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Monday, June 15, 2009

Live by new media ...

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 1:31 PM

Word comes from John Robinson of the National Weather Service of a hoax tornado call that made it to TV air in Northwest Arkansas during last week's round of storms. The FBI is on the case.

He wasn't seeking news coverage of the episode. He thinks, as with bomb scares, it could encourage copycats to talk about it. But I think it's news worth reporting -- by way of warning if nothing else. With email, texting, Twitter, etc., the public is wired directly to the computers of trigger-fingered news editors.

Be first? Or first be right? It's actually not a new choice.


By now, many of you already know what I'm going to talk about below.  I'm sending this in case you have not heard about it, not because we want any stories done about this.  In fact, our view is that, if stories do show up in the media, it might very well encourage copycats to try the same thing.

On Friday, just as a tornado warning for Benton County was about to expire, someone notified a TV meteorologist, reporting a tornado near Bella Vista.  There was an e-mail exchange of at least a couple of messages.  Some of the specific information was:

- "Thank you for forwarding it to the NWS"
- "I am watching this MOVE RIGHT NOW!  I have 2 people in my Ford and it is moving very slow...2 MINUTES AWAY FROM PEA RIDGE NATIONAL PARK...IT JUST TOOK OUT A McDONALDS
- He also forwarded an old picture of a tornado as proof, but fortunately the picture had an AP copyright on it.

This whole thing was a complete HOAX!  Aside from what is shown above, the person also sent a second message concerning "Highway 79".  There is no such highway in northwest Arkansas.  While it's true that the bogus picture had "AP" on it in the corner, you had to enlarge the picture to really be able to see the AP logo.

I know that the information from the hoax was aired on at least one TV station, and I know that the person who aired it feels really awful about the whole situation.

Anyway, information on the hoax has been turned over to the FBI.

To my knowledge, we have had very few hoaxes like this over the years, although I do remember one about 15 years ago.  I can't help but wonder, with all the means of communications now available, if we will see more of these in the future.

Aside from the hoax aspect, we are seeing more and more cases where information gets thoroughly twisted before it gets to us or the media.  A good example was, ironically, also on this past Friday.  We began to get reports of a gas station that had been hit by a tornado.  Nine people were supposed to be inside. The initial report said it was a BP station in Lonoke County, but the exact location was unknown.  The next report said it was the BP station at Highways 5 and 89.  I knew that couldn't be right, because the station at that corner is a Valero, and the next closest one is a Citgo.  Finally, the location of the BP station was narrowed down to Highways 5 and 319.  Only thing was, most of the report was completely incorrect.  Although there were nine people in the station, they were taking shelter there; the station was not damaged.  A tree had fallen on Highway 319 nearby and that was the extent of the damage in the immediate vicinity.  Altogether, five people from the NWS viewed damage in that area, and it was clearly from thunderstorm winds, not a tornado.

We try to double-check the really big reports that we get before we send them out.  In this respect, we'd rather be right than be first.  Still, sometimes a bad report gets by us, especially if it's in a rural area where there are unlikely to be any corroborating reports.

Again, the purpose of this message is to bring the problem to your attention, not to generate any media stories.

John Robinson

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