United Airlines, which filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2002, emerged from bankruptcy in 2006. Somehow, an old Chicago Tribune story about the bankruptcy filing resurfaced on a Florida newspaper's Web site recently, which decimated the value of the airline's shares before trading was halted.
Monday, Sept. 15, was one of the more bizarre days ever on Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average lost more than 500 points, its steepest drop since the day the stock market reopened after the 9/11 attacks. Lehman Brothers, a 158-year-old institution, filed for bankruptcy. Bank of America acquired Merrill Lynch. American Insurance Group, or AIG, was bailed out by taxpayers. Americans now know the Wall Street bailout could cost more than $700 billion.
In that context, it was not beyond the pale that an airline could file for bankruptcy. Except that it wasn't true.
In today's media environment, where consumers demand instant information 24/7, it is not wholly surprising that this happened. It is surprising that it hasn't happened more often.
This was a cautionary tale both for people who produce and compile news as well as consumers of news. Gatekeepers of news Web sites have an obligation not only to release information quickly but to release accurate information.
In an environment where there is intense competition to get the story first, consumers owe it to themselves to seek information from more than one source. One would think that someone who has a stock interest in a particular company would seek information from the company itself before making a rash trading decision.
One of the underlying problems with this incident is the news story that triggered this chaos came from a highly credible source, the Chicago Tribune. United Airlines' headquarters is in Chicago, so it would make some sense that the hometown newspaper would have the jump on news about the airline's financial condition. The only legitimate news about the airline recently is that it has increased the fees to check a second bag. That's hardly the stuff of a slide in stock prices.
Lessons abound. News consumers need to vet information from multiple sources. News organizations have an enhanced responsibility to produce factual, accurate and timely news reports. When both fail in their respective responsibilities, innocent people and entities can pay a heavy price.