Editor’s Note : This is a case study of a hoax story as experienced by a reader who was pursuing accuracy and accountability. This case study helps pull back the curtain on how the BBC operates during a conflict with a reader.
A dramatic tale of a Jerusalem court ordering a dog stoned to death tricked the media in mid-June.
But the strangeness of the phony story went beyond the hoax. It turns out that the BBC published the hoax story days after it had been retracted from Israeli media. iMediaEthics was surprised to see the BBC and other media’s un-skeptical follow-up reporting on the original, dubious-seeming dog stoning account.
We’ve taken a closer look at this unusual story in part through the perspective of a UK resident who spent much of this summer seeking the truth from the BBC.
In fact, our investigation was prompted by a British citizen and BBC commenter, Jack Douglas, and his complaint to iMediaEthics about his interactions with the BBC and struggles to hold the prestigious news outlet accountable.
Douglas’s pluck and determination resulted in a series of complaints, appeals, questions, and criticisms starting when the hoax story first appeared in mid-June. Months later, he’s still waiting to learn what led to the BBC’s rejection of his criticism.
More on Douglas later. Here’s the backstory:
The BBC Reports: A Dog to be Stoned in Jerusalem
As iMediaEthics wrote in June, the BBC — among other news outlets — fell for a hoax story claiming that a Jerusalem court ordered a dog to be stoned to death. The fake story claimed that a dog walked into a Jerusalem court. The dog supposedly “reminded a judge of a curse passed on a now deceased secular lawyer about 20 years ago, when judges bid his spirit to enter the body of a dog,” according to the BBC’s report on the hoax.
In a June 20 follow-up report, the BBC acknowledged that it had been hoaxed and in a June 22 post on the BBC’s Editors Blog, the BBC admitted it “failed to make the right checks” and “should never have written the article.”
Unfortuantely, there often are hoax stories that mistakenly get published, but in this case what’s unusual is that the original story had already been retracted by Israeli media. This means that a few key strokes in fact checking would have revealed to the BBC that the story wasn’t true. As a major news outlet, the BBC has a higher obligation and more resources to protect their readers and viewers, but failed in this case.
Court Denies the Stoning Story, Explains What Happened
As the narrative of the dog tale was told, the ordered stoning happened at a court that has been referred to as both the Rabbinical Court for Financial Affairs and the Court of Monetary Affairs in Mea Sharim, Jerusalem. Rabbi Avraham Dov Levin is named as the head of the court in numerous reports, including the AFPs.
According to the Jewish Chronicle, what really happened, as opposed to the hoax account, is that a dog entered the rabbinical court (which in Hebrew is “beth din”), wouldn’t leave, and was finally taken away by “city authorities.” The Chronicle stated:
“A dog wandered off the street into the Beth Din’s waiting room. After the animal had resisted attempts to persuade it to leave the building, the court eventually called the city authorities, who took it away.”
That account of events is attributed to a member of the court, Rabbi David Koenig, who stated the dog stoning story “had ‘absolutely zero truth.'”
News site Virtual Jerusalem reported that the court issued this statement in response:
“There is no basis for stoning dogs or any other animal in the Jewish religion, not since the days of the Temple or Abraham. The female dog found a seat in the corner of the court. And the children were delighted by it; there were hundreds outside the court. They are used to seeing stray cats but most have never seen a dog before. The only action we took was to dial the number of the Jerusalem Municipality to get the people in charge to take it away.
“There was no talk of reincarnation, a lawyer has never been mentioned, either now or 20 years ago, and there was no stoning. Such inventions are a kind of blood libel, and we wonder why the inventor of the story did not continue to describe how we collected the blood of the dog to make our matzah.”
In Ma’ariv’s June 15 retraction of the story, Levin again is reported to have issued a “categorical denial of this accusation.” Ma’ariv is a daily Hebrew-language newspaper in Tel Aviv, according to Mondo Times.
One Big Game of Telephone?
