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How the News: Gets Away With Lying

Simon Pitt | News | Tuesday 22nd June 2010

It's a 24 hour news cycle around here Jack, we really don't have time to do it right anymore.
Avery Jessup, 30 Rock, Future Husband

The average person lies 200 times a day or 4 times a day (depending on which site you read). Lies are everywhere; even one of those sites about lies is lying.

Lying is endemic to the news. When the news lies, though, it's particularly dangerous, since the public forms its opinions, prejudices, buying habits, voting choices, diet and even lifestyle based on the news.

So how does the news get away with lying all the time, and why does it anyway?

To answer these questions, let's look at a couple of example articles.
Is there life after quiz shows?


Charlie Reams, 23, won Countdown last year and was a finalist in this year's Champion of Champions. He is doing a PhD in mathematics at Cambridge University.

When I was first on the programme, people were most excited but as it went on they became increasingly blasé. By the 15th time, even my friends didn't watch it that much. It's early to say what impact it will have, but I've volunteered to help my department's computer lab because, as someone who lives and works with computers, it's good to have an outside interest.
The Times, Wednesday, February 25th 2009

Now, at first glance, there doesn't sound anything too objectionable here. However if you read it more carefully, you'll see it doesn't even make sense:
It's early to say what impact it will have, but I've volunteered to help my department's computer lab because, as someone who lives and works with computers, it's good to have an outside interest.
What does that mean? This sentence doesn't even make any sense at all!

The thing is, I happen to know that Charlie isn't doing a PhD in mathematics, but in Computer Science, so the second sentence of the article has a lie in it. Not only that, but he didn't win countdown either - so there's a lie in the first sentence as well.

Journalist Penny Wark has obviously become confused and so she altered the comment from Charlie about volunteering "to help my department's computer lab" to explain why a maths student was in a computer lab. She's ended up though with complete nonsense. There's two non sequiturs in the same sentence; why would the fact that he's volunteered to help in a computer lab be contrary (note the use of "but" to join the two clauses) to the fact that it's "early to say", and how does volunteering in a computer lab give someone who works with computers another interest? It's total rubbish.

This relatively simple article only contains five sentences, but within those we have two factual errors, one garbled nonsensical sentence and two non sequiturs. Extrapolate this over a whole newspaper, containing some stories that are slightly more complex nuanced than "Cambridge Computer Scientists was on Countdown", and imagine how many lies and errors there'll be.

So, here are the first few ways in which the news gets away with lying:

  1. By its nature, news is informing the reader about events that they do not know. Consequently, readers use newspapers as sources of facts.
  2. It's a difficult and time-consuming process to verify facts. If you were to check every factual claim in a newspaper, it would take you fourteen years to read the Metro.
  3. Most readers only half read or watch the news, and so won't notice subtle errors or non-sequiturs. Unless it's story in which they're particularly interested, or know something about.
  4. Even if you could instantly check facts using a magical fact-checking scanner, the reader is not motivated to check most articles - partly because they're only half paying attention anyway.
  5. Journalists bend facts and change quotes to match their lies and errors so that the article will seem to make sense. They simplify complex issues and flatten out events into a straightforward narrative so that it is impossible for the layperson to unpick the lies and errors.

Numbers look like facts even when they're not.
Click Equations

Let's look at another example, this time from the Daily Mail.
£2m deal will keep Christine Bleakley at the Beeb after ITV bid to reunite her with Adrian Chiles

Christine Bleakley is now preparing to sign a £2million deal to stay with the BBC, the Mail has learned.


Although 31-year-old Miss Bleakley's £100,000-a-year contract does not run out until October, BBC bosses spent yesterday drawing up a new two-year deal that will make her one of the corporation's highest-paid stars.
The Daily Mail, Tuesday 8th June 2010

Christine Blakeley has been in the news a lot over the last few weeks, as you can see on the Image Dissectors Media News Aggregator.

As an aside, viewing all the articles about a minor celebrity in this way really underlines the fatuousness of newspaper celebrity obsession. My favourite part of the sequence is the coverage of her plans to water-ski across the Channel: That's covered every minor occurrence in the whole unimportant sequence; the only thing they missed is the moment when she purchased her waterproof jacket. It's like reading fifteen headlines about Cheryl Cole successfully picking her nose.

But, anyway, back to the Daily Mail. There's not much you could doubt in their article. After all, there's only really two facts: These are big bold figures. They're even in the headline. And they use them to base their conclusion on: that she will be hugely overpaid. After all her current contract "does not run out until October" (so the suggestion is that offering her this huge salary is unnecessary) and the new contract will make her "one of the corporation's highest-paid stars". These facts must be true, then, mustn't they? Surely they wouldn't think they could get away with just making up numbers?

Yet only two days later, The Guardian published a story saying:

Christine Bleakley poised to sign new £1m deal with BBC

One Show host, involved in tug of war with ITV, understood to be staying put until 2012 with £100,000-a-year pay increase
The Guardian, Thursday 10th June 2010

Suddenly, £1 million has been knocked off Bleakley's salary!

