Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Journalistic fraud II

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Yesterday, I published a text on gross journalistic fraud; today, I am met with news sources claiming that RTL* has discovered at least seven cases of deliberate manipulation by one of its employees**… According to e.g. [1] (in German), the proofs are sufficiently clear that the employee has been summarily fired. Further checks of work stretching back twelve years is under way.

*One of the largest German TV senders.

**Original sources use “Mitarbeiter”, which is vaguer than “employee” and might well refer to a non-employed collaborator. Depending on (unknown) context, another translation might be better.

While these individual cases do not necessarily say anything about the typical reporting,* they are a very bad sign—and they do make clear that we must not “believe everything written in the paper”, be it literally or metaphorically. Moreover, they point to a considerable need for media to improve its fact-checking.

*There are thousands of journalists, TV reporters, and whatnots active on a daily basis in Germany alone. Even a small percentage of fraudsters will lead to a non-trivial number of cases.


Written by michaeleriksson

June 14, 2019 at 5:47 pm

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Journalistic fraud

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As a frequent* critic of journalism and journalists, I surprisingly managed to miss one of the biggest journalistic disasters in decades—the outright, large scale fraud perpetrated by Der Spiegel reporter and repeated award-winner Claas Relotius. (See e.g. an extensive Der Spiegel text [1] and other texts linked from there, as well as English Wikipedia [2] and German Wikipedia [3].)

*See e.g. [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9].

Notwithstanding that I am half a year late to the party, there is plenty here that I wish to discuss, especially in the light of the “Lügenpresse”* and “fake news” controversies.

*A derogatory German word for the press, often used by populists. A reasonable literal translation is “press of lies”; a more idiomatically plausible, “liar press”.

Until now, I have considered “Lügenpresse” to be mostly a misattribution of intention, where the true issue is not deliberate lies but a mixture of differences of opinion, the indisputable ideological slant of too many journalists, and the ever-manifesting absurd incompetence of journalists—a failure to apply Hanlon’s razor by those critical of journalism. Events like these make me wonder. Is this a single, regrettable instance*, or is it just the top of the ice-berg?

*A cliched, almost knee-jerk claim by German organizations, when exposed to criticism, is that a particular problem is a “bedauerlicher Einzelfall”—this even when there is good reason to believe that the problem is either occurring often or a sign of a more pervasive underlying problem.

Journalistic fraud does exist, two of the more well-known instances being Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night and the scandal around Stern* and Hitler’s diaries, and I see at least two causes why it might be relatively common today: Firstly, the move towards more free-lancing journalists and the need to be published to earn money, including that some online sources (e.g. Slant) pay writers based on clicks on their articles. If fiddling with the facts, or even outright invention, brings a better chance of being paid and/or more payment, then it can safely be assumed that some** will cheat. Secondly, many journalists are strongly Left-leaning, engaged in the PC movement, and/or see themselves as world-improvers. Looking at such people elsewhere, notably in the blogosphere and in general politics, they often have a “the end justifies the means” attitude and are very prejudiced about what their opponents and perceived enemies actually believe, say, do, whatnot. As with them, it would be unsurprising if some journalists fell for the temptation to fiddle with the facts to show the “truth”—e.g. that a “known” xenophobe who denies being one is “revealed” through some fake statements or untrue allegations.*** In addition, there is great reason to believe that “artistic liberties” are common, e.g. through exaggeration, presenting speculation as fact, oversimplification, paraphrasing while claiming to quote (also see an excursion), misleading translation,**** quoting out of context, use of unattributed and unverified material from others to flesh out own researches, … While these are typically less harmful, they often still leave readers with a faulty impression and are highly disputable from an ethical point of view.

*Another German magazine and one of Der Spiegel’s main competitors.

**How many is a very different question, and only speculation is possible without actual investigation. I do note, however, that some press reactions mentioned in [3] could point to a fairly large problem, including that Georg Altrogge claims that Der Spiegel could have provided fertile ground (“Nährboden”) for cheats through its story-telling attitude, that Michael Hopp admits to having cheated extensively (“immer viel”) himself, that Dirk Gieselmann (another award-winner) has been fired from several magazines, …

***This not to be confused with blanket claims that e.g. “X is a xenophobe”, “X is extreme Right”, etc., which do abound but might be explainable through prejudice or ignorance even when actually incorrect. These too are a problem, but they are not necessarily fraudulent. To boot, many U.S. claims about e.g. “racist” are rooted in a lack of understanding what “racist” means, including confusing it with “racial”. (A good example is a reference to the German AfD as “far Right” that I saw while reading up for this text. The claim is at best an exaggeration, even the uselessness of the term “Right” aside, but might well be explainable by the foreign source being ignorant of German politics and/or simply having uncritically listened to one of AfDs many, mostly Leftist, detractors.)