According to the Christian Science Monitor, YNet based its report off Behadrei Hadarim, which was sourced to an account of an unnamed person allegedly present at the court. YNet is an Israel news site for Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
The AFP based its story on YNet, and the BBC based its story on YNet and the AFP.
Apparently, the whole hoax boiled down to one anonymous person’s claim, repeated throughout the international media without a fact dcheck.
BBC Reports Hoax Story…Leaves out Denial from Court
The Christian Science Monitor‘s unpacking of the dog hoax spotted that the BBC failed to include one very relevant fact from its source, the YNet report on the dog stoning — the denial of the story from the head of the court, Levin.
Rabbi Avraham Dov Levin “denied that the judges had called for the dog’s stoning,” according to the AFP’s June 17 story.
AFP’s North America editor-in-chief David Milikin told iMediaEthics by e-mail that AFP “killed” its story on its “wires, with an explanation of the source of the erroneous report” June 20.
Even though the BBC failed to include the court’s denial of the stoning account, interestingly the BBC did report an anonymously sourced claim that the stoning had happened.
While the BBC’s story was taken down from its website, it was apparently re-published on RichardDawkins.net. The re-posting states that the BBC reported:
“A court manager told Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot [Ynet] the stoning had been ordered as ‘an appropriate way to ‘get back at’ the spirit which entered the poor dog,’ according to Ynet.”
We asked the BBC, which based its June 18 story on the dog stoning on both the AFP and YNet’s reports on the story, why their reporter excluded the head of the court’s denial of the dog stoning story.
The BBC’s Comms Coordinator Matt Hall responded:
“As we have said in the Editors’ blog we failed to make the right checks. Had we done so, we would not have written the story and we have apologised for any offence caused.”
We also asked why the BBC published its report in the first place since Ma’ariv retracted and apologized for its original report on the dog stoning June 15 — three days before the BBC’s first report.
Hall stated that the BBC “only became aware of the retraction published by the Hebrew-language newspaper Ma’ariv on 20 June,” which is when the BBC reported that the dog stoning story was a hoax.
We asked about the BBC’s policy for unpublishing stories, as the hyperlink to the original June 18 story now goes to a dead page.
“The story was removed on 22 June when we published the blog explaining our mistake,” Hall told iMediaEthics. “Here is the link to our editorial guidelines regarding the removal of stories. See Section 3.4.24.”
Under those guidelines, the BBC explains that news stories’ “archive is intended to act as a permanent public record.” Unpublishing should happen only for “exceptional circumstances” like “legal reasons, personal safety risks, or a serious breach of editorial standards.”
Did BBC Try to Ignore Reader Critical of Story?
Reader Jack Douglas contacted iMediaEthics in late June about the dog stoning story. Douglas informed us that he found out that the dog stoning story had been debunked on Disclose.Tv the day before the BBC published its report.
Douglas is a musician who lives and works in London. “I’m not involved in journalism beyond being a consumer of it,” Douglas told iMediaEthics.
Since June, Douglas has gone back and forth with the BBC. Douglas was skeptical after first seeing the BBC’s June 18 dog stoning story, and e-mailed the BBC “immediately.”
Douglas stated that the BBC told him by e-mail that they stood by its story — well, at least for two days, when it reported June 20 that the story was a hoax. “My frustration was compounded by the fact that the story had gone viral,” Douglas added.
Douglas continued to e-mail the BBC asking about the story, and soon after he e-mailed the BBC June 20 telling them Ma’ariv had apologized and asking them to follow suit, the BBC did apologize and retract its story.
The BBC’s report on the dog stoning was listed as one of the BBC’s Most Shared stories.
Douglas next attempted to post a critical comment on the BBC’s June 22 report that explained that the BBC erred in publishing its initial report and that the BBC “failed to make the right checks” before publishing the dog stoning story.
However, monitors rejected his comment. Only after a series of appeals did Douglas’ comment get published — more than three weeks later
iMediaEthics followed up on Douglas’s complaint and contacted the BBC. The BBC’s Matt Hall told iMediaEthics in an August 3 e-mail that the whole thing — publishing the story, rejecting Douglas’ comment — was just a series of mistakes.
