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Pranks

A journalist can suffer the biggest nightmare of her career just because someone was looking for a few laughs. In at least one case, a journalist lost a job over falling for a prank.

Jokes become news stories in several ways. Sometimes, it just happens by accident: A person spreads a joke, not realizing that anyone might take it seriously. Journalists tend to pick them up like viruses from a media source, such as publication, a broadcast or a Web site. Laziness and sloppiness push the story along, as reporters become carriers, moving the information along without verifying it.

When the hoaxes are on purpose, they're about as easy to pull off as prank phone calls. Pranksters take advantage of vulnerabilities in newsroom procedures - like assuming that a phone call about an obituary involves a person who is actually dead, or trusting information that's been published elsewhere.

Some pranks, however, are more sophisticated, honing in on more complicated and serious vulnerabilities in the routine practice of journalism. See Professionals for the most elaborate hoaxes, like The Fake Cemetery and the Fake Millionaire Lottery Winner.

Key Factors

Great Stories: They're so funny, sad or eyebrow-raising that they come right up to that line, "Almost too good to be true." While some hoaxes are "great stories" because they seem to reveal something important, these usually suck us in for the opposite reason, taking advantage of journalists' desire to be entertaining.

We Have More Important Things to Do: Because these tend not to be heavy stories of much import, they're apt to be tossed into an article or at the end of a broadcast just for chuckles. Journalists don't go to a lot of trouble to confirm them; they're working on much more important stories.

Confirmation Obstacles: Besides, it's not even clear who the source is, or the stories involve historical research or first-person accounts that would take considerable time and trouble to verify.

The "We Believe What We Read in the Papers" Syndrome: The tale has been published elsewhere, so journalists let down their guards.

No Doubting Thomas: These aren't the types of stories for which there are natural naysayers or anyone who is harmed by the tale and therefore might raise questions.

Red Flags

Too Good to be True: These are stories that make people say, "Hmmm…"

Unconfirmed Information: Like urban myths, its impossible to track down a primary source. In cases of fake obituaries, no one has called a funeral home for confirmation.

No Attribution: Despite the above, the stories are repeated without attribution.

Just an Aside: Beware if it's just a funny little line or two in a story or broadcast - the kind of story that could be introduced with, "Now listen to this …".

Resources: Articles about Internet pranks and disinformation

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