Some Notes on Mail Online‘s Oxford Circus “Lorry on the Pavement” Error

From Mail Online (since deleted):

Hundreds have been evacuated from Oxford Circus tube station amid reports of gunshots.

Armed police have arrived on scene after a gunman was reported to have fired shots.

Witnesses at the scene described seeing a lorry on the pavement surrounded by police as if it had ‘ploughed’ into pedestrians.

Next to the lorry, the pavement was said to be covered in blood.

… Dan Smallbone said on Twitter: ‘There is a lorry stopped on the pavement in Oxford street, police all around it and blood on the floor, it’s definitely the aftermath of something maybe just a crash but nothing on the news.’

Fortunately, social media users quickly noticed that Smallbone’s Tweet in fact dated from 14 November, and thus had nothing to do with last night’s panic; Buzzfeed notes that it apparently referred to a mundane accident involving a window cleaner. Mail Online then deleted the above from its developing coverage, along with associated Tweets.

Shades here of the Daily Mail‘s infamous “Amanda Knox looked stunned after she dramatically lost her prison appeal” article from 2011 – the pressure to be first with the news resulting in a serious error that could have been avoided with just a few minutes spent double-checking and casting an editorial eye over the copy. Is this pressure part of the media landscape, or is it specific to the culture of Mail titles? Some other sources spoke prematurely of an “attack” or a “shooting”, but this “lorry” story is particularly egregious.

In this instance, the error was made worse by the presentation. The word “ploughed” appeared in quote marks, even though it does not appear in Smallbone’s Tweet. Where did it come from, then? This, and the plural “witnesses”, heavily implied multiple sources – when in fact there were none.

The reference to Smallbone’s Tweet was simply an error; but suppose some mischief-maker or attention-seeker had decided to concoct something? It does not do to refer to unconfirmed reports as “witnesses at the scene described…”, and there ought to be some circumspection about publicising anything unconfirmed when it comes to incidents where spreading false information may cause distress or inflame a situation.

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