Well… I thought I was done with this topic. But then another suspicious news headline made the rounds on my company Slack channel. Okay, technically, I planted it there to cause trouble. Here it is, courtesy of MSN:

Did Richard Branson really go into space? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says ‘no’

If you take this headline at face value, you might assume Neil deGrasse Tyson was calling Branson’s space flight a hoax, as in: Did he really go into space? No. Fake news.

But read on, and you’ll see that’s not the case. Tyson is just arguing the semantics of what constitutes space flight versus a suborbital flight. In other words, he’s saying that Branson’s ship didn’t fly high enough, it didn’t break orbit, and it didn’t travel somewhere else like Mars.

Could the headline writer have honestly failed to see how much their wording echoed conspiracy theorists who think the moon landing was faked? I think it is possible, given how hard journalists work these days.

But my colleagues are not as forgiving. One told me:

“This is exactly what a news headline writer does, though. Accuracy is not their goal. Clicks and keeping sponsors and investors happy is.”

Wow. That is one brutal but understandable assessment of the state of journalism in 2021. But it’s not even the worst part. (Ready for that drone I promised you?)

When I saw that the story was originally posted on Entrepreneur.com, I looked up that version. Under its headline was the following phrase:

This article was translated from our Spanish edition using AI technologies. Errors may exist due to this process.

Maybe I’ve been living in a cave since the 1990s, but I‘ve never seen this kind of disclaimer before. Errors happen all the time in man-made news, and yet you don’t see caveats like that under their decks. Why would Entrepreneur need it unless they’re leaving the final proofreading stage to the drones, as it were?

To be fair, I have no visibility into Entrepreneur’s editorial workflow or the capabilities of its AI. But the mere existence of this disclaimer is enough, I think, to erode public trust in the news. We don’t need any more of that.

For my part, I can’t help now but wonder if that headline was distorted by a bad AI translation algorithm. Even worse, I wonder about the accuracy of the entire story, and what other key facts might have been lost in AI phone tag.

NOTE: You might feel a bit disappointed by my liberal use of the word “drone” when what I really meant was “Spanish-to-English AI translation algorithm,” or whatever that thing is called. But now that you’ve read the whole story, you understand my wordplay, so you don’t mind.

Of course you mind. Misleading headlines are awful.

UPDATE (7/26/21): After watching the CNN video interview, I revised paragraph 3 to clarify Tyson’s issue with people saying Branson went to “space.” Before I thought he meant Branson just didn’t go high enough. His actual three-part argument makes much better sense… probably because he’s Neil deGrasse Tyson.