A “citizen journalist” has posted an article on CNN claiming that a Manhattan-sized killer asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. It looks like the claimed 2041 encounter is not going to happen and that the story is a fake. The article, which mentioned a giant asteroid being on a possible collision course with Earth, went up in CNN’s iReport section on May 26. An obvious issue with that article attracted some unwanted attention.
Supposedly, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientists using NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite had detected an asteroid measuring 10 miles across some 51 million miles from Earth. The estimated day of impact, March 35, might have been a typographical error or perhaps a hint that the article was not intended to be taken seriously.
CNN pulled the article after 22 hours, but the article was up long enough to have an impact. A screen capture of the article, shared on CNET.com showed 3,000 shares, and over 55,000 views. Some online publications also linked to the story. A piece on Salon.com cites 24,000 shares on Facebook alone and over 500,000 views. There is no way of knowing how many people took the story seriously, or how many reported it to CNN. There is also no information on whether recent news stories about near misses by asteroids may have given credibility to the fake story.
Members of the public can post their news reports to iReport without the usual review and fact-checking that goes into regular news articles. CNN states that iReport stories are not fact-checked or screened in any way. However, CNN’s site does report that the most compelling and important iReports might be reviewed and then used in regular CNN coverage.
When a CNN article on iReport has issues like the piece on the killer asteroid, there is a self-correcting mechanism. CNN iReporters, as the citizen journalists are called there, can file a report. Anything that seems to violate the community’s rules and guidelines can be reviewed and removed by CNN moderators.
In a written statement, CNN stated that they had communicated with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and confirmed that the story was a hoax. JPL also reported that the largest object found by NEOWISE is only three kilometers across and poses no threat to Earth. The statement also indicated that the article was flagged for removal by the community.
The NEOWISE mission to detect near-earth objects (NEOs), those passing within 28 million miles of Earth, began in 2010. The satellite has helped NASA scientists identify 135 NEOs, 34,000 asteroids, and 21 comets.
The story may have gained some credibility from recent, real news about asteroids that either crossed Earth’s orbit or passed close by. Asteroids buzzed the earth at least two times in late 2013. Earlier this year, a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring dozens and breaking thousands of windows. At least two NEOs made the news earlier in 2014, one in March and one in February.
A fake CNN iReport article on a killer asteroid had issues that gave it away, causing it to be removed by CNN moderators. This was a high-profile failure of citizen journalism, but one that was corrected by the iReport community.
By Chester Davis