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Stolen Batmobile: How to Evaluate the Veracity of a Rumor

Craig Silverman (@craigsilverman) is an entrepreneurial journalist and a leading expert on media errors, accuracy and verification. He is currently a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and recently launched Emergent.info, a real-time rumor tracker. Craig edited the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Center and is the founder and editor of Regret the Error, a blog about media accuracy and the discipline of verification. It is now part of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, where Craig serves as adjunct faculty. He previously served as director of content for Spundge and helped launch OpenFile, an online local news startup that delivered community-driven reporting in six Canadian cities. Craig is also the former managing editor of PBS MediaShift and has been a columnist for The Globe And Mail, Toronto Star, and Columbia Journalism Review. He is the author of two award-winning non-fiction books, Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech and Mafiaboy: A Portrait of the Hacker as a Young Man.

On September 12, 2014 the website BleedingCool.com reported that the Batmobile had been stolen from a film set in Detroit.

At the time of the report, the new Batman v Superman movie was filming in Detroit. So the Batmobile was indeed in town. But had it been stolen? The site’s story largely consisted of two paragraphs:

The scuttlebutt from sources in Detroit is that one of the Batmobile models being used in the filming of Batman Vs. Superman has gone missing, believed stolen.

It would not be the first time a Batmobile has been nicked in Detroit. Though that was just a $200 replica of the TV Series version back in 2o10[sic].

The report was based on unnamed “sources,” and offered no other evidence to support the claim. The sources were also only identified as being in Detroit.

That didn’t stop the claim from spreading to other comics websites, including CosmicbookNews and theouthousers.com.

The story might have remained an unsourced rumor on a comics websites, but it was soon picked up by the website of the local CBS station:

A website is reporting that the Batmobile, from the upcoming Batman v. Superman flick, has gone missing in Detroit… and is presumed stolen. If this is true I could only imagine seeing it driving down 696 in rush hour. ...Does this person — if the rumor is true (we don’t know how credible the source is) — think that he or she can just go cruising around in this car no one will notice?

Two other local news organizations were aware of the report — but they took a very different approach.

Rather than repeat the unsourced report, The Detroit Free Press assigned reporters to contact people on-set for confirmation, and they also reached out to the police.

At the Detroit News, they also received word about a stolen Batmobile, and they too reached out to the police and the production.

“We wanted to do our own reporting,” said Dawn Needham, a digital news editor at The Detroit News. “We saw reports that it had been stolen, but also saw a Tweet that seemed to indicate it might not be true. We called police, tried to contact the production company, followed the string on social media.” Within a few hours of the initial report going live at BleedingCool.com, the Free Press published a story about the supposedly stolen Batmobile. Headlined, “Batmobile stolen in Detroit? Good one, joker!” it debunked the rumor.

“Holy Motor City gossip! The rumored theft of the Batmobile in Detroit appears to be a false alarm,” it reported.

The story quoted Detroit police spokesman Sgt. Michael Woody saying,“The Batmobile is safe in the Batcave where it belongs.”

At the same time other sites had chosen to re-report the claim from BleedingCool.com, the Free Press and News both elected to wait and make calls to sources that could offer a definitive answer. in this case, it was the local police and the film’s on-set publicity representatives.

In cases where information has already been published or is circulating on social media, journalists and others have to decide if they will repeat the rumor, or choose to hold back. In cases where the rumor could cause panic or harm, it’s essential to wait and work for confirmation. But what about when the information is of a light-hearted nature, as with a supposedly stolen Batmobile?

The decision making process at the Free Press and Detroit News both involved examining the original source of the rumor in order to judge whether the rumor itself was credible, and therefore worth sharing in the early stages.

It was easy to see why the BleedingCool.com article didn’t meet the standard for dissemination:

  • The author of the post is based in London, England and did not have a track record for delivering scoops about this film shoot in Detroit.
  • The report cited “scuttlebutt from sources in Detroit,” but gave no other details of the source of the information.
  • There was no evidence to support the claim.
  • The site bears this small disclaimer text at the bottom of every page: “Disclaimer: This site is full of news, gossip and rumour. You are invited to use your discretion and intelligence when discerning which is which. BleedingCool.com cannot be held responsible for falling educational standards. Bleeding Cool is neither fair nor balanced, but it is quite fun.”

Two newspapers decided to wait and reach out to credible sources. CBS Detroit and others, however, ran with the rumor right away. The CBS story did note that an effort had been made to secure information from the police:

Our brother station WWJ put a call into the Detroit Police Department to see if there is any truth to this. (Update! As of 4 p.m., police were saying they hadn’t heard about this, but were looking into it).

That was the last update made on the story. As of today, it still reports the rumor as being possibly true, even though the Free Press story debunking the rumor went online just a few hours later the same day.

“Holy crap, Batman -- look what happened to a a once-distinguished news organization,” noted a post from Detroit news site Deadline Detroit.



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