How fake news sites frequently trick big-time journalists

It would’ve been one hell of a story. Early this month, “news” surfaced that Michael Jordan–yes, the Michael Jordan–had threatened to move his NBA team, the Charlotte Hornets, from North Carolina unless the state repealed a law barring transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice. Air Jordan hadn’t seemed so heroic since he saved Bugs Bunny in the 1996 movie Space Jam.

Except the news was as fictional as the film.

A few sites posing as legitimate news organizations, including one that crudely imitates ABC News’ logo and web address, first published the bunk Jordan story. From there it spread to other media outlets, like Metro US, Elite Daily, and the Dallas Voice. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel even weaponized the false claim in an editorial against North Carolina’s law. For what felt like the millionth time, fake news sites–the kind that say they’re satirical but are nothing like The Onion–had duped journalists into buying a bogus story.

For now, forget the hoaxsters and hoodwinked journalists who continue to fuel this tire fire. The more significant culprits are the companies that enable and reward behavior that empowers fake news. In striving for traffic, prolific output, and social media hype, some newsrooms have prioritized the quick and provocative, while undervaluing reporting. This system has allowed fake news sites to essentially develop best practices to fool journalists. Facebook now lets users flag fake news stories, which then appear less frequently, or with an attached warning, in newsfeeds. But without a top-down cultural shift in journalism, garbage stories will continue to enter the mainstream.

“This approach is receiving some pushback and is by no means universal, but the sites pursuing this strategy are large and drive a significant number of social shares for their content,” wrote Craig Silverman, the editor of BuzzFeed Canada and a leading enemy of fake news, in a report last year for Columbia University’s Tow Center. “News organizations must recognize the value of being smart filters in a world of abundant, dubious, questionable information.”

Before that can happen, we need better BS detectors. Less than a month before the faux Jordan story, reporters bought a fabricated piece by the ABC News knockoff claiming that the NBA had plans to pull the 2017 All-Star Game from North Carolina due to its transgender bathroom law. Cleveland.com, the online home of The Plain Dealer, quickly blended the revelation into a wire story without making a phone call or finding another source. “If we had done the basics, we would have figured out pretty quickly that we were seeing an impostor ABC website,” the site’s vice president of content later wrote in a mea culpa. NBC Sports and an LGBT site called PinkNews followed with stories on the fictional NBA move.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

This happens often. Last fall, The San Francisco Business Times erroneously aggregated a fake news piece about Yelp suing the creators of South Park. Earlier that year, Bloomberg Politics wrote a post based on a bunk article on Nancy Reagan’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president. In 2014, The New York Times picked up a fake bit about Kanye West’s love for his own butt. In 2013, The Washington Post fell for a fake news story by the notorious Daily Currant, which claimed that Sarah Palin had taken a job with Al-Jazeera. That same year, a bogus story alleging New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy wound up on Boston.com–albeit through an automated third-party service that fed content to the site. Breitbart then aggregated the story.

Fake press releases, the sibling of fake news, have also swayed the Los Angeles Times to report that the United Nations was on the verge of recommending weed be decriminalized, Jezebel to write that the artist Banksy had been arrested, and Engadget to cover a fictitious breathalyzer app.

That’s a long list of baloney, but it’s by no means all-inclusive.

So why are fake news sites able to trick journalists? Many of their names sound legitimate–National Report, World News Daily Report, and Empire News, to name a few. There’s also the kind that mimics genuine news outlets in name and logo, like abcnews.com.co, which is apparently enough to trick sleeping journalists. Some sites publish a blend of real and fake news to throw off visitors. Only in the oft-ignored corners of these websites can you find a disclaimer alerting readers that the content is intended as satire. Most fake stories include a number of sources, whether they be the names of phony spokespeople or actual institutions, which can make them seem more credible. While Facebook has begun to stifle the flow of fake news in users’ feeds, that only seems to have bred new websites that temporarily go undetected by the social media giant.

The premise of each story usually revolves around a hot-button issue. “When it comes to the fake stuff, you really want it to be red meat,” says the founder of National Report and other fake news outlets, who goes by the pseudonym Allen Montgomery. “It doesn’t have to be offensive. It doesn’t have to be outrageous. It doesn’t have to be anything other than just giving them what they already wanted to hear.”

All told, these are smart shops. They play on journalists’ inherent quirks and flaws. The institutional forces that, in some newsrooms, prevent thoughtful reporting–or dispense with original reporting altogether–don’t excuse duped journalists. But when writers have more time to report and less pressure to produce a viral hit, they’re more likely to overcome their initial gullibility.

Business Insider has recently become the poster child of this sort of grueling ethos. CNN Money published a piece on management’s demands for writers to churn out five or more stories a day. Volume allegedly takes precedence over scoops or enterprise reporting. Many reporters, according to the story, are expected to reel in a million unique visitors per month. Shane Ferro, a former Business Insider writer, validated these claims, saying she was subjected to “tense meetings” when she missed her outlandish goals. “In a way, BI is the extreme version of what every news organization now expects of its journalists: fast copy with a broad appeal that’s turned in without much need for editing,” Ferro wrote in a Medium post.

In recent years, traffic quotas, heavy posting requirements, and click-driven bonuses have infiltrated some digital natives and legacy outlets alike. In 2014, The Oregonian reportedly launched an output- and traffic-based quota system, with bonus payments married to those criteria. Its owner, Advance, had similar plans for at least one of its other newspapers, though it’s unclear whether such policies took shape or what performance guidelines exist today. Gawker notoriously used to tie traffic to pay and in-house prestige. Though that seems to have changed, the keep-pumping-’em-out mindset it fostered reportedly lives on.

For almost 10 years, Arienne Thompson was a reporter for USA Today, where she covered entertainment. In March 2015, she fell for a bunk press release announcing the launch of “selfie shoes,” an early April Fool’s joke. Thompson didn’t try to shake the blame when I spoke with her–her story, her fault. But she did describe a job defined by multi-tasking, limited resources, and aggregation. “There was always this push and pull between original content and ‘Let’s get it up there. We need the clicks,’” she says. “Low-hanging fruit is part of journalism 101 now.” Thompson, who was not formally reprimanded for the flub, now works in public relations.

Of the nine duped journalists I contacted, Thompson was the only one who agreed to talk to CJR. Some of these folks have lost reporting gigs, though most remain in the business, some in high places. The industry, it seems, considers accidentally regurgitating phony news a forgivable sin. That’s not necessarily bad; everyone messes up. What’s worse is that some newsroom leaders seem to view these incidents as mere collateral damage: an unfortunate cost of doing business in the digital age.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha