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Just for clicks: theme park fake news vs. facts

Lance Hart discusses the impact of clickbait articles and sensationalised stories on the attractions industry

Opinion
roller coaster loop

As someone who reads and writes articles about the theme park industry, it drives me crazy to see “fake news” articles, written both by mainstream journalism as well as online sites, where the facts are all wrong. Even worse, a new and persistent trend is to not only get the facts wrong but to do so seemingly on purpose. The intent is to sensationalise the story, in order to make a non-event sound like a near tragedy.

These articles usually start off with a crazy-sounding headline that is just plain wrong. On the internet, this practice is known as dropping clickbait. This term denotes the act of creating content with a headline so outrageous that it simply begs the reader to click on it and find out what is really going on.

Friends on roller coaster ride at amusement park

Potential readers then click on the link to read the story on a new site, where it is shown alongside ads. Online ads are how news sites make money and pay their bills. This isn’t so different from mainstream print journalism, where the same practice of sensationalised headlines serves a similar purpose.

The practice, known originally as Yellow Journalism, is said to have started around the early 1900s in New York City. Various newspapers would compete for readers by trying to out-do one another with their headlines, alongside outrageous or scandalous-sounding stories. 

News or rumours?

I realise the irony that it is me, of all people, bringing this topic up. As the creator of Screamscape, a website that reports news from the amusement and themed entertainment industry alongside a plentiful supply of rumours, I can see why some may scoff at what I’m about to say. 

Yes, I talk about rumours quite frequently, especially when I’m talking about potential future projects. These are dreams of what may be built, where it may be built, why and by whom. Often these rumours are truths that have not yet been confirmed. But other times these rumours are just faded dreams of something designed or proposed but never approved.

Young-people-on-rollercoaster

I’ll also be the first to admit that sometimes these rumours end up just being flat out wrong, and nothing more than someone’s wishful thinking. 

The rise of theme park fake news

What I’ve been seeing too much of lately, however, has been wrongful and sensationalised clickbait reporting about actual theme park incidents.

It isn’t the first time this has happened. But ever since the unfortunate death of a rider on the Orlando FreeFall tower at the end of March, the number of misleading articles attempting to hype up minor incidents in order to get more clicks has reached the point of being ridiculous. This falls back on the age-old news journalist motto, “If It Bleeds, It Leads”. 

Recently, a roller coaster at Carowinds came to a stop while going up the lift hill. Publications across the nation put out headlines claiming that riders were “left hanging upside-down for 45 minutes.”

times now upside down coaster

Articles included pictures of nearly every other roller coaster in the park, other than the one involved in the incident. In many cases, pictures of roller coasters at entirely different parks, some not even in the same country, were published instead, if the publication felt a more scary looking ride could help “sell” the story.

Even worse were some of the quotes attributed to riders who said they were on board. This included one particularly memorable one where a rider claimed, “I personally watched my tears fall from the sky. It was terrifying.” Such poetry and drama…all while stuck on a lift hill that the manufacturer lists as being at a 45º angle. This is not even close to being upside down. In fact, it is the same angle as the staircase that the trapped riders were sitting right next to.

Theme park counters false reports

Within the same week, video footage accompanied an article posted to a theme park blog, well known for this kind of fake news, featuring the SkyRush roller coaster at Hersheypark.

The footage shows a coaster train leaving the station to go up the lift hill. Meanwhile, the next train is pulling into the station to be loaded. Just before the last car going up vanishes from view, the train comes to a halt on the lift hill.

The article asserted that the riders in the station could have been crushed if the train on the lift rolled backwards. The headline from the website read all across social media, “Giant Coaster Nearly Crushes Guests After Scary Lift Hill Failure”. 

Thankfully, in this case, Hersheypark’s social media team jumped into action. The park called the publication out for this horrible headline attached to a complete non-event. Since then, the publication has deleted the original tweets and other social media posts, as well as the original article.

By contrast, however, I did not see Carowinds try and correct the dozens of fake news headlines claiming that they kept riders trapped upside down in the park for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too often. The typical reaction by parks is to try and ignore it until the story gets old and goes away.  However, the actions taken by Hersheypark to correct the story and control their own narrative struck a chord with me.

No need for fake news

I post a good number of rumours on Screamscape. But I seek to post the truth and only the truth when a serious incident takes place. No matter if it is a story where someone passes away or a rare case where riders do actually get stuck upside-down for a short time (it happened this week at Kennywood on the Aero 360 ride.)

There is no place for spreading lies just for the sake of clicks. 

There should be an easy solution to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. Perhaps it might be helpful to have an organization ready to jump into action to set the record straight?

It would benefit the industry to have a spokesperson who could serve as an official authority figure for these occasions. Someone that the media could call upon in times like these to prevent the spread of sensationalised tales. A known voice could help to ensure that the media tells the truth. It would also help to call out those who are spreading lies.

Perhaps the task could fall to a division within IAAPA? Regardless, I think the industry as a whole would benefit from being proactive and open to discussion when these kinds of things happen. 

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Lance Hart

Lance Hart

Lance has been running Screamscape for nearly 20 years. Married and a father to three roller coaster loving kids, he worked for SeaWorld (San Diego and Orlando) in Operations and Entertainment for 19 years.

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