Despite BBC’s explanation, Douglas still feels that the weeks he spent contacting BBC indicates that his voice was being ignored and that the BBC is now just covering up its error. “Clearly the BBC would prefer to draw a line under this whole sorry episode,” Douglas wrote to iMediaEthics. “They would much rather not to have to publish the embarrassing information that a story they published had already been debunked on the internet as a hoax.”
This is the first time he’s had a problem with the BBC, Douglas told iMediaEthics. “I’ve not had issues with the BBC before, or had comments rejected or made other appeals,” he wrote in an e-mail.
After the BBC defended its story initially to Douglas, only to apologize for and retract the story days later, Douglas attempted to log a complaint to the BBC’s June 22 Editor’s Blog that included an apology for the hoax story.
The BBC deleted (unpublished) its initial June 18 story. The BBC has left up a June 20 report reporting that the dog stoning story is a hoax. The BBC has also posted a June 22 Editors Blog post apologizing and noting that “we have kept the story carrying the denial in the interests of transparency.”
Douglas submitted a comment on June 24 to that June 22 blogpost. See below:
But, his comment was marked “referred for further consideration” for six days. After pursuing why his comment wasn’t posted, Douglas found out after six days, on June 30 that the BBC labeled the comment “off-topic” and decided not to publish it. However, Douglas fought back and protested that decision. He told iMediaEthics:
“Clearly, my comment was not off-topic. There were other comments on the page which self-evidently were off-topic (they are still there — one, for example, which is about the BBC TV series on Mohammed) but these had been published, while my comment apparently could not be.”
That comment, by “BluesBerry” was posted June 27 and consisted of a few paragraphs about a BBC series called “The Life of Mohammad.” It doesn’t address the dog stoning story. “Bluesberry” made at least two comments that iMediaEthics couldn’t find any relation to the dog stoning issue.
Douglas added that he “had the feeling — don’t ask me why — that my opinion was simply being suppressed, or at the very least that its publication was being delayed for as long as possible, so that by the time it did reach the public domain it would be irrelevant.”
So, Douglas appealed BBC’s complaint that his comment was”off-topic” label on June 30.
- June 3: Ma’ariv Reports Dog Stoned
- June 15: Ma’ariv Apologizes, Admits Dog Stoning Story is a Hoax
- June 17: AFP Reports on the Dog Stoning Hoax
- June 18: BBC Publishes Story on Dog Stoning
- June 18: Douglas E-mails BBC to Question Story, BBC Defends Report
- June 20: BBC Reports Dog Stoning Story a Hoax
- June 22: BBC Publishes Editor’s Blog on Hoax, BBC Unpublishes June 18 Story
- June 24: Douglas Submits Comment to Editor’s Blog
- June 30: Editors’ Blog Rejects Douglas’s Comment, Says it’s Off-Topic; Douglas Appeals
- July 1: Editors’ Blog Marked Closed for Comments
- July 14: Last day under BBC Rules for BBC to Issue Ruling on Douglas’s Appeal
- July 18: BBC Responds to Douglas, Agrees to Publish
- July 19: Douglas Files Complaint with Social Media Complaints Group
Suddenly, the next day, the BBC closed the comments section of that Editors blog post. “This meant that, even if my comment was finally cleared for publication, it would appear on a dead page,” Douglas explained. “This was a surprisingly crude tactic by the BBC, since the last time any page of the Editors blog had been closed to comment was three months previously.”
BBC tells iMediaEthics the Comment Rejection was a Mistake
We asked the BBC by e-mail July 29 why Douglas’s comment (now published here as comment #21) was marked off-topic, especially since other, clearly off-topic comments, have been published.
The BBC’s Hall told iMediaEthics in a August 3 e-mail response that the off-topic label for Douglas’s comment was “a simple mistake.” Hall wrote:
“A moderator flagged the comment to an editor of the blog which was then incorrectly failed and marked as off-topic. We have since looked at how this happened and are confident that the person who made the call understands it shouldn’t have been removed.”
