How a rumor of a Jewish family fleeing their Pennsylvania town spiraled out of control

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In the midst of an epidemic of fake news, a time when journalists should be working with more rigor and skepticism than ever, major media outlets got swept up in a viral story containing multiple layers of misinformation: the saga of a Jewish family in Pennsylvania forced to flee their town.    

The story began when Lancaster, Pennsylvania's Centerville Elementary School canceled its production of Christmas Carol — supposedly after receiving a complaint from parents regarding the line, "God bless us, everyone." 

This is where it ended for outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, which suggested that the play was canceled due to supposed political correctness. The play was, in fact, canceled — but the reason had nothing to do with religion or political correctness, according to the school.

A Fox News op-ed on the cancellation  Mic/Fox News

Next, LancasterOnline reported that a Jewish family had removed their child from school and left town, fearing backlash from those angered by false claims about them. From that original story, as reported by Talking Points Memo

After seeing reader comments like, "It would be nice if we had the addresses of those concerned citizens and, I bet, this info is known to people living in the area," on the Breitbart story, the parents pulled their child out of school and headed out of the area for a bit.

The story quickly went viral.

Other outlets like the Washington PostSlate, the Daily Dot, the Daily Beast and Raw Story recounted the same series of events, spreading the harrowing tale around the web, all attributing their reporting back to the same single source: the viral LancasterOnline piece.

LancasterOnline's headline  Mic/LancasterOnline

Given the anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred in the wake of Donald Trump's election, the story seemed believable. But according to the Anti-Defamation League, it wasn't exactly true: The family hadn't skipped town to avoid any kind of retaliation, the ADL said — they'd simply left for vacation.

"News reports alleging that a Jewish family has 'fled' Lancaster County are untrue and damaging," Nancy Baron-Baer, ADL regional director, stated in press release on Thursday. 

"We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously planned vacation for the holidays," she continued. "Stories like this can sow fear in the Jewish community and beyond, and it is important to stop the spread of misinformation."

It didn't end there: After multiple major outlets revised their entire stories around the ADL's refutation, the ADL then rolled back its statement Friday, saying the family did in fact leave early to avoid media backlash — but "fleeing," the term LancasterOnline allegedly used, was the wrong way to put it.

Robin Burstein, associate regional director of the ADL, told Lancaster County newspaper LNP, LancasterOnline's print affiliate, that the family "left one day earlier than they had originally planned, because they were concerned about the backlash of the media that was put out over the weekend, but they did not flee."

As it turns out, the crux of LancasterOnline's original report still holds water: The Jewish family wrongly accused of spearheading the play's cancellation did leave early to avoid hostility. As Fortune's Mathew Ingram pointed out on Twitter, however, the family also appears to have dialed back their story.

So is it "fake news"? Not exactly. But as the story went viral and took on new layers, it was clear why each misleading version garnered so much attention. 

For conservative outlets like Breitbart or Fox News, the first rendition — that a school would cancel a play about Christmas due to a line about God — fits snugly into a slew of common narratives. Had it been true, the story would have been a prime example of "PC culture run amok" or the supposed "war on Christmas." 

Meanwhile, left-leaning news organizations aggregated the second iteration without demonstrated skepticism, accepting that a Jewish family could be driven from their home due to a perfect storm of fake news and anti-Semitism. It's easy to see why: With vandals spraying swastikas in parks, neo-Nazis holding conferences with Hitler-like salutes and gun-toting conspiracy theorists going rogue, anything seems possible. 

Finally, the ADL's release, which set off waves of "fake news" allegations, deserved more scrutiny. The ADL's statement hinged on one thing only — the time of the family's departure — without commenting on the potential harassment that might have influenced their decision to leave.

But did the family flee? That's the question. It seems like the media frenzy can be traced back to one specific word, stoking fear and anger with a vague suggestion of Nazi-era Europe. 

Regardless of who was or was not duped, the story ended up exposing our biases — and how much more vigilant we could still stand to be.