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.