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Disasters

When a big news event happens, a lot of people want to be part of it. Reporters want to find people who were. Conditions are perfect for a hoax.

In the chaotic wake of a tragedy or disaster, it's especially easy for people to contrive or exaggerate their involvement so they can ride the wave of attention. Some just want to be part of a hot topic; others want glory. Especially difficult are cases where people who were involved in an event exaggerate their roles. It can take months or years - after trials are conducted or books are written - to find the truth.

These simple hoaxes work their way into routine news coverage more than journalists realize. Consider a case that this writer knows about firsthand: One night in the town of Brentwood, Long Island, someone left a small package on the front steps of a suburban house and ran off. The package was on fire. A couple of teenagers hanging out nearby saw the smoke; they ran up to knock on the door and awaken the family inside. One of the boys tried to put out the small fire by stomping on the package - setting off a small bomb inside.

The bomb had been meant for the resident, an alleged former Nazi. The boy's feet and legs were severely injured. A woman living three houses away saw the whole thing. She didn't mind telling the police, but when television crews arrived, she stayed inside, afraid to go on TV. Her roommate, who did not see the incident, loved the idea of going on TV. So the witness told her story to the roommate, and the roommate went out before the cameras to tell everyone what she supposedly saw.

How does a reporter know if an on-the-scene witness - to a fire, for instance - saw or did what she claims? There are some things a reporter can do to try to verify aspects of a story, such as check the claims against police reports. But these incidents are often breaking news, leaving little time for independent verification. If someone wants to put his name and face to a lie, there is often little a reporter can do about it immediately.

Follow-up and longer-term coverage provide opportunities to check things out more thoroughly. What's tends to happen, however, is that reporters pursue other angles of the story while repeating original claims as fact. As more reporters repeat the stories, they become accepted without question.

See also: Heroes, ID Fraud

Key Factors

It's Such a Good Story: Reporters look for good stories after a disaster, especially stories involving heroism or someone helping the victims. Reporters want the stories to be true.

Confirmation Obstacles: The information chaos that typically reigns during or shortly after a tragic event plays into the hoaxer's hands. The confusion and lack of a centralized information source can make it difficult to track down a claim, and even more difficult to establish that a claim is not true. However, most of the claims can eventually be verified, and some can be verified quickly. After plane crashes, for instance, airlines and local emergency response agencies generally have reliable information about passengers, fatalities and survivors.

Deadline Pressure: By definition, a disaster or tragic event is breaking news.

The Hoaxer's Investment: The more someone seems to go out on a limb to tell the story - such as giving a public speech or appearing on television - the more believable the story appears. Observers are reluctant to think that someone would go through all of that if he or she were just making up the story.

Sympathy for the Story-teller: Journalists tend to sympathize with people connected to a disaster, especially if that connection is tragic (such as the death of a loved one).

Admiration for the Story-teller: If the subject's role was to help people during or after a tragic incident, most reporters are not instinctively skeptical.

The Media Bandwagon: Once one or several media outlets carry someone's tale, the story takes on an aura of accepted fact and gets repeated by news outlets that don't even interview the story-teller.

Red Flags

Heroic Tales: Sorry to say, but someone's own tale about his actions during a crisis have to be taken with some skepticism - especially if no one else is telling the same story about him.

It Feels Good: Sorry again, but if the tale seems like just the sort of emotional salve that people want in the wake of a tragedy, reporters should be especially careful to check it out.

Verification Problems: The first efforts to verify the story run into immediate complications - such as getting confirmation that someone was on a flight, or that someone spoke with kids at a school.

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