Amid the whirlwind that is a national breaking news story, one British teen wanted to see whether a major newspaper would publish utter lies.
Benjamin Wareing, 16, told a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The New York Times that he knew Dylann Roof, the suspected shooter in the killing of nine people in a Charleston church last week. He told the Times that Roof's racist manifesto that surfaced online was eerily similar to a Tumblr page Roof posted on, and noted that the alleged murderer is a fan of "My Little Pony."
But as Fusion points out, Wareing made it all up. He never knew Roof, never saw a Tumblr page -- and never provided proof of its existence to the Times -- and certainly didn't know whether Roof was a Brony.
Wareing had tricked The Gray Lady's Frances Robles into reporting this:
Benjamin Wareing, a blogger in Britain, said the writings are nearly identical to blog posts that Mr. Roof posted several months ago on a separate Tumblr page. Mr. Wareing was preparing to write an essay on the dangers of Tumblr and troubled youths, so he took notes on the writings.
“He just made really stupid but obvious statements about people from other races,” Mr. Wareing said in an email. “He would call black citizens ‘nuggets’ and such. He never made direct threats at all on Tumblr, at least it didn’t seem like that, just weird ramblings about how he felt he ‘didn’t fit in.’”
Among his writings were images of 9/11 “memes” and of “My Little Pony,” Mr. Wareing said.
The paragraphs were only available for a few hours, and Robles was working furiously to update the story during a time when every news outlet was trying to get exclusive information. Fusion reports that she updated her story more than a dozen times in 12 hours. But Wareing's trick shows just how hungry publications are, and how quickly reporters -- and their editors -- will grab at sexy information and overlook the verification process.
Wareing said on his own blog that a friend of his in South Carolina -- who was a "friend" of Roof's on Facebook but didn't know the suspect -- was getting hassled by reporters on social media who were eager for a scoop. So Wareing gave the Times' Robles some juicy information: the Tumblr anecdote, which was republished by several other news outlets.
"I told her that Dylann Roof had some ‘elusive’ and mysterious Tumblr page in which he posted his deepest thoughts," Wareing wrote. "Without providing any screenshots or ANY proof of its existence other than my own word, the reporter published it as fact. Oops."
Wareing also published email correspondence he had with Robles to back up his claims.
Wareing told The Huffington Post that no Times fact-checkers reached out before or after Robles' story was published. He said her final message to him said, "A few readers are telling me you were a hoax..."
"People could think that this was a joke or a lark, but it wasn’t,” Wareing told Fusion, noting that he wanted to be a reporter some day. “Our ultimate goal of this was to see if a reporter would publish something that was completely untrue.”
The Times story has since been corrected and the following note attached:
Editors’ Note: June 22, 2015
An earlier version of this article included a reference to a British blogger who claimed that Dylann Roof’s manifesto was similar to earlier blog entries Mr. Roof had written. That passage was removed from the article after questions were raised about the blogger and his claims. Subsequently, the blogger said in a post online that he had fabricated the information about Mr. Roof’s supposed earlier blog entries.
The New York Times declined to comment further.