A new Facebook page called “The Farmington Tribune” that aims to be a satirical online news site for the Four Corners is causing some ruckus and confusion because its creators haven’t explicitly identified its intent.
The website’s posts are often filled with borderline true stories that change only a few key details – using a different tactic than many similar satirical publications like The Onion and Clickhole utilize.
“The real danger is, this leads to misinformation,” said Elizabeth Skewes, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who reviewed the Tribune’s Facebook page.
“It’s fine to do humor, but they ought to be more responsible about it, especially since some people are being misled. There’s nothing there to indicate they’re trying to be satire, and that’s not in the interest of transparency.”
Mostly, the Tribune posts fake stories about northern New Mexico issues. But Colorado has not been spared. This week, the publication posted a fake story that said two Durango High School sophomore football players were charged with the sexual assault of two freshman players.
The post goes on, without an indication of humor, that a Farmington attorney representing the victims filed a lawsuit against the high school and that one of the supposed perpetrators is the son of a La Plata County Sheriff’s Office deputy. The story also says the case is being investigated by the Durango Police Department.
After some detail about the “sexual assault,” the Tribune writes that Durango School Superintendent “Terry Goldstein” declined to comment for the story but quoted him as saying “the safety and well-being of our students” is top priority.
The actual superintendent of Durango School District 9-R is Dan Snowberger.
Nearly 30 people had commented on the story on Facebook as of Thursday evening. While some commenters understood that the story was satirical, many others did not.
“I am glad this was reported and an investigation is underway,” one commenter wrote. “For the two freshman, it’s not your fault and be strong.”
The Farmington Tribune Facebook page began posting satirical stories in June. To date, more than 2,500 people “like” the page and more than 2,600 follow it.
Representatives behind the website agreed to answer questions from The Durango Herald only via Facebook Messenger. They wrote that most of its contributors are local, but the group would not identify its members.
“We see no benefit in publicizing our identities due to the fact that we’ve received several credible threats since our inception,” the group wrote.
When asked why the Tribune has nothing on its site that indicates stories posted are satire, the group responded: “The large majority of our followers understand the satirical nature of our page.”
“We feel no reason to explain this to every single person who simply reacts without checking facts for themselves,” the group wrote. “We have made multiple posts that clearly identify our content as satire.”
But a review of the Facebook page tells a different story.
On the “About” tab, The Tribune says: “If you’re looking for the truth, Farmington Tribune is the number one source for solid, uncompromising journalism in a world filled with fake news.”
Also, numerous times when commenters question the veracity of a story, or ask if the Tribune is satire, the group responds that its news is real.
On a Sept. 4 post about a Farmington resident under investigation for disturbing the habitat of a hawk, one commenter wrote, “As far as I can tell, this a fake news page.”
The Tribune’s response included a bio from its supposed parent company, Tribune Media International. Such a company does not exist.
Paige Gray, a former assistant professor of English at Fort Lewis College who is now a professor at Savannah College of Art & Design in Atlanta, said sites like The Farmington Tribune are a prime example of why people need to be more careful when consuming news in an age of widespread fake news.
“It’s one thing to have your big media platforms that skewer national news, but having an outlet that skewers very local news is super niche and can be very confusing,” Gray said.
Writing satire can be incredibly difficult, she said.
“You’re playing with fire when it’s not clearly enough ridiculing news stories,” Gray said. “After reading some of their stories, it’s just close enough to where people can fall for it.”
On July 10, for instance, the Tribune posted that the Environmental Protection Agency was going to intentionally release mine waste into the Animas River. The story quoted real EPA representatives and officials in Silverton, including the town’s mayor, Chris Tookey.
“There were people questioning whether or not they’re a true newspaper or not,” Tookey said.
“This isn’t a solution,” one commenter wrote, “this is adding to the problem!”
One of the Tribune’s more widely read stories was posted June 29, which said a bear was found dead from an apparent wolf attack near Aztec.
Of the hundreds of comments, most indicated they believed the story was true. When questioned by readers, the Tribune replied: “This story has been independently verified by the Armenian Council for Truth in Journalism.”
On July 6, the Tribune’s sister publication, the Denver Tribune, reported a similar story, except it said the attack happened near Evergreen. The story drew a similar reaction.
Gray said if people aren’t able to distinguish whether a Farmington Tribune story is true or false, and if there’s no effort on the publication’s part to identify itself as a satirical site, people can absorb wrong information.
“What actions are these people going to take because of this misinformation?” she asked.
Facebook did not respond to The Durango Herald’s request for comment on this story.
In its response to Herald questions, the Tribune explained that “many of our articles have a very strong basis in truth, which explains the extreme level of discomfort that some of our readers have felt.”
“Farmington Tribune was started with the intended purpose of encouraging people to re-examine the way they perceive truth in the media,” the group wrote. “‘Dig Deeper’ has become an unofficial motto.”
Steven Zansberg, a media lawyer in Denver who often works as legal counsel for the Herald, said the Tribune’s failure to explicitly disclose it is an attempt at comedy could be legally problematic.
“The general advice media lawyers like myself give ... is the clearer you can make it, that it is satire or comedy, the safer you are,” Zansberg said.
“The more you disguise parody or satire as something to be taken seriously, the riskier your activity becomes because you’re purposefully creating the impression that what you’re saying is true.”
Michael Bulloch, downtown coordinator for the city of Farmington, was most recently parodied in a post Tuesday. He said Farmington residents have trouble distinguishing if the Facebook page is real or fake.
Bulloch said if he sees a reader comment that takes a Tribune story to be true, he’ll correct them and make it clear it’s a joke. He said The Farmington Tribune’s name also creates confusion because it plays on a real, now-closed newspaper, the Tri-City Tribune.
“They really need to put a little thing on there that says this is satire because it is confusing people,” Bulloch said.
“It’s like the Onion, only less funny.”