****During the invasion of Iraq (when I still occasionally watched TV), the German news senders often distorted English originals. My memories are understandably vague, but consider e.g. a scenario where a U.S. spokesman says “we do not know” one day, which is rendered as “the U.S. denies”, and the spokesman says “now we know—and it is true” a few days later, which is then rendered as “the U.S. has been forced to admit”. This is not to be confused with mistranslations out of ignorance or carelessness, which are quite common too.

Fact checking is a critical issue in journalism: Apparently, Der Spiegel has one of the largest fact-checking departments around and prides it self on its attention to detail. That it did not do its job well enough is quite clear, and this has been a source of criticism. However, I might be willing to overlook this instance—the main purpose of “internal”* fact-checking is to discover errors made by honest authors, e.g. through sloppy work, memory errors, or similar. Indeed, some amount of fact-checking is needed even by the author, himself. Detecting whole-sale invention or large-scale deliberate manipulation is a secondary purpose, potentially a lot harder to do, and there were no obvious signs that a greater-than-usual diligence was needed here**. When we look at the overall situation, however, it is quite dire: The lack of fact-checking, insight, and critical thinking displayed again and again, in article after article, is horrifying. A reasonable famous example is the 1990s reports of women overtaking men in distance running, which I dealt with in parts of an older text on simplistic reasoning. Or consider the time when I encountered an FAZ*** article speaking of the age (!) of the universe in light(!)years. Or consider the many, many variations of the long debunked 77 cents on the dollar fraud, which simply does not hold up to critical thinking. Or how about my discussion in [9]? This is a massive problem in the world of journalism.

*E.g. by a magazine with regard to its authors, as opposed to by a magazine with regard to politicians.

**In contrast, with Hitler’s diaries such diligence was quite obviously needed, and there we have a true fact-checking scandal.

***The most prestigious daily paper in Germany.

Indeed, the disputable attitude towards fact checking, critical thinking, etc. is displayed by two quotes from [1]:

The fact-checking and research department at DER SPIEGEL is the journalist’s natural enemy

A sound attitude would be the exact opposite: It is the (competent and professional) journalist’s best friend.

You [the editor] are more interested in evaluating the story based on criteria such as craftsmanship, dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images than on whether it’s actually true.

WTF!!! I am at loss for words to express how idiotic, how mindlessly unprofessional, how fraudulent this attitude is. To boot, claims like “dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images” bring us to another problem with journalism:

The focus on entertainment over information. The purpose of journalism is to bring information to the people—not entertainment and certainly not fake news. If I want to be entertained by something not true, there is always “Harry Potter”. A journalist (ditto, m.m., a news-paper or magazine) who forgets this is not worthy of his job.

Worse, this attitude usually leads to horrendously poor writing, as exemplified by several of the quotes of Claas Relotius articles that I encountered: this is supposed to be award-winning journalism?!? This cheesy, uninformative, emotionally manipulative nonsense!?!?

To get a better impression, I tried to read one of his works, specifically the infamous El Paso text/“Jaegers Grenze”* (co-authored by Moreno) that brought on the revelations. I started skimming after about a quarter and stopped reading entirely about half-way through: as far as journalism goes, it is horrible, even the fraud aspect aside. It is uninformative, speculative, jumps randomly from sub-topic to sub-topic, lacks a clear purpose, is filled with uninteresting trivia, and has a style of writing more suitable for a pure work of fiction—but it fails to reach the level of good fiction. This is the type of writing that makes me loathe reading the works of journalists—even were every word true, it would be a poor read. Still, Relotius won award after award… These awards might show an even greater problem than Relotius cheating: an anti-journalistic, pro-entertainment, and reader-despising attitude obviously present in journalism in general.

*In German. Beware that a warning note by Der Spiegel states that the text remains published until an internal commission has finished its investigation, with the implication that it might be removed afterwards.

