KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE - In the spirit of Christmas, Santa Claus himself might have just hopped on the fake news trend that has been taking the world by storm.
Knoxville News Sentinel, part of the USA Today network, had reported about an incident in a local hospital, where a terminally ill five-year-old boy died in the arms of Santa Claus actor Eric Schmitt-Matzen a few weeks ago.
The story went viral, and was picked up by major news networks.
However on Wednesday (Dec 14), the paper published a note from editor Jack McElroy and the author of the original story, columnist Sam Venable, saying they have been unable to verify the story as accurate.
"Since publication, the News Sentinel has done additional investigation in an attempt to independently verify Schmitt-Matzen's account. This has proven unsuccessful. Although facts about his background have checked out, his story of bringing a gift to a dying child remains unverified," said Mr McElroy and Mr Venable in the note.
"Therefore, because the story does not meet the newspaper's standards of verification, we are no longer standing by the veracity of Schmitt-Matzen's account."
The paper had reported the story on Sunday (Dec 11), after contacting and interviewing Mr Schmitt-Matzen, who has been playing Santa Claus for years at the local hospital, following a tip off by a "known source".
He said a nurse had called him about the five-year-old's request to see Santa Claus, and that there was no time for him to change into his full costume. At the hospital, he gave the boy a toy and told him right before he died: "When you get there, you tell them you're Santa's No. 1 elf and I know they'll let you in."
After the incident, he was so affected he said he thought he would never be able to play the role of Santa again.
The Knoxville News Sentinel said that the 60-year-old wanted to protect the identities of the child's family and the nurse who called him. In follow-up interviews and video recordings by local and national television outlets, the 1.8m tall and 141kg Mr Schmitt-Matzen, president of Packing Seals & Engineering in Jacksboro, Tennessee, has stood by his account.
The note has been met with mixed views on the newspaper's Facebook post.
Some believed in the legitimacy of the story, and gave Mr Schmitt-Matzen the benefit of the doubt. Facebook user Lynn Taylor Morgan commented: "I am disgusted. The family shouldn't have to come forward to verify this story. It's true. Period."
However, there were also those who were wary, especially given the spread of fake news on the Internet. Facebook user Jean Ash said: "I would hope the purported Santa or child's family would come forth. Otherwise, we must acknowledge a possible hoax. What a shame."