Somewhere along the line, Sarah Nathan, one of the Daily Mail's celebrity reporters, confused the amount that Christine's Bleakley's salary was being increased by with her original salary. And, at the same time, she doubled her new salary. There was no basic fact checking, and even more worryingly, either the deadlines were so tight, or Nathan was so careless or so ignorant that she didn't know the difference between: Incidentally Sarah Nathan is the same journalist who wrote an article about Charlie Brooker calling him "a college dropout who has made his name as a foul-mouthed TV critic". She remarks that "smutty TV host Charlie Brooker dropped out of poly" and finishes the article by telling us that "Brooker, a writer and broadcaster, dropped out of the Polytechnic of Central London before completing his media studies degree". How many times do we need to know, in one article, that Charlie Brooker didn't finish his degree? It's hardly the most significant (or relevant) fact about the BAFTA nominated, columnist of the year (2009). It's like writing an article about David Cameron, saying four times that he likes pickles and not mentioning that he's the Prime Minister. Presumably this is an attempt by Nathan to get revenge on Brooker for Daily Mail Island.

When not calling Charlie Brooker "smutty" Nathan is illustrating articles about Christine Bleakely's salary with shots of her bum.

What we have here is an article that consists of two lies, and two gratuitous bum shots.

When the BBC withdrew the offer, the Daily Mail published another article with the correct figures without mentioning that they'd previously inflated them 220%.
Yesterday the BBC lost patience and made Christine Bleakley's mind up for her by 'regretfully' withdrawing its offer of a £900,000 two-year deal.
And so we can see the next few ways that the news gets away with lying:
  1. Stories are often exaggerated and facts not fully integrated because the misunderstood facts support the view that the newspaper wants to push. Angry readers of this Daily Mail article 'flooded' the site with remarks saying how overpaid Blakeley was (although I'm not sure whether 39 comments really counts as a lot). These readers believed the facts because they fitted with their current world view.
  2. While this causes outrage, it's a very short-term outrage. The Daily Mail doesn't offer any analysis, any conclusions or any suggestions; it just points at something and says how awful it is. The nature of the article means that you forget about it within minutes. It is the epitome of throwaway news. When the story changes they can change their figures without the need to point out that they made a mistake or publish a correction.
  3. The news lies by publishing misleading information, missing out relevant points because they don't match with what they want to say and by highlighting irrelevant detail, such as the fact Charlie Brooker didn't complete his degree (nineteen years ago) or illustrating articles with lots of images of Christine Blakeley's bum. In many ways, these lies are more dangerous. While errors due to ignorance or lack of care represent an endemic carelessness in newspaper journalism, intentionally misleading reporting reflects its more insidious nature. Its desperate attempts to sell news through peddling fear, anger and hatred.
The Daily Mirror authoritatively published this article:
Christine Bleakley has snubbed Adrian Chiles' pleas to join him at GMTV and agreed a new £1million BBC deal.
...just a few days before the offer was withdrawn. She hadn't agreed to the amount and that it wasn't even £1 million, but that didn't get in the way of the Daily Mirror before publishing the story.
  1. Things change rapidly, and in their hurry to get ahead, newspapers report things before they actually happen. They also exaggerate facts to make their argument clearer.
On the subject of exaggeration, The Guardian remarked that:
The will-she-won't-she saga has gripped media watchers and viewers
The Guardian, Sunday 20th June 2010

Looking at the Media News Aggregator, Christine Bleakely had certainly 'gripped' the attention of the most of the newspapers, but reading the comments on most news webpages tells a different story. Here is one of the most significant ways the newspaper gets away with lying:
  1. Newspapers set the news agenda by reporting what has happened. If they say viewers were "gripped" by the Bleakely saga, because they published dozens of stories about it, then that is what people read and believe. You can only read and be interested by what is in the newspaper. Newspapers can lie to you by choosing what they are going to cover, forcing you to view the world in a certain way. There are lots of articles about knife crime, so it seems like there is lots of knife crime. There are not many articles about intelligent people getting on with their life. Therefore, it seems like this doesn't happen very much. Newspapers lie about the state of the world by only reporting negative stories.
Increasingly newspapers aren't only reporting on the news, they're creating it as well. The whole Bleakley story would never have been an issue had they not reported it and blown it out of proportion. By reporting all the stories, MPs got involved, there was public outcry and the BBC was forced to withdraw its offer as a PR exercise.

Ultimately the whole story was a lie. The Daily Mail said had an offer of £2 million and she hadn't. They said she was originally on £100,000 a year, and she wasn't. The Mirror reported that she's signed the contract and she hadn't. The Guardian said the public was gripped and they weren't. All the papers kept writing news stories about it, but it wasn't news. Finally, when the BBC withdrew the offer, it was because of all the news coverage of it.



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