Lots of news outlets covered the story that Carla Bruni, famously scandalous third wife of the French president, had been effectively banned from the Vatican. (CNN, for one.) The story was, as you might have guessed, completely wrong.
It came from a satirical magazine, for one thing. Think of a major newspaper reporting seriously a story from the front page of The Onion. You would begin to wonder how closely their reporters were paying attention. But the story was implausible on its face, and the reporter ought to have questioned it. As Fox News’s Greg Burke notes:
The reason Carla had to miss the fun? Supposedly the Vatican (or even Benedict himself, which makes the story even better) was worried that Carla’s presence would give Italian papers an excuse to publish photos of young Carla from her racier modeling days. . . . (Incidentally, it’s not like Italian newspapers or magazines ever really need a good excuse to publish sexy photos; they just do it.)
Now, is this plausible? That the Vatican, which hosts all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons, which knows how the Italian press operates, would fear that it would somehow be embarrassed because the newspapers published some pictures of one of its guests, who had every reason to be there — she is the wife of the French president, after all? Well, maybe it’s just plausible, given how nervous about publicity bureaucracies can be, but still, reporters (those at CNN, for example) ought to have made sure the story was true before reporting it.
Anyway, as a rule, if a story seems too good to be true, in the sense of fitting a recognizable public prejudice, question it.