TV Prank Reveals News Media Shortcoming

ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel's fake twerking video not only made thousand of people believe a woman accidentally set herself on fire by twerking upside down, it fooled loads of news outlets into playing the fraudulent clip as if it were real. In one swoop, Kimmel uncovered how reliant many news programs are on found material they cannot or do not verify.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, let's look back just a single year now with NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. He's been giving us his most memorable television moments from 2013. And this morning, Eric has something of a twofer because he says the best TV prank of the year became one of the worst moments for television journalists.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Just a few months ago, the nation was fixated on a heated discussion about race, pop culture and morals. The reason: Miley Cyrus had brought the butt-jiggling hip-hop dance called twerking to MTV. So it was twice as entertaining when TV shows discovered a YouTube video of a young woman trying her own upside-down twerking dance moves, gyrating while leaning against a door

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DEGGANS: But when someone opened that door...

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DEGGANS: ...she landed on a table of lit candles and set herself on fire.

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DEGGANS: Nine million views and a media meltdown later, late night host Jimmy Kimmel revealed just how broken the world of breaking news coverage truly had become.

(APPLAUSE)

JIMMY KIMMEL: To the conspiracy theorists out on the Internet who thought the video is fake, you were right. It was fake. We made it up.

(LAUGHTER)

KIMMEL: And we shot the video two months and we posted on YouTube. We didn't send it to any TV stations. We didn't - I didn't tweet it. We didn't put it on any news websites. We just put it on YouTube and let the magic happen...

DEGGANS: Boy, did the magic happen. Kimmel gleefully showed off a montage of all the media outlets that fell for his trick.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Check out this twerker - girl on fire.

DEGGANS: But Kimmel's prank was also a huge journalism fail. Now, it's true, some news shows had suggested the video might be fake. But on TV, a great picture trumps any words. One problem: Many local news outlets have added newscasts to make more money, but haven't added many more reporters. So they fill space talking about the latest viral video.

Think about it like this: If some stranger had handed a producer from CNN or "Good Morning America" a videotape, they would never just put it on TV. But they aired an unverified YouTube video, basically broadcasting footage cooked up by someone they hadn't even met.

Robin Meade is an anchor at HLN, which also aired the original video. And she admitted broadcasters should have been more skeptical.

ROBIN MEADE: But it was so good that in your mind - that's what you have to think nowadays on YouTube, you have to go...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As if you did.

MEADE: ...that is so good.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

MEADE: Is that real?

DEGGANS: Kind of sad that it took a national-level prank to teach some journalists to check their facts before airing a video. But if they had just taken the time to check out who made it in the first place, they might have had an even better story.

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GREENE: Looking back on 2013 with NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans.

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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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