Fake news was still a thing before the phrase became a thing. This story I originally ran in 2011 is a great example of some of the elements which have become so high profile. I’ve since written more about the topic, including this feline tale, in Bad News.
Even if you follow the news only lightly, the chances are you’ve seen a story in the last few days about how a cat received a jury summons in the US and, when the owners pointed out it was a cat, the local bureaucracy ordered the cat to turn up to court anyway.
So far, so normal as far as daft bureaucrats go?
Well, not quite. Because you don’t exactly have to be a fan of American judicial bureaucracy to stop and think, “Is it really true that the person organising the jury just ignored it when someone told them they had summoned a cat?”
Nor is it hard to think of possible explanations for the story. Perhaps it was a case of someone putting a cat down as a joke or a mistake on a form? That after all is the explanation for the occasional stories in the UK about baby / animal being sent a polling card – an adult filled in a form for their household wrong. Of course, ‘person gets form wrong and then rings media to say how stupid the council is for having acted on the wrong information they’d given’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘stupid council gives votes to babies’.
Or perhaps there was good reason to suspect that someone was trying to dodge jury duty by pretending to be a cat – so summon them anyway?
And so on.
Or you can ignore all these possibilities and rush into print with the story.
The problem with that approach? Clue: involves egg and face.
Because the full story turns out to be that no, this isn’t a new story (it first did the rounds a year ago and has started off again for some reason), yes someone did put a cat down wrongly on a form and no, nobody demanded a cat turn up to court even after being told it was a cat.
“Sal Esposito,” the cat belonging to two East Boston residents, was mistakenly called for jury duty in December 2009 because his owners had listed him as a family member on a city census, said Jury Commissioner Pamela Wood. He was set to appear in March 2010. The error, she says, was quickly corrected…
Wood says it’s possible one outlet began the recent stampede when it found the year-old article and mistook January 2010 for January 2011.
And as for the details in several of the stories about why the appearance of the cat had been demanded? That has a rather prosaic answer too; having discovered their error when their cat was summoned, the owners looked for the most sensible option to tick on the summons to explain why the cat should not be summoned. Unsurprisingly, “I’m not a human, I’m a cat” wasn’t an option, so they ticked the ‘can’t speak English’ option. That in turn triggered a response to turn up anyway so the claim could be put to the test. Oh, and yes – it all got sorted without the cat having to turn up.
All rather boring, straight-forward and old: last year someone filled out a form wrong; it got sorted.
I think there are two lessons from this. One is about the problem of churnalism – journalists recycling information found elsewhere with very little additional reporting or fact-checking of their own. When a dud story gets fed into the system, this is the sort of outcome to expect.
The other is that both journalists and consumers of news often treat these light-hearted stories rather like after-dinner speeches. You laugh at the funny stories in the good speeches, you expect them to have some relationship to the truth – but if really pushed to stop and think about it, you know that the chances are the story isn’t an accurate account of what really happened, having been embellished to add to the humour.
The big difference, of course, is that after-dinner speeches don’t come with the label “news”. Even recognising the pressures on journalists to get stories out, this wasn’t journalism’s finest hour. But hey, it got more photos of a cute kitten punted all around the internet and the internet always needs more of those.
Find out more about such stories and how to sort the truth from the distortions in my book, Bad News.