A small Canadian newspaper, the Kelowna Daily Courier, drew the attention of the conspiracy-minded in the wake of the Washington D.C. Navy Yard shootings. It appeared to have published a story about the even before it happened!
Did that happen? Nope.
The reports and screenshots of the website’s story and date are accurate, but the actual date of publication on the website is the result of a software issue.
What is really going on?
It’s both simple and complicated. The simple answer is timezones but it’s not even quite what it seems. Kelowna is in British Columbia, and as such it’s in the Pacific timezone. Specifically at this time of year it’s Pacific Daylight Time, or GMT -7 hours. It is three hours behind Eastern time, so the shooting, which occurred about 8am Eastern time was at 5am in Kelowna.
But that doesn’t explain the fact the story is actually timestamped as being five and half hours before that!
A closer look at the stories on the Daily Courier’s website reveals that all their stories appear to have been published in the future. For example a story about the court appearance of a teen charged with murder was written well before the court opened for the day – it was published at 07:04am on Monday, which was 08:04am in Saskatchewan where the court appearance took place.
UPDATE: The Daily Courier appears to have fixed the timezone offset error with their website. All stories are now displaying with a more accurate timestamp. Although the way they’ve fixed it may still mean that Google and/or RSS readers report stories as having been reported 8 hours earlier than reality.
To uncover what’s really happening here it’s helpful to find some reference timings. At the time of writing the top World News story on the Daily Courier website was about an Austrian police raid, it’s timestamp was 07:50am on September 17th.
So, how can we find our how this is happening?
The Daily Courier’s website also features an RSS feed of their various news sections, as part of that RSS feed the story’s publication date is expressed in a universal format with the necessary timezone offsets. This is derived from the site’s backend database.
In the case of the Austrian police story above, the timestamp in that RSS feed is expressed as: Tue, 17 Sep 2013 15:49:59 +0000 - in other words 3:49pm GMT. Not coincidentally 3:49pm would be about the time that AP story was received by the Daily Courier, but in local Pacific Time.
What appears to be happening is that the local time is being stored in the database (15:49:59 in this case) but not with the proper timezone offset data – instead of -0700 which would be correct it is +0000.
When the website’s frontend displays the story it applies the local timezone settings to the publication date in the database. In this case -0800 as it is using standard not daylight time.
So when was the Navy Yard story published?
The RSS feed for the site only includes the most recent items so we can’t see it’s entry specifically, but the pattern is the same for all stories. So using very simple maths we can take the 23:31 publication time, add 8 hours to account for the website’s “correction” and get 07:31 Pacific Daylight Time, or 10:31am Eastern Daylight Time, a little over 2 hours after the shooting took place.
I don’t believe you!
That’s fine – check it for yourself. Unless the site’s administrators have corrected the timing errors in their software the same pattern will be repeated.
Find a story on the website, then see if it’s also in the RSS feed – if so it will show the time the story was added (with incorrect timezone offset).
Then try to find that same story on the AP’s website (this is a bit difficult as the only host the latest versions of each of their stories).
The times will match up as above being that the story on the Daily Courier site was publish anywhere up to eight hours before the AP released it. The differences in timing (ie. less than eight hours) are because the approval and selection of wire stories for the website will be a manual process – a staff member has to decide which AP stories to carry on the site, and put them into the content management system.
What about the Google timestamp?
Many people point to the fact that on the day of the shooting Google was displaying a link to the Daily Courier’s website which said “1 day ago”.
Simply put it’s because Google uses the timestamp information from the RSS feed, which is – as established above – wrong.
If the date on Google’s stories was based on when it indexed the story then it would never be able to list stories that existed before Google did (and it does do that)