How the Media Created a (Fake) Ban on Texting While Walking

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There were plenty of headlines on the Internet this morning like "War On Texting While Walking" (Gothamist) and "Stupid Laws: Text And Walk In Fort Lee, New Jersey, “Win” $85 Fine" (Gadgetsteria). But after a couple of phone calls were made by's Rosa Golijan, it turns out there's no ban—and there never was. So, how did a harmless local story go from an exaggeration to a misrepresentation to an outright fabrication on a national scale? Let's see.

The whole thing began last Thursday, went Fort Lee Police Chief Thomas Ripoli held a news conference to discuss his city's crackdown on jaywalking. There had been 23 car accidents in the area since January that involved distracted pedestrians, including three that were fatal. So the police tried a media campaign to get pedestrians and drivers to pay closer attention to what they are doing, but that didn't work, so they began handing out more tickets to dangerous walkers. The force dished out 117 jaywalking tickets since mid-March, with fines of $85, according to The Bergen County Record's John Cichowski.

Sounds pretty strict, right? That's probably why it didn't take long for some news sites to grab onto the idea that someone could get a ticket for texting while crossing the street. Our current global obsession with mobile phones is certainly more interesting fodder for news then people who can't use crosswalks properly. The was definitely the angle The Telegraph's Mark Hughes went with when telling the story of the crackdown. 

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This Sky News report also got the details right, but the new headline — "Fines For Texting While Walking In US Town" — seems to imply that texting alone would be enough to get you a ticket. Ditto this local Fox News report from Philadelphia, which also mentions how many tickets have issues, but not that they were for the larger crime of jaywalking — not necessarily texting. The Daily Caller went ahead and said it outright: "The town issued 117 tickets for texting while walking."

Now, technically it's true that you can get a ticket from the police while you are texting and walking, provided that the texting turns you into a distracted jaywalker who creates a dangerous traffic situation. However, that does not mean that you can get an automatic ticket simply for texting while walking down the street and it definitely doesn't mean that there is a blanket ban on the practice. Yet, somehow over the weekend the story morphed into the just that. An ABC News television report on Fort Lee digs deep into the texting angle, breaking out footage of distracted walkers and ignoring the larger jaywalking picture to focus on the dangers of texting on the move.

The tipping point from "crackdown" to "ban" appears to be this ABC News blog post by Alyssa Newcomb from Sunday morning. She embeds that World News Tonight report and links to two outsider stories, neither of which use the word ban or suggest that the practice has explicitly been outlawed. Yet there is the headline: "Texting While Walking Banned in New Jersey Town" Even if she (or her editor) were not the first to phrase it that way, it's the earliest instance we could find and certainly the most prominent. We were off to the races.

By Monday morning, numerous other outlets picked up the "fresh" story declaring the outright ban, without any evidence, or worse, even citing sources that didn't back up them up. Gawker's Neetzan Zimmerman says "the new ordinance is part of a larger crackdown," despite the fact that there is no ordinance and none of the sources used in the post claim there is one. This better CBS New York story explicitly states that jaywalking itself isn't even a clearly defined offense on the books. But that didn't stop their CBS News parent site from declaring the ban in force as well. (With the local correct report as its only source.)

Other bloggers debated the fairness of the new non-existent law with Gizmodo's Jesus Diaz stating that a "issuing $85 tickets to any pedestrians caught texting and walking" (which is not happening) is stupid, while Maressa Brown at CafeMom is behind the new focus on safety. Even after debunking the story themselves, Mashable couldn't resist polling its readers on the subject, because who doesn't love a good texting debate?

A lot of credit goes to Rosa Golijan of MSNBC for actually deciding to follow up with Chief Ripoli who told her on Monday that no, there is no ban on texting and walking in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He never claimed that there was, nor called for one. However, if there were a ban on overhyped headlines and not reading carefully, there would be more than a few people getting fines today.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.