net.wars: Bloggers don't lie

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 May 2005

There is a simple rule that goes like this: never lie about anything that can be checked.

Wendy M Grossman

This is especially true when you are dealing with suspicious government types with the power to do nasty things to you, like deportation or jail, or demanding large sums of money. If you want to tell them you never had a drug conviction, make sure the one you had was in the early 1970s when all the records were on paper and yours is stuffed so deep down a well of government documents that even the police can't find it. Similarly, if you're going to say you're not having an affair with  Kimberly Quinn, don't lie about knowing her if someone might have pictures. Keep your lies simple and as narrow as possible.

This week, freelance contributors to  Wired News were emailed that effective immediately all stories are to include contact information for all quoted sources. Now, there are lots of reasons why this might be a good idea. The editors might want the list in case you disappear and they want to revisit the topic. Or they might be protecting themselves in case of a future legal challenge. Or they might have hired a fact-checker. In fact, it turned out that there may have been a  faker in our midst. W00t! Wired News gets to join the New York TimesNew Republic, and the Washington Post as being worth fabricating stories for.

It's really not that difficult to say how such a thing could have happened.

Wired News is a high-turnover outfit with a relatively small staff and a lot of time pressure. It is human nature that the more you work with someone successfully, the more you trust them. "Successfully" in this context doesn't always mean what readers would like it to mean. Often, "successful" from the editor's point of view means that the copy arrived on time, it was literate enough not to need much rewriting or copy-editing, and it was interesting enough to be publishable. ( Pace  those who think this last never applies to net.wars.)

Editors are only rarely expert on everything they publish; if they were, they might not need writers. Long-term, a journalist lives or dies by the overall quality of their work, including research; short-term a journalist lives or dies by whether the editor can use the copy today. And then there's the PR reality: medium-term, a journalist lives or dies by how much their work can be hyped for maximum publicity.

At that, it's probably harder for a high school or college student to successfully get away with plagiarism, if only because so many educational institutions now routinely search Google or term paper validation sites to check whether the work is original. (Kids, listen to me: if you're going to plagiarise, just make sure you use a source that isn't online.)

One real problem in tracking down sources, as Adam Penenberg (PDF) tried to do on behalf of Wired News, is that often reporters are advised not to keep interview notes and research material for more than six months. Legal reasons: you cannot be compelled to produce contact information for protected sources in a lawsuit if you do not keep that information. Equally, though, if you toss all your records you may be unable to produce enough information for a review if your integrity is questioned.

For another thing, someone who is writing, as Michelle Delio apparently was, 150 stories a year just for Wired News (plus sundry others for different publications), has a very limited memory span for any of them. The only way you can get through that kind of volume is to essentially wipe the memory banks the instant each story is handed in. It happens to me probably three or four times a week that I get a phone call from or meet someone who tells me we've met or talked before - and usually I have absolutely no idea whether that's true.

While there are folks who stand out in my mind even though I haven't spoken to them in over ten years, there is a long list of people from 2000, when I was doing daily financial news, whose names I couldn't begin to remember. And I, too, have used anonymous sources: met on planes, found on IRC, you name it.

Why would anyone write three stories a week? If you write news, you need that kind of volume to make a living. Journalists are in general not highly paid, no matter how many articles they write about the correct way to fold dinner napkins. That fact of life may be the most significant pressure that means we will see more such stories in future.

Delio has said that all her primary sources do check out; it's only the secondary ones with small impact on her stories that editors are unable to locate. The sad thing is, though, that those secondary sources are the best ones to fabricate. Make up a quote from a named person at a big company, and either the company or the person will notice. Make up a quote from a college student with a common name, and you've no-muss-no-fuss added the kind of colour to your story that editors love.

It's just a bonus that they're a lot harder to check. See rule one, above.

Meanwhile, if anyone knows an expert on bee waggle dancing, please to send them in my direction. Immediately...

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).