The Top 5 Most Erroneous Media Headlines

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Whether they incorrectly reported election results or announced the death of someone who was still alive, the most erroneous headlines erode confidence in the press. Blame it on deadlines. In a rush to meet them, journalists sometimes make the decision to go with a story even if the sources behind it are sketchy at best. Blame it on competition. Every news organization wants to be the first to break a story, and sometimes that massive headline turns out to be wrong. Everyone makes mistakes—but not everyone’s mistakes end up being seen by millions of people.

5 “Kerry’s Choice: Dem Picks Gephardt as VP Candidate”

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During the 2004 presidential election, the nation anxiously awaited the announcement of democratic candidate John Kerry’s running mate. None were quite as anxious, it would seem, as the “New York Post,” who decided to run a full front page announcing Dick Gephardt as Kerry’s choice for vice president, claiming an “exclusive” story. Why a presidential candidate would choose to officially announce his selection for running mate in the “New York Post” is perhaps anybody’s guess, and few were surprised when the headline turned out to be false. Kerry announced John Edwards as his choice on “The Today Show” the same morning the Post hit newsstands. The Post’s editor-in-chief issued a statement that he had relied on information from an undisclosed source that turned out to be inaccurate.

4 “Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Dead”

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It was almost understandable. People wanted answers after a gunman opened fire while Representative Gabrielle Giffords met with constituents outside an Arizona shopping center. NPR, relying on reports from two different government agencies, reported that Giffords was dead after having been shot in the head. Fortunately, the representative was not dead—in fact, she was still in surgery when the report was released. Unfortunately, the story was picked up by other news organizations, with all three major news networks running stories about the incident and reporting Giffords’ death. Everyone who’d reported the erroneous news apologized as soon as the truth was known, blaming the current media environment for the reason the false story spread so quickly.

3 “Passengers Safely Moved and Steamer Titanic Taken in Tow”

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On April 15, 1912, the luxurious and “unsinkable” Titanic struck an iceberg. Less than three hours after impact, the ship had sunk, and 1,517 passengers and crew members on board lost their lives. That same day, the “Christian Science Monitor” told a different story, reporting all on board had been rescued and the ship was being towed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. From the story itself, it seemed apparent the paper had received its information from officials at White Star, the company that owned the vessel. The Monitor wasn’t the only news organization to falsely report that all on board had been rescued, however. “London’s Daily Mail” reported on April 16 that though the ship had sunk, everyone had been safely evacuated.

2 “Dewey Defeats Truman”

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It was two days after election day in 1948, and Harry Truman, victorious after perhaps the greatest upset in political history, was making the triumphant journey to the White House from his home in Independence, Missouri. In St. Louis, a supporter handed him a two-day old copy of the “Chicago Tribune,” and Truman broke into a broad grin as he held the paper aloft. “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the erroneous headline proclaimed. The Tribune based its reporting on polls predicting a Dewey win despite the fact that results from polls on the east coast had not yet been reported. The paper corrected the error in later editions, and their mistake may have disappeared from memory were it not for that iconic photo.

1 “Alive!”

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In 2006, the nation was gripped by the plight of 12 coal miners trapped underground in West Virginia. In the early morning of January 4, news broke that the men had perished—three hours after major U.S. newspapers like the “New York Times” and the “Washington Post” had all run stories under headlines broadly proclaiming they were all alive. Reporters at the scene ran with the story, interviewing overjoyed family members who’d been waiting and hoping, only to have those same hopes dashed a few hours later. As for why the stories ran, newspaper editors had little explanation to offer, claiming they’d received the information from family members of the trapped miners.

Jennifer Mueller has been writing professionally since 1995, when she began writing a bi-monthly column for "This Week in WNC." Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from the Indiana University School of Law.

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