News of a teen pregnancy pact in Massachusetts is only the latest in several high-profile stories that turned out to be mostly or totally based on myths.
Time magazine, as part of a cover story on teen pregnancy, reported on a "pregnancy pact" among girls in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Seventeen girls at Gloucester High School all became pregnant at about the same time, a rate far higher than expected. In an interview, the school's principal said that the teens had made an agreement with each other that they would all become pregnant and raise their children together.
The sensational story made headlines, and the town's mayor quickly quashed the idea of such a pact, saying that "beyond the statement of the principal, we have no evidence there was a pact."
One of the girls, appearing on "Good Morning America," also refuted the rumor: "There was definitely no pact," she said. "There was a group of girls already pregnant that decided they were going to help each other to finish school."
It's not clear if the principal or the Time reporter first claimed that a "pact" existed, but wherever it originated, it was based on little more than rumor.
We've been down this media path before.
An international crisis arose in April 2001, when news came out of Cotonou, Benin, that a Nigerian ship carrying hundreds of child slaves was lost at sea. The passengers, children bound for slave work on cocoa plantations, were on a rusting, dangerous boat that lacked fresh food and water.
The story made news around the world, and alarmed politicians, journalists, and aid workers scrambled to rescue the poor children.
For several days the fate of the ship was unclear: Had it sunk? Had it returned to port? Government authorities appealed for help from Britain and France, both of which had navy ships in the area.
Finally the slave ship docked in Cotonou on April 16. Relief workers rushed to the ship to rescue the malnourished slave children. Instead of a ramshackle boat in danger of sinking, they found a clean ferry in good condition, with a fresh coat of paint, drinking water, and refreshments. Where were the hundreds of slaves?
As it turns out, the slave ship did not exist; it was only a rumor repeated by UNICEF officials and reported by the news media as fact.
Columbine's trenchcoat mafia
In the days following the shootings at Columbine High School, the news media descended on the school, searching for new angles on the story.
One student, Mike Smith, told reporters he was a point guard for the Columbine basketball team. Reporters asked him about the shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. Smith told the press that the pair were part of a "Trenchcoat Mafia," who were bullied while school officials ignored the problem. Many news outlets, including USA Today, ran the story without checking the facts.
Mike Smith was not who he claimed to be; the stories he told were made up, and in fact there was no Columbine student named Mike Smith.
Furthermore, though there was a so-called Trenchcoat Mafia at Columbine, they were a loose-knit group of gamers, not involved in threats or violence at all. Nor were Harris and Klebold ever members of the Trenchcoat Mafia. Yet the rumors were reported as fact.
Why it happens
Rumors make news for several reasons.
Sometimes it's simply sloppy reporting. Often, the pressure of trying to be first on the air with some new scoop or breaking news leaves little time for fact-checking.
Because of increased competition and declining TV ratings, all too often news departments would rather be first with a story than be right about it.
There's nothing wrong with journalists reporting rumors (when clearly noted as such) or quoting misinformed sources (as long as the information is verified). But, as first-year journalism students are told, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about the media reporting myth as fact in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.