What happens when hoaxers decide to doctor a real news story to spread chaos and misinformation in the aftermath of a major mass shooting?
It might seem far-fetched, but this is exactly what happened to Monique O. Madan, a Miami Herald breaking news reporter, who last week was inundated with strange requests from parents and students at W.R. Thomas Middle School in Miami-Dade County asking whether their school was under threat.
The rumor was spreading like wildfire on Snapchat, a favorite among teenagers and a platform that prides itself on being relatively immune to fake news. It also comes at a sensitive time, following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, less than 50 miles from W.R. Thomas, in which 17 people were killed and several were wounded.
A Miami Herald story from last week was photoshopped to carry a different headline, text, and quotes from the school’s principal and county official, while keeping both the Herald’s masthead and Madan’s byline, with great consequences to their reputation.
Dozens of worried parents and students started flooding the journalist’s inbox and the school’s landline, checking whether the rumor was true.
Janet Perez told CNN she received those screenshots from her niece, who attends W.R. Thomas.
“Apparently they were going around the school,” she said. “So I did a little investigation and looked up Monique to see if she was a real Herald reporter. When I found her I contacted her and that’s how I found out the article was fake.”
“I’m curious: how is it possible to make up this article? They were able to make it look so real,” she continued.
W.R. Thomas Middle School Principal Wendy Barnett told the Miami Herald she knew the article was not real as soon as she saw her name with quote marks around it.
“But the kids didn’t know that. They were worried,” she said.
Madan reported the hoax to police and tweeted a debunk of the screenshots on Tuesday.
She told Poynter that she’s worried about her credibility after the incident.
“If I wasn’t a journalist, I maybe would have thought it was real,” Madan said. “I felt vandalized, I felt exploited, I felt like my credibility was on the line. Nothing has happened like that before.”