Lying in Journalism - Journalism Week


Written by Mark Falanga

The following facts are taken from a nationally published magazine: Chicken soup has shown some success in treating multiple personality disorder. Many people have the exact same fingerprints, but the authorities claim otherwise in order to discourage crime. The gall bladder functions perfectly up to one month after a person dies. Cotton candy sold in American League baseball stadiums has more nutrients than cotton candy sold in National League stadiums.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

Do you believe these facts just because they were printed in a national magazine? Well, you probably shouldn’t. The magazine these “facts” were taken from was Mad magazine, issues #497 and #502 respectively, under the article “Myths You Shouldn’t Believe”. Once the source is revealed, the average reader would assume that these were false. But what if this appeared in publications such as Time or Newsweek? Because of the integrity of these publications, the public might be more inclined to believe them.

Typically, news outlets hire fact checkers to insure that whatever story they choose to print is indeed factual in nature. A former fact checker at The New Yorker, Sara Lippincott, described her weeks-long experience working on “The Curve of Binding Energy,” a 60,000-word piece with a great deal of scientific information. “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.”

While this endeavor is admirable, most publications, such as daily newspapers, don’t often have weeks to fact check stories. Getting the story first is often perceived as more important than getting the story right. One of the most famous examples of this prioritization of timeliness over accuracy is the 1948 headline of the Chicago Tribune, “Dewey Defeats Truman”. The managing editor of the paper, J. Loy Maloney, was forced to make a choice between trusting his Washington correspondent, Arthur Sears Henning, or running the risk of being outsold by a rival paper.

The iconic “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline
Photo courtesy of Truman Library Photographs

The silver lining to the Tribune story was that at least it had been thought out by reliable predictions. But what happens when a news story is based purely on the imagination of its writer? In 2003, the New York Times found out the hard way when one of their reporters, a young man by the name of Jayson Blair, was discovered to have either plagiarized or flat out lied about most of the stories he had written for the publication. In his tell-all book, Burning Down My Masters’ House, Blair sums up his tenure at The New York Times: “I lied and I lied—and then I lied some more. I lied about where I had been, I lied about where I had found information, I lied about how I wrote the story. And these were no everyday little white lies—they were complete fantasies, embellished down to the tiniest detail.”

Though he does offer detailed accounts of the lies he told, his rationale for lying is not so evident. In a 2004 interview on NBC’s The Today Show, Blair claimed that a mix of drug and alcohol abuse, a possible undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and the overall pressures of working at the New York Times were the primary reasons for which he fabricated stories.

Another writer accused of fabricating elements in his stories is Dennis Love of the Sacramento Bee, in California. Unlike Blair, Love explains his intentions for lying more clearly: “No. 1, it’s just a simple human fallibility of taking a shortcut where one was available, concerning some stories that maybe I didn’t care as much about as some other stories. I know that sounds maybe sort of cavalier. But I really do think that it was a character weakness.”

Putting aside the reasons for why lying occurs, it’s clear that news publications accused of plagiarism and fabrication need to do a better job of fact checking their reporters’ work. However, as noted by Dennis Love, human fallibility sometimes does rear its ugly head in the face of serious journalism. The consumer must then make a choice to decide whether what they see is true or false. It is not always as easy as it seems, as American Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies.”