Journalists Beware: Hoaxsters on the Loose

Maybe the brief flurry of media attention to the latest in a string of hoaxes by climate activists wasn’t extensive enough to qualify as ballyhoo. Bali-hoo, perhaps.

A phony press release and website, deployed just as the United Nations climate talks were starting in Bali, purported to commit major U.S. companies to aggressive climate policies that they haven’t actually endorsed.

The pranksters behind the spoof, an international network of groups and individuals called Rising Tide, want strong action to curb greenhouse emissions. If nothing else, their success in grabbing coverage with their Bali-timed stunt may indicate a small turning point in the global warming rhetoric debate.

But only one mainstream media outlet in the U.S. was widely reported to have fallen for the hoax announcement – the Dallas Morning News. The newspaper tersely confessed the slip-up (“A story using the release was published on dallasnews.com”) when it substituted a story reporting on the hoax itself.

The spoof’s phony announcement – that companies in the actual United States Climate Action Partnership were pledging 90 percent cuts in greenhouse emissions by 2050 – appeared on genuine-seeming press releases and a persuasive-though-fake website.

“I’ll be trying to find out who was behind the hoax (any help appreciated!), although frankly I’ve got enough on my plate trying to track real-world discussions and actions aimed at limiting risks from global warming,” New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin wrote in his initial blog post on the subject.

Business Week‘s Green Biz blog called Rising Tide’s efforts “intriguing shenanigans.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s Energy Roundup blog said it was just “the latest gotcha moment of the global-warming debate,” recalling “a series of similar, recent incidents” by campaigners against global warming.

Britain’s Guardian described the stunt as “a new front in the battle against Big Oil over climate change.”

Wired magazine’s website published an interview with Rising Tide’s Matt Leonard, who said that the effort involved “people in four different continents.”

“We had a website mirroring the USCAP website. We had supporting materials, PDFs. We spent all morning on the phone doing dozens and dozens of interviews with international press outlets. Some got stories out and dozens more were working on stories when abruptly our server was taken down,” he said.

One lesson here for journalists: Don’t abandon that old-fashioned journalistic skepticism, no matter how much new technology changes what they do.

And remember that more hoaxes may be around the corner.

“April 1 is Fossil Fools Day,” Leonard told his Wired interviewer.

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