Monday, February 12, 2007

A Hoax by Any Other Name

Bad media writing alert!

On February 1, Boston police arrested Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky for having put up several LED display devices around Boston. The men were charged with placing a "hoax" device intended to cause panic.

Media coverage of the resulting "bomb-scare" in Boston and of the case against the two suspects—specifically, the different treatments of the word "hoax" in headlines and articles—reveals how frighteningly easy it is for news writers to mislead readers and influence opinion out of sheer carelessness with language.

Let's start with a look at the word "hoax". Merriam-Webster defines it as "to trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often preposterous". The Free Dictionary says "1. An act intended to deceive or trick. 2. Something that has been established or accepted by fraudulent means". Given the context—harmless devices mistaken for bombs—the word "hoax" implies that the people who created the devices and placed them where pedestrians and motorists would see them intended to scare people.

It's pretty clear that wasn't anyone's intention. The devices were part of a marketing campaign by Interference, Inc. to advertise Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network program Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

We'll probably never know whether anyone involved ever raised a hand and said, "Hey, what are people gonna think when they see these unfamiliar devices with wires hanging off them, mounted in strange places like freeway underpasses and bridges?" Turner bought its way out of having to answer such questions for $2 million (to compensate the city of Boston for the expense of deploying emergency crews, and to ease the sting of the traffic tie-ups caused by the scare).

But even if someone did say something like that at some point, and even if that person got silenced or brushed off, what's the likelihood that anyone intended the devices to look like bombs?

It's interesting to see how different media sources handled the word "hoax". Some referred directly to the wording of the charges, for example CNN's headline: "Two plead not guilty to Boston hoax charges". The article reports that Judge Paul K. Leary maintained that the D.A. would have to prove the suspects' intent to cause a panic, which didn't appear to be the case (though he said the issue should be discussed at a later hearing). So this story was in fact about charges of a hoax, not about a hoax. Fair enough.

The Christian Science Monitor put the phrase "bomb hoax" in quotes, which seems to invite appropriate skepticism. However, the article does not question whether the incident was a hoax; in fact, it privileges that interpretation by giving this quote from Gov. Deval Patrick: "It's a hoax – and it's not funny." The article ends with a reminder about the guy who faked an anthrax-powder alert and a lament about fraudulent fundraising e-mails that sap productivity at work, prefaced by this sentence: "Hoaxes and fake terror alerts can cost big money." Forget about inviting readers to question whether there was a hoax; CSM seems to want them to think there was, and to augment their disapproval based unrelated incidents. That strikes me as overtly manipulative as well as inaccurate.

Even more inaccurate is the The Huffington Post headline: "Time Warner Group Apologizes for Boston Bomb Hoax". The wording of that apology specifically reads: "We...certainly did not set out to perpetrate a hoax." Obviously, you can't apologize for something by saying you didn't do it. TWG spokespeople are referring to the incident as a "guerilla marketing campaign" and have never confessed to or apologized for attempting a hoax.

ABC's blog, The Blotter, featured this careless—and cryptic—headline: "Boston Bomb Hoax Blamed on TV Stunt." Huh? "Blamed" implies uncertainty as to who or what did it; some people blame X, some people blame Y. "TV Stunt" suggests something that happened on TV. Every word of that headline is muddy, except maybe "Boston" and "on". The strangest treatment, though, was the headline, which put bomb in quotes, but not hoax. The headline reads: Man arrested for marketing "bomb" hoax. That one makes my "head" spin. (It also suggests that the man was arrested for marketing a bomb hoax.)

I noticed that on Jan. 31, the day before the two men were arrested and charged, NPR featured this headline: "Misconstrued Publicity Stunt Shuts Down Boston". Now that's an accurate and descriptive headline. Too bad so many news reporters were bamboozled by the sloppy wording of the charge—and too bad so much slanted and inaccurate writing happened as a result.

Here's the little dude who scared the pants off Boston. He's a Mooninite, and he's flipping you off.

Here's a video showing how the devices were made and installed.

(Globe Staff Photo / George Rizer)
Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, who claim that their work is "guerilla art". That's another semantic issue altogether... At their press conference, Sean and Peter refused to answer any questions that were not about hair.

(AP Photo/Turner Broadcasting, Edward M. Pio Roda)
The fall guy: Jim Samples, Cartoon Network executive vice president and general manager, sent this e-mail message to his colleagues: "I deeply regret the negative publicity and expense caused to our company as a result of this campaign. As General Manager of Cartoon Network, I feel compelled to step down, effective immediately, in recognition of the gravity of the situation that occurred under my watch." He'd been at Turner Broadcasting for 13 years. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino commented, "Someone had to pay."

Technorati digg co.mments

No comments: