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.
We know it is fake, but people who don’t know where Concrete is (located) certainly wouldn’t know.
Tim McCray, whose stepson accidentally shot himself in February
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 said. “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 actually was 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,” Linderman said. “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.
It would be devastating for a family suffering such a loss to see that (fake news story).
Heather Hernandez, president and publisher of Skagit Valley Herald
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.
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,” she said. “It’s also happened to your local newspaper and your neighbors.”
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.”