“Other comments which could be viewed as off-topic may have been published because the first stage of moderation is done by a third party. These moderators see the comments in isolation of the post and therefore only reliably check the posts for legal and editorial compliance; they are not always able to check that they are on-topic. If they pass this stage they are published. A comment can later be removed if they are spotted by an editor or a reader who believes they are off-topic.”
We asked how the BBC defines off-topic versus on-topic. Hall wrote to iMediaEthics:
“Comments that are unrelated to the subject of the blog entry to which you are contributing are considered ‘off-topic’. It is up to the author or editor of a blog to determine if a post is unrelated to the subject matter. Readers and moderators can flag a post as off-topic, although this will be referred to an editor or author for a final decision. “
We also asked why the BBC closed the June 22 editors blog just nine days after publishing the blogpost.
Hall told iMediaEthics via e-mail that comments for all editors’ blogs are only “open” for three months maximum, but usually, they “close” within two weeks. He wrote:
“The maximum time a post on the editors blog can remain open is three months after publication. However, this is a safeguard to ensure that posts do not stay open indefinitely. Moderators will normally manually close a discussion much earlier – usually within 14 days – either because we do not have the resources to monitor the blog or because the discussion has dried up.”
Douglas Questions whether it was a BBC Cover-Up?
Douglas wrote to iMediaEthics that he thinks the BBC avoided publishing his response in a timely manner because it would highlight the BBC’s error.
“Clearly the BBC would prefer to draw a line under this whole sorry episode. They would much rather not to have to publish the embarrassing information that a story they published had already been debunked on the internet as a hoax.
“They would also prefer not to have to draw attention to the fact that they apology and retraction was not given anything like equal prominence to their original, fake story, and to the fact that they have, by their negligence and perhaps more, helped to promote anti-Semitisim.”
The BBC’s Hall had no further comment in response to Douglas’s comments.
Douglas told iMediaEthics that the BBC told him its response was slow because “a colleague” was “on leave.” He added that he hasn’t been told why his comment was deemed “off-topic.”
While Douglas’s comment has since been published, he told iMediaEthics he’s “not satisfied with this outcome.”
“My comment will now be published, 24 days after I submitted it, on a webpage that was closed to further comment more than 3 weeks ago.”
He further appealed the “whole episode” to the BBC’s Social Media Complaints Group on July 19. The BBC’s website explains that group “consists of the Managing Editor, BBC Online, the Head of Editorial Complaints, and the Head of Communications & Complaints, MC & A Audience Services & Operations.”
However, as of Sept. 27th, he still hasn’t had any response from the Social Media Complaints Group.
After we wrote to the BBC for this story, Douglas told iMediaEthics he received an e-mail with a confidentiality notice telling him his request for appeal would be forwarded on to the Social Media Complaints Group. However, that BBC Moderation and Social editor commented to Douglas that the Social Media Complaints Group likely wouldn’t address his complaint as his comment has been posted.
Where was BBC’s Skepticism?
Painfully, media outlets fall for hoaxes all-too-often. This year alone has seen media outlets apologizing for falling for stories about mass graves in Texas, Sarah Palin quotes, satire sites, phony press releases and more.
The BBC apologized in early August for reporting on a study claiming Internet Explorer users had lower IQs. That study turned out to be a hoax.
And yet, it’s obvious the BBC didn’t approach this dog stoning story with skepticism. As the Christian Science Monitor summarized
“This story has it all. Religious zealots! Animal rights activists! Blood libel! Children! … Best of all, it runs under 200 words and stars a dog.”
In his blog post, Rabbi Menken criticized the media for failing to ask if this dog stoning story was even plausible. He noted that the media could have – but didn’t – “fact check with an Orthodox Rabbi.”
Rabbi Menken commented that “only a fool would call [the dog stoning story errors] an innocent mistake.” He went on to state that “the underlying problem is not the simple publication of an obviously false story. It is that the reporters were so ignorant in matters religious, especially with regards to Orthodox Judaism, that they found the story even remotely believable.”