KSJ Tracker May 27, 2014

Oops. CNN runs bogus story saying asteroid has 1 in 2.04 odds of destroying Earth

Screen shot of pulled CNN "story". No the world is not ending.

The original post was taken down with the explanation that NASA has now confirmed that the story is false. One can only hope that with a proclamation of the end of the world, CNN wouldn’t wait for NASA to “confirm” that it’s wrong. A spokeswoman for NASA-JPL said the story ran for hours after she informed CNN that the there was no 10-mile asteroid headed for Earth, at least as far as NASA knows.

Before they pulled the post, Keith Cowing of NASA Watch captured a screenshot showing the CNN logo and a headline, “Giant Asteroid Possibly on Collision Course with Earth.”

Here’s a bit from Cowing’s screen grab:

The asteroid is calculated to have a potentially lethal encounter with the Earth on March 35, 2041. Astronomers have placed the odds of an impact at 1 in 2.04, which is by far the most unprecedented risk ever faced to humanity, let alone from asteroids.

The grammar is wonky. The style suggests the writer might be lampooning overblown science writing.

The message is clear enough. It’s not a nice thing to contemplate the first day back at work after a three-day holiday weekend, but the good news is that it looks like the only impact story here is the fact that the cable news network has slammed the Earth with an enormous bolide of B.S.

The post is from iReports, which is apparently an experiment in citizen journalism. CNN lets random people with no qualifications post stories under the CNN banner. The asteroid scare illustrates the hazard of this approach.  

Apparently ireporters don’t need to reveal their names. The asteroid report’s author has called himself, or herself, Marcus575. The story says the giant asteroid was spotted by a project called the Near-Earth Object Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), which really exists. The date for the lethal encounter is March 25, 35, 2041.

According to Seth Borenstein, who tipped off the Tracker, the alarming post was up for 22 hours. By that time, he noted, it had had more than 200000 visits and 22000 shares. Helping boost the hits were tags: gaming, stocks, science, cyrus, beiber, Obama. If you Google CNN and asteroid you will find dozens of people have already reposted the “news” with comments and some concern.

I emailed Keith Cowing to find if there was any NASA announcement that might have been misinterpreted or distorted.  Apparently not. “As for what happened: (my guess) long weekend combined with lax review standards,” he said. That's lax standards at CNN, that is.

It looks like a prank. Marcus575 put some thought into making it read like a real news story, if not a particularly well written one.

And like most hoaxes, there’s a lesson in it.  CNN has not responded to a request for comment. The Tracker would also welcome comments from Marcus575.

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