Red Flags: Watch for them to prevent ‘fake news’ from getting on your pages

Mar 13, 2017

By Kay Powell

Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary

If this hasn’t happened at your newspaper, chances are it will.

On Green Day Acres Funeral Home letterhead—complete with logo, local phone number and address in Lakewood, GA—a request comes in to the paper asking that the death notice for Mr. Beegday Owt, 99, of Everclear, GA, be published. Mr. Owt founded Incubus Industries and was one of the Navy’s first SR-71 pilots. Survivors include his great-granddaughter Eve, who is 6. It asks that memorial contributions be made to the STP Foundation.

The first person in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s newsroom to read the notice was alert obits clerk Charles Wilson. He picked up on every red flag planted within the death notice. Read aloud, Mr. Beegday Owt becomes the music festival Big Day Out at Lakewood Amphitheatre. The event features the bands Green Day Acres, Everclear, Incubus, SR-71, Eve 6, and Stone Temple Pilots. It is a hoax death notice by a rock radio station, a hoax that never made it into print.

A publicist notified film reviewer Jeff Sneider that a prominent independent movie executive had died. When Sneider asked the publicist if the indie executive really was dead, the publicist confirmed, “Yes.” Sneider then read the obituary from the publicist. Immediately, he realized it was a fake sent out to promote a new movie.

Co-workers in Iowa published a fake death notice for the woman’s son. She submitted it so that they could take time off from work.

Accidents do happen. Reuters accidentally published its advance obit for billionaire George Soros, complete with XXXs where age and date of death would appear. Reuters did not take the obit down for 30 minutes. By then, Twitter, Facebook and fake reporting sites had taken control of the story.

Fake and misleading reports, which are becoming more sophisticated, are pervasive in social media and are invading newsrooms. Obituaries and death notices are not exempt. They, too, should meet newsroom standards for fact checking and accuracy. Resources abound that help reporters detect the red flags that signal if a report is fake, misleading, clickbait, or satire.

The front line against the onslaught of fake news is a reporter’s instinct. Does it pass the smell test? At the Chicago Sun-Times obit writer, Maureen O’Donnell, head of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, first calls the funeral home to confirm a death. If necessary, she contacts the hospital, which can give information about a patient who has died, and the church where the service is to be held. Once the death is confirmed to her satisfaction, she checks original sources to verify any claims about the person’s accomplishments.

Multiple legitimate sites offer checklists online for determining if a report is fake or misleading: The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Poynter Institute,,,, and, to name a few. Each is worth the read, and their lists are amassed in the center box with this article.

Is the report from a legitimate website? Pay attention to the domain and URL. The use of “.co” at the end of the URL is one red flag. Check the “Contact Us” or “About Us” page. If it doesn’t have one, that’s a clue that it’s not a legitimate news site.

Examine the reporter’s byline. Do the reporter’s biography claims make sense? Read past the headline. That’s all some readers go by. Read the article closely for absurd quotes and easily debunked information. Who is quoted? Is that a real person? Or, did a real person actually say what is quoted?

Scrutinize the sources and links used. Pay attention to the publish date and time. Fake reports often are based on information that is years old and already proven to be incorrect. Look at the ads on the webpage. Multiple pop-up ads or sexy ads usually don’t appear on legitimate news sites.

Beware of confirmation bias. Do not assume a report is legitimate simply because it confirms the reader’s, including the reporter’s, point of view. Use search engines to quickly double-check information. Think and confirm before you publish.

Kay Powell is a retired obituary writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitutioon. She can be reached at


Check and double check for fake reports


Newspapers often publish obituaries among news stories pulled from social media. These and other news stories many times are outright fake reports or twist the truth to support a particular bias. When possible, go to the original source. Here are valuable links for checking whether a report, particularly on social media, is a fake. 

The Washington Post:

The Huffington Post:

The Poynter Institute offers three fact-checking courses online. Fact Checking 101: A course on improving fact checking skills: A third course is for video fact checking:


To detect outright false and misleading, clickbait, and satire news sites, here is the link to an extensive list prepared by Merrimack College professor Melissa Zimdars. Compiled in November 2016, it is being updated constantly and is not available directly from Google Docs:

—Prepared for Pub Aux by Kay Powell