Real Fake News

Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website Yonder and Home. Andrew is the host of Heard Tell podcast.

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35 Responses

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    Curious, has this always been an issue, and the internet just makes it impossible to hide it from a global audience, or are younger journalists that lacking in work or professional ethics? Or is there an overwhelming pressure to deliver hard hitting stories for the clicks?Report

    • plagiarism is as old as the written word, It’s just more easy to fake and a wider pool of gullible people to impose it upon. Same with making up news stories, or making up facts in them; cutting corners to get the desired result. Add in political or ideological bents to set a narrative or make a point and people justify such things quickly in their own minds. Report

    • atomickristin in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      I’ve also wondered about this. Have we been reading made up stories all along and just never known it?

      My suspicion is less to do with journalism and more to do with subjects. People are all so closed off and isolated now, not to mention the risk of major, life-ruining blowback, that I wonder if they’re less likely to speak to a journalist on or off the record. You never know when a reporter is planning to hang you out to dry or is setting you up to look like a fool. why take a chance of talking to them? That plus the pressure for clicks may be setting up a situation where some people succumb to temptation.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to atomickristin says:

        Have we been reading made up stories all along and just never known it?

        Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
        —Michael Crichton


        • atomickristin in reply to Jaybird says:

          Interesting. Thanks for sharing that.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to atomickristin says:

            I’m sure you’ve seen it a dozen times for your areas of expertise.

            I’ve seen it for panicky stories about D&D and vidja games.

            And, right away, I go back to thinking that the reporter knows shit from shinola when they start talking about international news.Report

            • Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

              I once read a piece from an American political writer about his encounter with a Russian dissident, who said that everything in Russian press was a lie, but insisted that a Russian had invented the telephone.Report

            • atomickristin in reply to Jaybird says:

              Totally. Many more than a dozen, I’m sure. Just hadn’t realized there was an official term for it.

              I recall having an epiphany some years back with recipes. I tried several terrible recipes (the kind that mix bananas and shrimp, or whatever) and it finally dawned on me “someone is just making these up”! It made me wonder how much content is created just to fill space based on really scanty info. So I guess I’ve been suspicious about this possibility for quite some time.Report

        • Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

          What Crichton described is correct, but when I apply that to my own field, the articles I read don’t get things as wrong as “wet streets cause rain” level.

          Usually it is smaller, more a matter of context and framing, of elevating some matters as being more important than others.

          But the main structure of truth is there.

          Its important to keep this in mind because it is all too tempting to wave a hand and inflate inaccuracy to lies, or poor context to propaganda.

          Which is exactly what most repressive regimes prefer, that lies and truth become entirely subjective and unknowable.Report

        • PD Shaw in reply to Jaybird says:

          I’m quite familiar with myself. I’ve been misrepresented in a newspaper article before, but unlike the poll I linked to here, I think it was a matter of negligence, not intentional. The paper was following one of my cases and a reporter would sometimes call around 5PM to ask about what had happened that day, or was scheduled for the next. She would always say that she only needed a few minutes of my time because she had a deadline shortly. Once she paraphrased me in a way that sounded like we were changing our position and weren’t doing what we told the Court we would do. Again, I think it was because she waited until the last minute to gather the story and there was a slight technical point that she did not understand.

          So, the next day I’m heading to court worried that the judge will think we’ve been wasting her time and/or opposing counsel will make a big deal about our inconsistencies. Nope, they both laughed and thought the story was crazy when they first read it. With the client’s agreement, I stopped taking her calls and the newspaper just printed the other side’s story.Report

  2. Saul Degraw says:

    Threatens is too strong a word. TNR survived Stephen Glass and the Times survived Jayston BlairReport

  3. Richard Hershberger says:

    This was the plot of Season 5 of The Wire.

    There is a lot behind this, but the part I especially blame is the format of the modern news story. We, the readers, are assumed to have extremely limited attention, so we need to be drawn in by some personal anecdote that we can relate to. So if the story is about mortgage rates rising or falling, the story opens with a discussion of Justin and Britney, who are preparing to buy their first house, and how the changing rates will affect this. After several paragraphs of this blather, the reporter gets to the actual story. This model is applied to a wide range of stories. Once you know the pattern, you can skip down to where the story starts.

    The Justin and Britney stuff is required, yet irrelevant. The reporter has to track down a couple who fit the story he is writing and interview them long enough to get them to give him the quotes he has slotted in. If Justin and Britney don’t pan out, he moves on to Tyler and Emily. And so on. He isn’t interviewing these people to find out anything about them or what they think. He is interviewing them to fill that slot in the story. Given that the interview is bullshit, in the Frankfutian sense, it is natural for the reporter to wonder why he bothers. He can simply invent Justin and Britney and the necessary quotes.

    In Season 5 of The Wire the reporter is assigned to interview Orioles fans on the street on opening day. His mistake was invented a really great story. As I recall, it was some disabled kid or the like. So everyone went “aww….” and wanted to learn more. He should have invented generic fans spouting pablum.

    I have no idea if this Der Spiegel guy was anything like this. The model I describe is widespread in American journalism, but I don’t know about German.

    Now riddle me this: What constitutes ethical journalism in this model? The classic answer is that if Justin and Britney don’t work out, the ethical course of action is to track down Tyler and Emily. And if they don’t work out, to keep going until you find someone who does. Why precisely this is more ethical is not obvious to me. Oh, sure, I understand that the point is to report an actual interview. But the interview itself is bullshit. The ethical problem is merely pushed back a bit, with the pretense that this part of the story is the product of real research.

