Reading Between The Lines Part 1



This comes in answer to a request from Elisabeth Rose, to give tips on spotting fake journalism. In the UK we downgraded the quality of journalism in the late ’80s by allowing Rupert Murdoch to trample over reporters’ rights. Traditionally stories are fully sourced within the first two paragraphs. That is, at least two names are checked who provided the information.

This was changed to single source reporting, which effectively means any hack can make anything up. It doesn’t happen in the USA broadsheets, where facts are rigorously checked. (Watch the New Yorker show on Netflix to see them checking facts rigorously.)

Here’s an example of what happens in a UK tabloid. ‘Kim Kardashion is putting on weight. A close friend says; ‘She’s obsessed about her weight and very upset about her extra pounds’. There is no ‘close friend’. The hack is safe because the opinion is obvious and anodyne. What chance is there that someone like Kardashian wouldn’t be upset? If the weight gain is on record it’s fair game.

Here’s what Reuters has to say about single sources;

‘Stories based on a single, anonymous source should be the exception and require approval by an immediate supervisor, such as a bureau chief or editor in charge. The supervisor must be satisfied that the source is authoritative. If there are any questions about a single-source story, the supervisor should escalate the matter…Factors to be taken into account include the source’s track record and the reporter’s track record.’

This dictum has been vastly abused and debased by British tabloids like the Sun, Mail and Express.

Many stories are copied down verbatim from press releases. I can spot a story knocked together this way in seconds. Often they use dollars as a global standard of monetary units and don’t bother to translate the data into GBP.

Another one to watch out for in all papers is Charity Data Day. These are the annual or semi-annual dates when anyone sends out their data to raise money and awareness. It’s usually for a good cause. World Aids Day is December 6th, so you can expect alarming data in the week preceding that date.

This is not a bad thing – it’s a good cause delivering important news, but some organisations with less integrity abuse this arrangement by delivering spurious data with a separate agenda behind it. Oil companies will find good news in green initiatives (repeating their name in the first paragraph) and Christian groups will provide alarming data about abortions. Identities get hidden behind acronyms.

Well, that’s no surprise, but it goes way deeper. Companies that have investments in sugar-drinks will create fears about our water. Remember Coca-Cola’s dodgy ‘pure water’ Dasani, manufactured in Sidcup, South London? It was tap water containing a carcinogen.

Coca-Cola recalled half a million bottles and pulled the brand from the UK market after public denunciations. But it only came about because there was a fun news story attached to it. In an episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’, the boys try to sell bottled water from Peckham. That was what made good copy.

Papers don’t change their spots; if it has a history of misreporting like the Mail, or of blurring opinion and fact like the Express, or is simply nonsense like Fox, it’s still doing it.

More tomorrow.


12 comments on “Reading Between The Lines Part 1”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks for this. It really is quite chilling the way we are being manipulated. It is also very worrying that so many people still believe everything they read in the newspapers.

    Just one point though re Daily Mail. Whilst I can’t stand this trashy tome-it least it brought attention to police corruption with regard to the Stephen Lawrence murder, and fought very hard for justice for the parents.

  2. Tony Walker says:

    What is a ‘Kim Kardashian’? Is it some sort of Armenian food?

  3. Ness says:

    It’s an Armenian type of souffle – it has risen well beyond expectations but will soon deflate into a gooey unrecognizable mess and leave a bitter aftertaste.

  4. DC says:

    These days we have an awful lot of data to process. The temptation is to accept a “fact” as gospel, without any form of verification. That “fact” is then spread elsewhere. In the old days it was malicious gossip and the “fact” tended to die quite quickly. Nowadays, it is pretty much indelible.

    Worse you get partially correct stories being spread, with added exaggerated and malicious content. At this point rational argument becomes difficult and the opposition may counter with its own spurious argument.

    Brexit is an example. In this case we will probably have to wait for a few years before we really know the effect on the country and its people. The problem with the process to get to the referendum result, was that no-one really discussed what we were actually voting for. Partially this was because we didn’t (and still don’t) know, what the question actually was.

  5. Ruth says:

    I’ve also noticed recently that newspapers are using the public’s Twitter feeds to put together a ‘story’ on their online outlet. The ones I’ve noticed are mainly about TV programmes e.g. ‘viewers were mystified by a clanger in last night’s episode’ followed by a stream of twitter quotes. Our local paper picks up Facebook posts and makes stories out of them to save having to actually undertake any journalism. There are no checks made and often the ‘story’ is an exaggeration or just not true. Again, these stories usually appear on their website rather than in the paper.

  6. Brooke says:

    “It doesn’t happen in the USA broadsheets, where facts are rigorously checked. (Watch the New Yorker show on Netflix to see them checking facts rigorously.)”

    Nonsense I say! We’re the home of the National Inquirer, for heaven’s sake. The New Yorker is an elite magazine (9USD/weekly issue) with the kind of readership that will blast an error. The daily rags like the Times, Washington Post etc. are always caught in propaganda especially when they try to cover issues regarding people of color. Hence they cover these issues as seldom as possible. And you know the once venerable and conservative Wall Street Journal is now a Murdoch paper.

    Media breeds not intelligence but more media–hence a site like Snopes (named for the (in)famous trial about evolution) Take a look (not while eating or drinking) to get just a small hint of US headlines.

    Nevertheless–good post today. Thank you.

  7. admin says:

    Brooke, I still wouldn’t wish our papers on you. Opinion, conjecture, very few facts. I know what you mean about the New Yorker but at least you have it. And I DO like their show!

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I am going to check stories in our daily paper, but there are so many things that are opinion pieces, something else altogether. I look forward to Part 2.
    Please try to avoid labeling abortion opponents as “Christian groups”. That is too broad. Literalist Christian is closer. The stance has very little to do with their supposed faith and hurts those of us on other sides of the debates.

  9. Vivienne says:

    One day it may be possible to quantify just how much Murdoch has ravaged our media and erstwhile standards. As yet, we are too close and he’s still at it.

  10. Crprod says:

    Anti-abortion anti-conception groups seem to be in business mainly to promote unwanted pregnancies.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Crprod – That’s my feeling, too.

  12. Chris Everest says:

    I remember my teachers trying to develop what they termed “The Critical Faculty”, I think I’ve got it now. Do the younger generation have this ability nowadays. The thought that somebody, anybody, anywhere might believe the Daily Mail (et al) scares the shit out of me !

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