CNN Needlessly Terrifies Thousands By Publishing Asteroid Hoax

Earlier this week — and for a period of nearly 24 hours — a CNN iReport falsely claimed that a newly discovered asteroid has a nearly 50% chance of hitting the Earth in 2041. The story received more than 230,000 hits and 23,000 media shares before it was finally taken down.

Ah, such are the perils of unvetted and unedited "citizen journalism" articles. In this case, a user named Marcus575 put together a piece about this alleged asteroid:

Using their Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), the 10-mile wide object was found approximately 51 million miles from Earth. Scientists believe that during a close encounter with Mars, the asteroid was nudged slightly off its usual orbit and may currently be on a high speed collision course with our fragile planet. The asteroid is calculated to have a potentially lethal encounter with the Earth on March 35, 2041.

Note the fictional date of March 35 (most readers obviously didn't). The story continues:

Astronomers have placed the odds of an impact at 1 in 2.04, which is by far the most unprecedented risk ever faced to humanity, let alone from asteroids. Such an impact could potentially end civilization as we know it.

Nice, eh?

Here's how the page looked for nearly 24 hours:

CNN Needlessly Terrifies Thousands By Publishing Asteroid Hoax

The story prompted NASA to have to deny that the asteroid exists. The article has since been taken down, replaced by this page:

CNN Needlessly Terrifies Thousands By Publishing Asteroid Hoax

Gotta love Salon's take on the fiasco:

CNN Needlessly Terrifies Thousands By Publishing Asteroid Hoax

Andrew Leonard writes:

iReport is an interesting experiment, except for the part where CNN declares that "The stories here are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post."

But never fear: "CNN's producers will check out some of the most compelling, important and urgent iReports and, once they're cleared for CNN, make them a part of CNN's news coverage."

So maybe the threat of the extinction of all human life 27 years from now wasn't imminent enough to be considered important and urgent for CNN's producers. Or maybe the relevant producers were enjoying themselves at a BBQ instead of monitoring CNN-branded self-publishing. But here's the problem: In the 24 hours that the asteroid hoax was online, it was shared on Facebook at least 24,000 times, while racking up a quarter million views. And the average person that sees a story like this in their Facebook news feed probably doesn't have a clue that CNN iReports is something that by definition is completely unreliable. The CNN brand is upfront and center, and once upon a time, that brand supposedly signified "the most trusted name in news."

As an aside, you can always check current asteroid threats here.