushed on the air to bury the woman. It would have been a small scoop, had she been dead. Instead it was just an outrage.
Complicating the Liberty County fiasco was the pulpy deliciousness of the details. Real-life Texas massacre! Psychics! Mutilation! I assure you there is an inverse relationship between the degree of bizarreness and the media’s appetite for double-checking. A breakthrough in negotiations of tax legislation requires two independent sources, at least one on the record. A shallow grave requires a whisper and a gasp.
Finally, and it pains me to say this, there is you. Yes, you. A backyard full of slasher victims so conforms to the popular imagination about America that I daresay there were more stomachs turned in Europe on Tuesday night than eyebrows raised. A massacre in Texas? Dismemberment? Clairvoyants? But of course.
We are all victimised by our own world views, which modern media have rather mastered pandering to. If you were so ready to swallow the dead-Texans rumour, imagine how you are processing the so-called news that really matters.