Pilgrim Bus Crash…Media Outlets "Staying Up Late" and Imagining Details of False News

Professionalism is always the first victim when some media outlets hasten to secure a scoop at the expense of accuracy and credibility. We are before an exceptionally sensitive case here. False reports related to this case have confused public opinion.

A false report that spoke about "19 dead and 20 injured in a Jordanian pilgrim bus crash" was posted by more than 30 news sites, and the websites of three daily newspapers, within the span of two hours without verifying its accuracy. It turned out later that the report, which media outlets copied from each other, was baseless. It was simply made up, with social media sites as the source.

At midnight on Monday, 19 April 2016, dozens of websites raced to publish a report about the death and injury of Jordanian pilgrims after an accident involving the bus that was transporting them on the Tabuk-Medina road. The report added that the injured had received medical care, while the dead were evacuated to Khaibar Hospital. The words "breaking news" appeared on the homepages of these sites, which continued to provide updates. The number of the dead and injured increased in the updates.

One report, after being updated (updating presumably needs further certainty), had the following headline: "Update…19 Dead and More Than 35 Injured Among Jordanian Pilgrims in Medina." The introduction of the report said: Fatalities among Jordanian pilgrims have increased to 19, while 36 others have been injured on Monday/Tuesday night after a bus carrying them to Medina crashed (the link to the report from the cached version has been removed after discovering the mistake).

Sources:

A number of newspapers and electronic sites, which reported this news, quoted sources to impart some credibility to it, but these sources were mostly vague. For example, they included sources within the Jordanian community in Saudi Arabia, Jordanian eyewitnesses, Jordanians residing in Saudi Arabia, sources quoting a medical source, a source at the Foreign Ministry, news reports, an informed source, and medical sources and eyewitnesses. The publishers of this news did not notice that there were no professional justifications at all, in this case, for hiding the identity of the source. What is it that could possibly prevent any of those who made statements from mentioning his name if he had a name?

The following are examples of the headlines of the news that was published:
10 Jordanians Dead in Pilgrim Bus Crash in Saudi Arabia
19 Dead in Jordanian Pilgrim Bus Crash in Medina
19 Dead, 20 Injured in Jordanian Pilgrim Bus Crash in Saudi Arabia
10 Jordanian Pilgrims Dead, Dozens Injured in Traffic Accident in Saudi Arabia
19 Dead, 30 Injured in Pilgrim Traffic Accident; Foreign Ministry Denies

In one of the published reports, we read the following: "Yousef al-Qudah, director of umrah (minor pilgrimage) affairs" said that the number of deaths among pilgrims is most probably higher than 15.

In fact, a certain site attributed a statement to Jamal al-Shamaylah, Jordanian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in which he said that "the injured are urgently in need of blood donation at Khaibar Hospital." He asked embassy staff in Riyadh, including Ayman al-Sarhan, head of the affairs of (Jordanian) nationals, and Ja"far al-Shoubaki from the Consulate General in Jeddah, to work closely with Saudi authorities.

Another site reported the following details in connection with the accident: Jordanian eyewitnesses stated that the bus veered off the road and hit a utility pole, which made it swerve to the other lane and hit a sedan and a pickup truck.

A fourth site said: A Foreign Ministry source has confirmed to (…) that there have been a number of fatalities, which could reach nine, and that 36 others have been injured when the bus carrying them crashed.

We read the following on a fifth site: Sources stated that the Jordanian community there called for a blood donation campaign for those injured in the accident. By the time this report was written, 30 Jordanians had arrived at Khaibar Hospital to donate blood. The sources quoted a medical source as saying that the number of fatalities is expected to rise as some of the injured are in serious condition.

A sixth site reported more details and sources. It attributed a statement to Engineer Haitham Khattab, head of the humanitarian and accidents committee at Nashama Forum, to (…), in which he said that the dead and injured have been evacuated to Khaibar Hospital, which requested large amounts of blood to treat the injured. Dozens of members of the Jordanian community have arrived at the hospital to donate blood and offer help.

A seventh site spoke about the types of injuries and attributed statements to sources in which they said that there were some serious injuries among the pilgrims. Meanwhile, Saudi Civil Defense vehicles and staff are on the scene transporting the injured to hospital.

We continue to read:

A source in the Jordanian community explained to (…) that personnel of the Jordanian community headed to the scene.
According to information received by (…), the dead and injured have been transferred to Khaibar Hospital.
The source pointed out that the Jordanian community there called for a campaign to donate blood to those injured in the accident. By the moment this report was written, 30 injured Jordanians had arrived at Khaibar Hospital.
Sources following up with Saudi authorities have confirmed the death of 10 pilgrims. The injured were given medical treatment, while the dead were taken to Khaibar Hospital.

It is noticeable that three daily newspapers committed a mistake and posted the news on their websites. Fortunately, according to what TV anchor Mamdouh Abu al-Ghanam posted on his Facebook page, the news reached those on duty at the news desk after midnight; however, they refused to broadcast it, pending its confirmation or denial from a competent agency. This prevented further confusion to public opinion.

All these alleged details published in dozens of media outlets about the news only needed one serious phone call with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, which denied it and confirmed that "there has been no accident involving a Jordanian pilgrim bus on Saudi soil." It added that "the news carried by a number of media outlets, without referring to an official source, is untrue. This has alarmed the families of pilgrims and made them fear for the lives of parents."

Jamal al-Shamaylah, Jordanian ambassador in Riyadh, also denied to a local radio station that a Jordanian pilgrim bus crashed, pointing out that this report had no truth whatsoever.

Further checks of the manner in which this news was published reveal that many sites did "copy and paste" from social media sites and other news sites without making any effort to verify the information. At best, they changed the places of phrases. If we exclude a small number of sites, the majority of sites that took the news from other media outlets failed to mention that.

As for contacting relevant agencies and sources, this was, in many cases, just an attempt to embellish the news and add some "accessories" to it. The fact that the agencies that were contacted did not confirm the accident did not prevent these outlets from publishing the news.

It is noticeable that we are faced with string of professional violations carried out by newspapers and sites in a highly sensitive case. The excuse could be that it was late at night, which prevented confirmation. However, this lack of confirmation was not enough to be satisfied, at least, with a preliminary report, pending confirmation. As we have seen, media outlets stayed up late practicing fleshing out imagined details.

The Jordanian Media Credibility Monitor wants to take a moment here to reflect on this unprofessional practice. It asks media outlets to not give up professional standards by yielding to the temptation of speed. They should also develop strict professional rules for handling user-generated content on social media networks and provide clear guidelines for verifying information before publishing it.

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