Joel Melom’s ex-wife Dana Linderman and stepfather Tim McCray pose with a photo of Melom with his family while he was still married to Linderman in Sedro-Woolley. Melom’s family is upset about a fake news story that was posted about the circumstances of his February 2016 death. (Scott Terrell/Skagit Valley Herald via AP)

Joel Melom’s ex-wife Dana Linderman and stepfather Tim McCray pose with a photo of Melom with his family while he was still married to Linderman in Sedro-Woolley. Melom’s family is upset about a fake news story that was posted about the circumstances of his February 2016 death. (Scott Terrell/Skagit Valley Herald via AP)

Fake news epidemic hits home for Sedro-Woolley family

By Aaron Weinberg

Skagit Valley Herald

SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Tim McCray signed into Facebook a few weeks ago and scrolled through his news feed as he does nearly every morning.

Then something caught his eye. It was an article a family member had shared titled, “Thug fatally shoots himself while taking anti-Trump selfie.”

The article, posted at newsworldpaper.com, purported to describe an event that changed the lives of McCray and members of his family.

On Feb. 28 in Concrete — five months before Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president — McCray’s 43-year-old stepson Joel Melom accidentally shot and killed himself while taking photos with a gun he believed was not loaded.

That is fact.

But the article on a website that looked legitimate and was shared on Facebook included embellishments and lies, even as it cited the Skagit Valley Herald as the information source.

“It was upsetting,” McCray told the newspaper. “How can they be so callous and do something like that? We know it is fake, but people who don’t know where Concrete is [located] certainly wouldn’t know.”

The Skagit Valley Herald story on Melom’s death did not include his name, referring to him only as a 43-year-old Concrete man.

Melom was actually an Army veteran. He loved his family, dogs and had an affinity for firearms, his ex-wife Dana Linderman told the newspaper.

The fake news story at newsworldpaper.com labeled him a “thug” and included other falsehoods. It fabricated Melom’s motives in taking the photos.

“The man apparently had been greatly against Donald Trump, and many of his selfies included violence and profanities directed toward presidential candidate Donald Trump,” the newsworldpaper.com story states.

Accompanying the piece are photos of Trump and of an unidentified black man holding a firearm. Melom was white.

“If anything, he [Melom] was a Trump supporter,” said Linderman. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe this was real.”

Though the story was later debunked by Snopes, a well-known website that verifies or disproves viral internet content, that hasn’t helped with the emotional toll the story has taken on Melom’s family.

That is part of the frustration for the Herald’s president and publisher, Heather Hernandez.

“This is a tragic situation for the family in the first place,” she said. “It would be devastating for a family suffering such a loss to see that.”

From a business perspective, it’s disturbing to see the hard work of a news organization that has survived more than 130 years to have its content misused for harm, Hernandez said.

“Anyone locally who read that story would see that we were sourced — as a local, trusted, vetted news source — and might believe it,” she said. “We work really hard to be that vetted news source.”

Hernandez said she hopes anyone who sees questionable content with any Skagit Publishing name on it will reach out to her or to Colette Weeks, director of content. McCray pointed out the fake story to the Skagit Valley Herald.

“At the end of the day, I’m most concerned about the people we serve,” Hernandez said.

She noted that while the newspaper’s content has appeared without permission on other sites previously, this was the first known direct instance where the organization’s information and name were lifted for the purpose of spreading malicious, fake news.

“People should realize that actions like this are also attacking the First Amendment,” Hernandez said, meaning that abuse of free speech puts the entire concept at risk.

Fake news ran rampant on social media and search engines during the last election cycle. It was so prolific that some have suggested the fake stories affected the election’s outcome, according to The Associated Press.

Fake news comes in many forms. It can include misleading, biased information and have click-bait headlines meant to provoke readers to click a story that usually has little substance.

Fake news can come from “content farms,” a term used for websites that produce stories with misleading content, reported the AP.

According to a Pew Research Center study, about 60 percent of Americans use social media sites such as Facebook as a means of getting some news.

“You hear about fake news and kind of ignore it until something like this happens to you,” Linderman said.

But it could have been worse, she said.

“[Melom] and I have a [teenage] daughter,” Linderman said. “What if she was on Facebook and saw this?”

Facebook has said it is taking steps to stop promoting fake news, the AP reported.

Google might be doing the same after it was reported that a top search result related to the election was fake news. Google is the leading search engine for traffic that leads to media websites, according to the AP report.

Parents Talk Back columnist Aisha Sultan, citing a Chicago librarian, provided a few tips for determining reputable websites in a Dec. 4 column published in the Skagit Valley Herald.

She said readers can gather clues from a site’s domain name. For instance, sites that end in .gov are government websites and .edu are educational institutions.

A poorly designed website might also have untrustworthy content. Check the website’s “About” page for clues as to who owns it and what its goals are.

Readers can also find clues in the way articles are worded.

“Watch for ‘bias words’ that indicate emotion, opinion or slant or linguistic tricks to make things sound a certain way,” wrote Sultan, quoting the librarian.

She advised against trusting Google search rankings as an indicator of accuracy.

McCray said his family contacted the lawyer handling Melom’s estate to see if it was worth taking legal action against the site with the fake news, but it’s unlikely.

“It would take a lot of time,” he said. “It would cost a lot of money.”

Hernandez said it’s a wake-up call that no company and no person is immune to fake news attacks.

“It isn’t just bloggers and national sites. It’s also happened to your local newspaper and your neighbors,” she said.

McCray said he will be more critical now of news he reads online.

“It’s to the point where you really can’t trust anything you read or see — at least on the internet,” he said. “I’ve learned more about it now because of this incident.”

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