Indeed, many of the articles on the scandal are themselves proof of poor journalism and writing, e.g. an apology piece on Fergus Falls, where there is an undue* amount of first-person perspective, irrelevant detail, and misguided and amateurish “human interest” angles, as e.g. with** “He laughs when I ask him if he’s angry. We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor. “I first thought the article was a piece of satire,” says Becker. “I don’t feel offended at all.” He says he thought the writer was friendly – and he still does today. A nice guy. Becker says he’s worried about him.”—further proof that the typical journalist is best kept away from journalism.

*Not all first-person perspective is undue, e.g. because a certain text deals with or draws on personal experiences, attempts to differ between fact and own opinion, tries to give the author’s take of an issue, … This is the case with many of my own texts (and this sentence is it self an example of a valid use) and the quotes of what Becker said above are examples of legitimate uses, because his side of the story is the topic. However, this is only rarely relevant to journalism, which should strive to be as disconnected from the author as possible (for instance, if the journalist had made Becker’s statements, they would have been out of place). Moreover, very many journalist uses miss the point entirely, amounting to irrelevant nonsense—as e.g. with the above “We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor.”, which is pointless “human interest” blurb for the dumbest of the readers.

**The quoted text in original used “type writer” quotes around the statements by Becker. If they appear as “fancy” quotes, WordPress has distorted them.

If we look at the tendency of the fakery by Relotius, there are some that could be seen as potentially distortive Leftist propaganda including “Touchdown” (a piece on Kaepernick), “Jaegers Grenze” (bigoted White men vs. a Honduran woman), and “In einer kleinen Stadt” (people in Fergus Falls dislike Mexicans). Looking at the overall list from [3], I am inclined give the benefit of a doubt and assume that he is mostly looking for sob stories, “human interest” stories, and similar; however, it is noteworthy that journalists (in at least Germany and Sweden) tend to be Left-leaning and often slant their reporting accordingly. This includes Der Spiegel and, to a very high degree, its “Spiegel Online” (“SPON”) sister, where the mixture of low quality and ever-recurring Leftist thought eventually drove me away.*

*The last straw was an opinion piece calling for journalists to be activists, to throw away objectivity, and to fulfill their “democratic role” (“demokratische Aufgabe”) by telling people what to think—and it does so while painting an incorrect picture of the scope and (partially) character of immigration resistance, alleging Right-wing hatred while ignoring the larger problem on the Left, over-looking the already strong Leftist media-bias, etc. This is exactly what a good journalist must not do, and the fact that too many journalists have already gone down this path is a major reason why current journalism is so useless. Indeed, that piece was strongly on my mind when I wrote my suggestions for a new press ethics (cf. [6]).

Juan Moreno, who first* saw through the fraud and pushed for investigations, is an interesting contrast, giving me some hope that the profession of journalism is not entirely beyond redemption. To boot, I can sympathize strongly with his adversities through my own experiences as someone with the ability to spot potential problems, and who often has been met with disbelief worthy of a Cassandra or even the accusation of having a hidden agenda. (Later events have usually proved me right.)

*Or was he? Possibly, others preceded him, but lacked the integrity, courage, and/or persistence to achieve his results… [3] points to some known suspicions as early as 2017…

Excursion on my own experiences with the press:
I can give two pertinent examples relating to myself in the press (both from my youth in Sweden; both relating to “Bergslagsposten”, the small local paper):

Firstly, and fairly harmlessly, I was one of several library visitors polled by a journalist concerning our reading preferences. My answers to several questions were pieced together and presented as a much more fluent version—appearing to be a direct quote. (An interesting, but off-topic, parallel is found in a recent text on the German police.)

Secondly, I wrote several “letters to the editor”—that all invariably were mangled in various ways, e.g. through introducing spelling errors not present in the original or leaving out words. Some excuse might have been found in my poor hand-writing, but this continued even when I switched to typing.* I remember particularly well how repeated uses of “ideologi” (“ideology”) or one of its variations were changed to (likely) “idologi” through-out one text. The frequency of such problems was so large that I am not willing to apply Hanlon’s Razor. Instead, I must conclude that deliberate manipulations to my disadvantage took place. (While I cannot say for certain by whom, I strongly suspected a junior-staff member of the paper who was also a member of the semi-rabid youth organization of the Communist Party—seeing that my letters were often critical of the strongly Left-leaning Swedish society and that I was a known member of a libertarian and neo-liberal youth organization.)

