Saturday, June 21, 2008

Who Pranked CBS?

The Tom Chalko Global Warming = More Earthquakes story grows ever weirder. I am now beginning to suspect that a deliberate attempt to prank CBS was involved. But first some background:

On June 18, posted a story claiming that global seismic activity on Earth is now five times more energetic than it was just 20 years ago because of global warming. The story had no byline, but was attributed to the Associated Press. The story was identical to a June 17 Market Wire press release attributed to Tom Chalko, the scientist that made the claim of the earthquake/global warming link.

Of course, the science behind Chalko's study turned out to be, well, highly questionable, and soon Internet scorn was raining down on CBS and MSNBC (where a link can still be found). Eventually, CBS pulled the story and, as noted above, blamed everything on AP. However, AP has denied all responsibility and, indeed, searches of its online database reveal no reference to Chalko.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. Below is how the story appears on Marketwire (which is, incidentally, a commercial news release service that does not seem to practice much in the way of quality control):

"MT BEST, AUSTRALIA--(Marketwire - June 17, 2008) - New research compiled by Australian scientist Dr Tom Chalko shows that global seismic activity on Earth is now five times more energetic than it was just 20 years ago."

The MSNBC version looks the same, as do versions appearing in most other news outlets. But here's how it looks (or looked before it was pulled) on the CBS news site:

(AP) New research compiled by Australian scientist Dr. Tom Chalko shows that global seismic activity on Earth is now five times more energetic than it was just 20 years ago.

Note that an standard (AP) story will usally assign authorship to one of their writers. Furthermore, a .pdf of CBS's printable version shows what looks to be standard AP boilerplate

© MMVIII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

...but is really somewhat different from the stuff at the bottom of an actual AP release*:

2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.

So, maybe I've been hanging with Buckets for two long, but it seems unlikely that staff at CBS would have altered a Marketwire release to look like something from (AP). I would therefore wager that somebody outside of the company copped Chalko's Marketwire press release and reformatted it to look like an AP piece to give it enhanced credibility, then fired it off to CBS.

Not that this excuses CBS or anyone else (including G&M's website) who ran the story. In fact, next time you read something about the lack of journalistic standards in the blogosphere, think of the Tom Chalko story, and smile.

* Whoopsie. CBS (and it alone) DOES seem to use this alternative wording when they grab a story from (AP). First point (about the change of the opening paragraph) still holds, though.

Update: Given this, it appears that CBS does indeed re-format material from AP. So perhaps no prank, just stupidity--they mis-labelled a MarketWire release, perhaps because it doesn't seem they take to many stories from a mostly Canadian service.


papertiger said...

If I were to invent some fictitious Aleutian Islands that "sank" due to global warming, wrote it up nice and pretty, threw in some pictures of pathetic Inuit children looking off toward distant rooftops sticking out of the water, how much you want to bet I could get CBS to run it as a straight news story?

Make it worth my while. ;)

Unknown said...

"Given this, it appears that CBS does indeed re-format material from AP. So perhaps no prank, just stupidity--" - BCL

Likely a dedicated front pew warmer at CBS was responsible for handling this story. But multiple staffers must have been involved in editing, approving, posting this fantasy.

bigcitylib said...


You invent a study about your fictional Aleutian islands sinking; I'll invent a study about how I've refuted AGW by studying the length of mustaches on Australian aborigonal women over the past 2,000 years (or something). We both send them to Marketwire and see how much coverage we pick up.

Now that costs a couple $100. MW I believe charges by the word to distribute your news release. I'll agree to cover your costs up to $200 and give you an extra $100 if you get more coverage than me. You do the same. We'll set a date a month or two down the road and let er rip.

papertiger said...

I'll have to pass.
I'm not comfortable subsidizing a advertizing firm. It sounds like a lose/lose situation to me, giving money to a bunch of reporters for hire.
Besides it's a bit insulting that these news bozos don't find the plight of my Aleutian climate refugees newsworthy for it's own sake. Is this not a human interest story, chocked full of pathos, drama, and media buzz words like "indigenous peoples", "lost way of life", "catastrophic climate change"? (albeit totally fictional)

BCL, I like the concept, a "who slings the best bullshit" contest sounds like fun, just not the method of dissemination.