Monday, September 8, 2008

Bogus United Airlines Bankruptcy Report Surfaces

On Monday, a report that United Airlines had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy surfaced in the search results section of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's website. After Bloomberg picked the story up, United stock plummeted more than 75 percent -- to $3.00 per share from Friday's closing price of $12.30 per share.

But the Bloomberg report was false. United did not file for Chapter 11 today. United filed for Chapter 11 on Dec. 9, 2002 -- three months after two United planes were crashed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And United exited bankruptcy in 2006.

The story that Bloomberg reported today was a republished version of a Chicago Tribune article that originally ran on Dec. 10, 2002. The article gave a detailed account of United Airlines' 2002 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and its strategy for emerging from bankruptcy. According to Tribune Co.:

"(A)n investigation into the events showed that the story was apparently picked up by an investment advisory and research firm and republished as though it was current. "The story contains information that would clearly lead a reader to the conclusion that it was related to events in 2002. In addition, the comments posted along with the story are dated 2002.

To be clear, no story appeared today or over the weekend on the Sun Sentinel Web site or any Tribune Web site regarding United Airlines' filing for bankruptcy."

The Internet is a fantastic innovation. It allows information to be disseminated in real time. And anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection can, theoretically, influence public consciousness on every subject imaginable.

But while I love the fact that the Internet has democratized the distribution of information, I think that people who disseminate information online have a responsibility to make sure that their information is accurate. Professional news organizations are doubly responsible in my book. After all, the people who work at those institutions are actual journalists. And journalists, columnists, editors, publishers and producers from "old media" news organizations -- whether print or broadcast -- rarely miss an opportunity to deride bloggers, podcasters, and "citizen media" participants for their lack of professional journalistic standards.

Drive and Dish is a small blog with a fairly small reach. We focus on very limited subject matter. But we go to lengths to make sure that everything we publish is accurate. We research and fact check our posts extensively before they appear on the website. The last thing we want is to be guilty of disseminating false information. And the fact that we're a small, independent blog makes such vigilance all the more imperative.

That a news organization of Bloomberg's stature would be in such a rush to report news that it would neglect to thoroughly check the veracity of that news is troubling, yet not entirely surprising. I like Bloomberg news. I even read their site from time to time. But they wield a great deal of influence. Today's events don't reflect favorably on them.

And they're hardly alone. The New York Times -- the self described arbiter of "all the news that's fit to print" -- was hit hard by scandals (more here, and here) which stemmed from the paper's brazen publishing of false information. And don't forget that nearly every major American news organization grossly misreported on, exaggerated and sensationalized the nature of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina.

Mainstream news organizations publish false information all the time, but rarely do they suffer serious consequences for their less than conscientious reportage. Yet, that doesn't make sloppy journalism O.K. United Airlines' stock dropped like a rock today. One of America's corporate titans took a major hit because of a false news report that originated on the Internet. And United shareholders got the brunt of the punishment.

The bottom line: the Internet has revolutionized the global flow of information. It's been a total game changer for the news business. But news organizations have a responsibility to ensure that information they distribute is accurate.

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