News from the Future


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Gavin Young
09 Sunday 09th October 2011

Steve Jobs died nearly a month ago, and Amanda Knox is back in jail - or so they'd have you believe.

Twitter is, as most of its users would argue, increasingly awesome. It's a way to get real-time facts, fresh information and/or updates on whether your friend's about to go take a dump. As they happen. However, we can't help but notice the slight flaw in that system: when 'news flashes' come up on the site without any grounding in reality, then get used as the basis for news reports, then get published as news.

As the digital age gives us ever more access to resources for fact-checking there are still several hilarious and sometimes horrifying instances when publications and sites click publish or go to print without double-checking. Hey, sometimes in the race to be first in line at the 'we already knew that story' queue, you might have a few hiccups on the way right? Well, yes. Just ask any member of the Daily Mail staff involved in the recent little blunder that inspired this whole piece...

We can only be talking about the Amanda Knox court verdict, of course. When the judge finally gave his verdict on her implication in the murder of Meredith Kercher last week, it turned out the ole Mail had its own story ready to publish if she'd been found guilty of the murder already. Its own story, replete with made-up quotes and soundbites. Awkward. Knox was, of course, in the process of appealing to have her conviction for the murder of Kercher over-ruled in what had become a massively high profile case. So when she was in fact found guilty of slander and not murder, it seems the online editor at the Daily Mail was too keen to hit 'publish' at the first snippet of the g-word.
Their overly dramatic and largely erroneous piece only lived on the internet for about ninety seconds, apparently, but was up long enough to be get picked up on by an SEO expert. Once this Malcolm Coles had blogged about it, well, the mainstream press joined ranks and the universal mocking tones hit live blogs from the Guardian to the UK's Press Gazette. Again, awkward. According to the Mail's own statement beside the newly-published piece, "The quotes were obtained from various parties in the event of either a guilty or not guilty verdict". Hmm. 
And this wasn't the only incident of misreported news in this week's main stories. Steve Jobs long battle with pancreatic cancer ended last week, and Silicon Valley's tech press were swift to get word out to the world. Perhaps a little too swiftly, in the case of Gizmodo, who unfortunately listed the Apple co-founder's death as September 9, 2011 - nearly a month before he passed. Was this another case of having copy ready a little early? Well, it's good to be prepared, I suppose.

This wasn't the earliest 'reported' death for Steve, either. Way back in 2008, Bloomsberg accidentally published their obituary on the man, complete with potential contacts for quotes. This was clearly written as an incomplete piece however - a template ready to be finished if the unfortunate event came. Gawker's editor Ryan Tate was quick to publish news of Bloomsberg's error. Yes, that's the same Gawker that owns Gizmodo. A case of stone-throwers forgetting about the fragile nature of their housing material, we feel.

CNN's baffling cut-and-paste obit for Castro, featuring snippets of Ronald Reagan's life
Premature obituaries have been hitting the press for a good few decades now though. Really, you'd be hard pressed to find better examples of how quickly a rumour can turn into a hoax into a news story. Over the years a whole host of celebrities have been given the thrill of reading about their own deaths on the internet and/or television news summaries. Though these kinds of reports were often rooted in a dark satire (see Founding Father Benjamin Franklin claiming his top rival had died), nowadays there seems to be a combination of relying on the nets anonymity and good old Chinese whispers reportage.
Some of our favourites? When in 2010 Queen Elizabeth II was jokingly reported dead after someone using her name on Facebook passed away. What kind of shoddy outfit would make such a glaring mistake? Only BBC Radio Midlands. Although it was meant as a prank, by many it was taken seriously. You know, as the BBC often is. From Bill Cosby's rumoured death trending twice on Twitter in the last year to Bob Hope's extraordinary luck at being falsely named dead twice in his lifetime, it seems easier to mess this one up than most of us would think. Look no further than CNN's mistakenly-published set of obituaries for everyone from Fidel Castro and Dick Cheney to Nelson Mandela, many of which bizarrely used the Queen Mother's details - Cheney's position as "the UK's favorite grandmother" might have been more suprising than his fake death.
Canadians trying to fight the information blackout. Probably on iPhones
While incorrectly publishing the news of an important figure's death can get weird, this next example of an attempt to regulate the gun-jumping is almost weirder. In Canadian law, (Section 329 of the Elections Act to be geekily precise) it pretty much states that in a country as wide as Canada you can't mess up the fun/crushing disappointment for everyone else by leaking election results across time zones
Since this fair isle is such a small one, when we all found out about the coalition government, that confusion/crushing disappointment came in one neat time zone. Canada's sprawling plains and forests and whatnot, however, have caused some big recent problems for political bloggers - generally politically-inclined Tweeters and random people who spilled the beans on Facebook. A Vancouver blogger was fined about £625 in the general election of 2000, and this year the 'Tweet The Results' campaign set out to flood the site with real-time results, in a protest against the planned 'blackout' of news. 
So, is this to become the best way to try and minimise stories breaking before they ought to? Given Section 329's inception in 1938 it would have been almost unimaginable then to think of the real-time consumption of news now. It'll be interesting to see whether other nations will look to tighten restrictions on jumping the gun, but until then we can still freely giggle at screen-grabs from errors past, can't we?

Don't Panic attempt to credit photographers and content owners wherever possible, however due to the sheer size and nature of the internet this is sometimes impractical or impossible. If you see any images on our site which you believe belong to yourself or another and we have incorrectly used it please let us know at and we will respond asap.