    Relatedly, this is also done with experts. Some story breaks. The reporter tracks down experts to comment on the story. The comment is then manipulated, whether intentionally or merely out of incompetence, to fit the story the reporter wants to write. I have seen instances in the linguistics blogosphere where some linguist is quoted in the popular press, followed by a game in the blogs of trying to figure out what that linguist actually said, since what made it into the story is utter nonsense. I also know of experts who refuse to talk to reporters for this reason.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Ehh…can you prove that media ever felt otherwise? I think the human anecdote angle has always been with us.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        There have long been soft news items, and of course there is the yellow press. But in older reporting the range of what followed the hard news “what, when, where, etc.” model was broader than it is today. Just punching “interest rate” into a newspaper archive, I immediately find an article from 1920 in the Topeka Daily Capital about the effect of high interest rates on livestock producers. There is no hint of an interview with Rancher Bob and how this affects him and Muriel, his wife. It is actually quite refreshing.Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      I think there is a term for this, or maybe I read Will Saleten name it once and it didn’t catch on.

      I have a neighbor that runs a family construction company. The Big City Fibune once published a front page story with a picture of his company repairing sidewalks at the governor’s mansion, accompanying a piece about how companies like his are gaining lucrative contracts in exchange for political donations. The article was complete BS. Neither the owner, nor the company had ever made political contributions. The job was awarded by public bid. And it was a very small job that probably wasn’t going to turn a profit; the owner just wanted a bit of work for his crew during the off-season. The paper eventually issued a retraction in the small print somewhere in the back.

      Besides being a malicious attack on an innocent party, its the kind of story that leads the public to misunderstand the events of the day. The governor, since imprisoned, was engaged in pay-to-play schemes for professional services (which are exempt from public bid requirements), like engineering, legal and medical.Report

  4. Aaron David says:

    Sara Lippincott, who now lives in Pasadena, having retired as an editor at this magazine in the early nineteen-nineties, worked in The New Yorker’s fact-checking department from 1966 until 1982. She had a passion for science, and when pieces of writing about science came into the magazine they were generally copied to her desk. In 1973, a long piece of mine called “The Curve of Binding Energy” received her full-time attention for three or four weeks and needed every minute of it. Explaining her work to an audience at a journalism school, Sara once said, “Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker’s imprimatur, which consists of a tiny pencil tick.” From that sixty-thousand-word piece of mine—which was about weapons-grade nuclear material in private industry and what terrorists might or might not do with it—one paragraph in particular stands out in memory for the degree of difficulty it presented to her and the effort she made to keep it or kill it.

    John McPhee

    It is a wonderful piece, and I urge everyone here to read it. Not simply because of who wrote it (John McPhee is simply the best living writer of non-fiction alive) but because of how it speaks to the idea of Getting It Right, at least in print. Much of these problems, the Stephen Glasses, the Jason Blairs, could be avoided by just slowing down. Following up on stories, building a reputation for accuracy and truth, not the Walter Duranty/Dan Rather versions of it, but actual truth and not going to print until you are sure of the facts. Print corrections on the front page to show that you care about honesty and not a narrative. And always, always strive for truth. There are still news sources like this, The Christian Science Monitor comes to mind.

    The poll that PD Shaw links to above demonstrates what a pickle the media has put itself in, and Sheryl Attkinsson has put together a nice article of media malfeasance in the Trump era.

    (Coincidentally, Tina Brown took over the editorial aspects of the New Yorker in ’92.)Report

  5. Pinky says:

    Colin Kaepernick, Guantanamo Bay, “Mexicans keep out”…I wonder how big a role confirmation bias played in Relotius’s success.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Pinky says:

      I clipped the following from Der Spiegel’s article about Relotius. This is more than I’d usually excerpt, but hey, Der Spiegel’s got bigger problems these days.

      In March 2018, Relotius’ story “The Last Witness” was published. It was a superbly gripping piece about an American woman who serves as a witness to executions because the law requires the presence of ordinary citizens. The woman is in favor of the death penalty, so she sees it as her duty to support the state on this issue….

      “She sits near the front, on the right-hand side of the bus. She says that she often feels nauseous on long bus rides.” And: “Gladdis takes a deep breath and presses her fists together in her lap so firmly that her knuckles turn white.” And: “She’s wearing a blouse and cross on her necklace; she thumbs through her Bible. She’s read it so often that the cover has yellowed in the pages are dog-eared. She opens to Leviticus, chapter 24, where it says: ‘Whoever kills a man must be put to death’.”

      It all fits perfectly. But it’s not true. None of it.

      “Fits”? Fits what? That’s functionally the definition of confirmation bias.Report

      • InMD in reply to Pinky says:

        Richard Bradley (an editor fooled by Ira Glass but who was one of the early skeptics of the Rolling Stone UVA fabrication) made similar comments about stories confirming biases and narratives slipping through. His blog appears to no longer exist but the pertinent part is quoted at length here.Report

  6. On confirmation bias and the role it may have played in the Der Spiegel scandal:

  7. I’m late to the discussion, but I’ll riff a little off of P.D. Shaw’s “negligence” argument.

    Not that I’m much of an expert, but I strongly suspect that negligence/laziness and “structural” factors (like having to meet deadlines) are usually more to blame than naked dishonesty. (I almost said “purposeful dishonesty,” but I suppose what I call “negligence/laziness” has a purposeful element inasmuch as one chooses to be be negligent or to indulge laziness.)

    Even more: Misinformation is inevitable in any reporting. Or the tendency toward misinformation is always a problem. No matter how thorough the reporting or conscientious the reporter, the report has to simplify and rephrase and relate things the reader will presumably not know. Historians have the same problem. We look at sources that are supposedly “primary,”* and fit what we get from those sources into a narrative or an argument.

    *I say “supposedly ‘primary'” because I have yet to find a source that’s not somehow mediated by the time the historian gets their hands on it.Report