Big Mac numbers too good to check—or to correct

Fixes and non-fixes following a Huffington Post story

The Huffington Post has all but retracted the story on Big Macs and wages that I criticized here (as did Tom Maguire, who deserves credit for getting there first). It has pointed out the errors, where they came from, and how they were made. It’s admirably done what you’re supposed to do when you mess up.

That’s far more than you would ever get from, say, the serially wrong Matt Drudge.

But since the wrong information went big on the Internet after the original HuffPost piece, we thought it would be interesting to see how other outlets have handled the fixes. It’s not very encouraging.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell ran an embarrassing segment the other day about the erroneous non-study:

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell broke down the numbers in his latest Rewrite segment, pointing to new research by Arnobio Morelix at the University of Kansas. The study, which looked at labor costs at McDonald’s, found that if you double every salary of every worker at the fast food chain, the price of a Big Mac would increase just 68 cents from $3.99 to $4.67.

MSNBC’s piece stands uncorrected.

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Forbes, which was a key vector in the story’s spread, has updated its post with a note at the top that says, “Questions have been raised about the study at the center of this post, and the post has been changed accordingly.” MSN also put a big correction at the top of its story, as did David Atkins at Digby’s Hullabaloo.

ABC News had even less excuse to write about this “research” since by the time it published its story, it knew that it was some undergrad’s work. It did some actual reporting that introduces some skepticism and context, but the headline still says, “Price of Big Mac Could Rise by 68 Cents If Minimum Wage Doubles.”

Reading through the hits on this is an appalling tour of click-whoring aggregation at its worst. A site called Opposing View calls it “a new study conducted by a University of Kansas scholar” and rewrites Think Progress and the Huffington Post, burying links to the sources at the bottom. Fox News Radio ran it through the talk-radio wringer, unchecked.

The Houston Chronicle aggregated the HuffPost, didn’t namecheck HP till after the end of the post, and then aggregated the HuffPost’s retraction. The coup de grace, though, is that the Chron also reprinted an erroneous Business Insider aggregation. It’s uncorrected. Great work, Hearst! Business Insider itself put a three-paragraph correction atop its post. Henry Blodget also updated his post.

Gawker aggregated and its errors are uncorrected. Also uncorrected: The Washington Post, The Franchise Herald, KIRO radio in Seattle, Newser, The Week, The Spokane Spokesman-Review, PJ Media, Truthdig, the Albany Times-Union, LiveLeak, The Daily Meal, AMNewYork, Moyers & Company’s blog, HuffPostLive’s video, and ABC Action News in Tampa.

The Jane Dough corrected its post to call the KU researcher an undergrad, but has left all the other wrong information as is.

The New York Times puts its multiple corrections at the bottom of its erroneous post. Think Progress puts its corrections at the bottom, as well, and leaves the body of the post—errors and all—as is. A strikethrough would work best here.

We’ll induct this gem from Oklahoma City’s KFOR-TV into the Hamster Wheel Hall of Fame for this dumb aggregation, which has no correction and, egregiously, introduces its own fact error, calling the KU kid’s numbers a “study from Kansas State University.” And maybe The Examiner too. It aggregates MSN Money aggregating The Huffington Post and its post is also uncorrected.

And, of course, my favorite, the false MLive story on the “comprehensive research conducted by the University of Kansas,” hasn’t been touched.

I said yesterday that one of the first rules of Internet journalism is that false news is far more likely to go viral than factual news. Audit Boss Dean Starkman points out that’s nothing new and that Mark Twain said it best more than a century ago:

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes

The bad information here wasn’t a lie, of course, but what made it go viral was its very implausibility combined with the general innumeracy of journalists, along with a Hamster Wheel culture. Despite all that, it probably wouldn’t have gone far without the erroneous claim that it was based on a University of Kansas study.

And it certainly never gets off the ground if journalists had bothered to do a few minutes of fact checking.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,