2015 In Review: When Mainstream Media Passes Along Misinformation

Gizmodo’s year-end roundup of 76 Viral Images From 2015 That Were Totally Fake includes one school-related meme that was shared widely (including by some reputable news outlets) before it was debunked by Mother Jones.

Number 24 on the Gizmodo fake news list tells us that while these school lunches are presented as typical meals around the world, “these staged photos are far from an honest depiction” and were in fact the product of a well-intended but misleading campaign to encourage US parents and schools to provide more healthy offerings to school-aged kids.

According to Mother Jones (The Truth About School Lunches Around the World), the ad campaign was “a compelling argument against the puny resources spent on school lunch in the United States, where, once labor and overhead are accounted for, schools get less than a dollar per daily lunch to spend on ingredients.”  But it was misleading and lacked transparency. 

Take for example the idealized French lunch vs. an actual one:

The issue here isn’t so much that viral memes are sometimes misleading — we know that, or at least we should — but rather that news outlets and other trusted information sources need to be careful about sharing out these tasty morsels of compelling content without at least (a) a cursory check of the accuracy, (b) a word of warning to readers about being cautious, or (c) an indication of where the information is coming from.

That’s not easy to do in today’s hair-trigger social media sharing world but it should be something that media organizations (and even folks like me) consider — especially since once the news gets shared it’s rarely corrected.

Vox wasn’t the only one — and others (including Jon Stewart) have passed on inaccurate/unchecked information on much more important issues. Off the top of my head, the more serious instances in which information has been passed on that later turned out to be factually inaccurate or incomplete include (a) Jon Stewart on education spending, (b) Hillary Clinton on charter schools, (c) testing critics on parents opting kids out of school last spring, (d) Slate on teacher evaluations, and (d) FiveThirtyEight on a couple of things. I’m sure there are other instances — share them in comments or tweet them at me at @thegrade_? 

Related posts:Quick Response From Slate To ErrorsClinton Charter Critique Faulted By FactCheck;Despite Occasional Errors, FiveThirtyEight Still HelpfulThat 300,000 Student Estimate Used By Some NY Outlets Was Way Off The MarkFour Pinocchios for Jon Stewart on Education Spending.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.