In the wake of the devastating tragedy in Charleston, the New York Times erroneously reported that alleged gunman Dylan Roof blogged about My Little Pony on the social media site Tumblr. How did it make the mistake? In the rush to publish news about Roof, the Times didn't properly vet its sources. This is just the latest story to highlight how social media "news" can trick even the most seasoned journalists into making mistakes.
The story by Pulitzer Prize winner Frances Robles quoted a British person named Benjamin Wareing who claimed Roof made racist comments in blog posts on Tumblr and also posted "images of 9/11 'memes' and of 'My Little Pony.'”
The thing is, Wareing made it all up. The 16-year-old Brit has never actually found Tumblr posts by Roof. The New York Times has since removed the errors from its story, but the original article can still be found on the archival site NewsDiffs.
“We removed those paragraphs as soon as we had reason to doubt them, and they would have been removed under any circumstances and replaced by newer reporting,” Times Deputy National Editor Peter Applebome told Fusion in an email statement. “We’re still reviewing the matter and will post an editor’s note to run with the story online.”
When Roof's name became public, journalists attempted to contact his Facebook friends for comments. The problem is many of his Facebook friends didn't actually know the man. Apparently, Roof added many people randomly.
Wareing’s friend Sadrak Ramirez, who lives in Lexington, S.C., was one of those randomly added friends. On Thursday, he started getting messages from a half dozen reporters—including me—asking for information about Roof, whom he knew nothing about, he told Fusion. He then referred them to Wareing, who told reporters various stories about Roof’s fictitious Tumblr account but claimed not to have any proof of the account’s existence.
Wareing couldn't provide any proof that the Tumblr posts he referenced actually existed, but the New York Times used his quotes anyway. And, it's not the only publication that ran with the story. Both New York magazine and the Boston Globe referenced Wareing's claims.
Why did Wareing do it? He wanted to see if journalists would actually print complete lies. I guess he got his answer. The young Brit actually said he wants to be a journalist when he grows up, though, and this situation has inspired him to work harder to effect changes in reporting.