Charlton Asda: How a lie about a fire fooled The Guardian
In the small hours of Tuesday morning, I wrote about how the News Shopper’s website was spreading false rumours about Charlton’s Asda superstore being set alight during the looting spree in the adjacent retail parks. I passed close by Asda during the incident, and live nearby. While I saw looters running around and driving off, there was no sign or smell of anything on fire.
The lie spread via Twitter, of course….
A tweet saying Charlton ASDA is on fire. Please god no—
Yolkie (@yolkie_) August 08, 2011
…and this message from an “anonymous Fleet Street reporter” didn’t help matters either.
So the News Shopper went with it, without checking it out.
They weren’t they only ones, though. This is what the Bexley Times published a little earlier:
The report was cobblers, of course, and an undamaged store was open for business later on Tuesday morning. But the story kept going around, now partly powered by word of mouth.
Right, so charlton already did get run up on. They burnt down the asda there and people were looting from all the shops.¬¬—
;msmunoz. (@SenoritaMunoz) August 09, 2011
News Shopper reporter Mark Chandler wasn’t best pleased that I’d pulled his paper up on its inaccurate reporting…
Hey-ho. You can’t be friends with everyone. But both the News Shopper and the Bexley Times are still carrying the erroneous reports of a fire at Charlton’s Asda, and made no attempt to clarify the misleading report. On a frantic night like Monday, social media amplified a whirlwind of rumours which would have happened anyway – one caller to LBC falsely reported fire at McDonalds in Woolwich, for example. A Woolwich-based BBC producer talking to the BBC News channel speculated that rioters could have come from north of the river through the foot tunnel – the same tunnel that’s been shut for a year.
It happens. But journalists are supposed to sift the wheat from the chaff. That’s their job. The News Shopper and Bexley Times didn’t, and fuelled the lie about the Charlton Asda “fire”. I’ve worked in online media, and I know only too well that fast-moving news stories can sometimes lead to mistakes. “Never wrong for long” is the best slogan – take it down, acknowledge a mistake, let it go.
So, fast forward to Friday. I’ve just been looking at the Guardian’s riot map – “every verified incident” – and guess what?
The link which “verifies” the report? The News Shopper’s inaccurate story, which remains live. They should have read the Charlton Champion. If local papers aren’t doing their job properly, how can you trust exercises which depend on them, like the Guardian’s map?
Incidentally, while writing this, News Shopper publisher Newsquest has been patting itself on the back for its reporting during the riots, although this didn’t extend to providing the Shopper’s reporters with web servers that kept their site online to cope with the demand. According to industry journal Press Gazette:
Newsquest South London web manager Paul Jones said: “It was an incredible effort by everyone involved, from reporters and photographers in the thick of it to the newsroom posting things as they happened.
“We were determined to be the trusted source of information. While others were publishing rumours from Twitter as fact, we checked every piece of information we found before posting.
Doesn’t look like it, does it, Paul?
UPDATE SUNDAY: Neighbour Matt Clinch writes for the Charlton Champion about the effect the false Asda fire story had on him and his housemates: “I was in a state of shock at this point, I could hear shop sirens wailing in the distance. We had been on hold to the police for fifteen minutes before we spoke to someone. They kept on repeating the same question, ‘Is anything on fire?’”