Media take a fall for false Sidney Crosby story

Penguins center Sidney Crosby was not arrested while driving a rented Porsche in Ottawa, Canada, two days ago.

Despite newspaper reports and a blast of social media tweets and posts claiming otherwise, Mr. Crosby was not detained at a police station. In fact, he was training in Vail, Colo., when the alleged incident occurred.

Also, this just in from classic “Saturday Night Live”: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

“As far as we know, it was a completely manufactured nonstory, so it’s hilarious to watch how it exploded, as much as social media can explode at 5 o’clock in the morning,” said DJ Gallo, founder and editor of humor site

“By 5:30 it was all over and everyone was, ‘How did this just happen?’ ”

As far back as the age of town criers, the media have made mistakes. But never has it been so easy to take a fabricated story or the faked report of a celebrity death and send the news so quickly into the Twittersphere. As Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

In the case of Mr. Crosby, that the misinformation first appeared on several dozen English-language news websites under the Quebecor Media Inc. umbrella probably gave the green light for others to share.

“This is where we need to make sure there isn’t a rush to publish,” said Heather Starr Fiedler, an associate professor of multimedia at Point Park University. “The role of gatekeeper is paramount because we cannot expect the public to not share things.

“But I think people are getting smarter about sharing things that we know might not be credible.”

The original Crosby post appeared on numerous Sun Media sites sometime after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. About an hour later, Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau tweeted that his department “had no dealings with Mr. Crosby” and one of his officers, Sgt. Steven Hodgson, told 1310News in Ottawa that the story was “an out-and-out blatant lie.”

But across the Eastern U.S. and Canada, people were waking up to the startling news that straight arrow Crosby, according to “sources,” had been taken to Ottawa police headquarters for fingerprinting and a mug shot.

Although the story was removed from the websites of papers such as the Toronto Sun, the London Free Press and the Ottawa Sun, at least one version was still available via a mobile website late into the morning.

The story continued to spread on websites, through radio reports and social media even as Sun Media was posting this midmorning retraction: “Earlier today, QMI Agency [Sun Media’s national newswire] reported that Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby was arrested by Ottawa Police late Tuesday on driving-related charges. There was no basis for the story and QMI unreservedly retracts the story in its entirety. QMI regrets the error.”

Glenn Garnett, vice president of editorial for Sun Media, a subsidiary of QMI, said Wednesday that the matter was under investigation and that “lawyers are now involved.” He would not elaborate, citing the investigation. Nor would he say whether the story was written by a staffer, or whether it had been reviewed prior to posting.

“We are moving as quickly as we can to make this right,” he said, calling it a “very, very unusual situation.”

In a very rough week for real news — another journalist’s beheading, continuing racial tensions in Ferguson, Mo. — pundits jumped on the chance to lighten up with what looked like a faked story.

“In the grand scheme of life, this is really a sort of First World problem. It’s not changing our day,” Ms. Starr Fieldler said.

On Twitter, Mr. Crosby was trending nationally for a time. Mr. Gallo, who lives near Harrisburg, said he awakened about 4:30 (“I don’t know why; I guess my Absurd Media Sense went off”) and immediately came across a Montreal radio station’s tweet. Further investigation turned up a tweet from someone who had called the Ottawa police for confirmation and discovered they had no record of the incident.

“So, within five seconds of just me doing research on Twitter it was like, ‘Oh, this might not even be true,’ ” he said.

All morning, he posted funny tweets via @DJGalloEtc, including: “Should I run this story at 4 a.m. on the biggest sports star in our country getting arrested or quickly call local police to confirm? Run it.”

@AndrewBucholtz, Yahoo! Sports Canada’s Canadian Football League blogger, referred to a pop culture icon with his tweet: “What was QMI’s source on this one, a phone call from Bart Simpson?”

Mr. Gallo said the barbed tweets were aimed at the newspapers more out of respect. Holding QMI to a higher standard than celebrity news website TMZ makes the fall all the harder.

“This wasn’t some random fan blog where someone overheard someone at a party say Sidney Crosby had gotten arrested. This was a legitimate Canadian newswire.”

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478. Molly Born: or 412-263-1944. First Published September 3, 2014 8:50 AM

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