*Note that this was at a time when computers and printers were much rarer than today.

Disclaimer: I wrote most of the above a few weeks ago. I have not verified that the various links contain the same contents at the time of publication as they did at the time of writing.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 13, 2019 at 8:22 pm

Suggestions for a new press ethics / the indirect effects of fake news

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It is no secret that I am deeply troubled by the incompetence, irrationality, and partiality of journalists*. For some years, the short-comings of journalism have seen a partial cure through independent, Internet-based, sources of news and opinions. True, the average blogger is worse than the average journalist, but there are very many bloggers who make journalists look clueless.** True, many of the independent news sites are even more partial than traditional news papers, but they are partial in different directions and help to give readers a different perspective and to overcome the censorship*** and partisan angling that is common in journalism.

*For the sake of simplicity, I will mostly speak of “journalist”, “news paper”, and similar. This should not be taken to exclude e.g. TV news, TV reporters, and the like. The problem is a general one with traditional news media.

**And, frankly, when I hear journalists speak derisively about bloggers, or complain about bloggers not treating “real journalists” with sufficient respect, I marvel at their conceit and lack of self-insight.

***Usually driven by a fear that the readers will come to the “wrong” conclusion (i.e. another conclusion than journalist has) if exposed to the uninterpreted and unfiltered facts.

The new phenomenon of “fake news” threatens to end this cure: Firstly, the presence of “fake news” makes alternative sources of news less likely to be trusted to begin with. Secondly, traditional media and their allies are campaigning massively for more censorship against “fake news”. If that happens, even those alternative sources that engage in honest reporting could end up suffering severely, (E.g. because platforms like Facebook could choose to censor on the mere suspicion or because of uninformed or malicious complaints directed at actual news. This problem is worsened by the simultaneous increase in complaints against “hate-speech”—which, sadly and real occurrences of hate-speech notwithstanding, quite often amounts to nothing more than disagreeing with the politically correct “truth”) Considering how these things tend to run, it would also not be unsurprising if the bars were pushed higher and higher over time, giving traditional news sources their monopoly back. The meaning of “fake news” could very soon turn from actual fakes (“Trump is an alien”) to that which violates the world-view of the journalists or the politically correct (in Sweden, possibly, a study indicating differences between men and women that are in-born and not caused by societal brain-washing).

Depending on developments, “fake news” per se could prove to be a smaller problem than these side-effects…

Given this situation I have to call for another cure through a new type of press ethics based on strict adherence to principles like:

  1. To always report the facts in a manner that allows the readers to form their own opinions—even if they happen to deviate from the journalist’s. This includes not selectively filtering facts that that are unpleasant or incongruent with the journalist’s world view, and not presuming to be an arbiter of what is relevant and what not. (Except to the degree that space constraints prevent a listing of all details that e.g. Sherlock Holmes might have liked to hear.)
  2. Never to assume that journalists are more clever, better informed, better at critical thinking, …, than their readers. Quite often, the assumption is faulty even for the average reader—and it will virtually never be true for a significant part of the readership.
  3. Never to mix news and opinion. Opinion belongs in opinion pieces. If a journalist wants to express a certain opinion, he should keep the news clean and write a separate opinion piece, clearly marked as such. More often than not opinion pieces will be irrelevant; when they are relevant contrasting opinions should be allowed a say.

    As a notable special case, issues of ethics, “right and wrong”, …, are always (?) a matter of opinion, and, if ever, such opinions should only be applied when they are supported by a virtual consensus of the population. In many cases, a better solution is to contrast something against a specific set of rules. (E.g. by preferring “X’s article violates several rules of press ethics suggested by Michael Eriksson” rather than “X’s article is unethical”.)

  4. Ditto news and analysis, with the addendum that analysis is usually better left to an independent expert on the matter at hand than to a journalist (and that analysis might be relevant far more often than opinion). A good analysis, of course, will give all sides of the issue a fair hearing and will not be limited to using one particular approach. (Unless using the approach is uncontroversial: Solving a mathematical equation usually leads to the same result irrespective of which (sound) approach is used; however, a fiscal measure can lead to very different expected results when analyzed with different models.)

    I point especially to the many, many instances of journalists encountering a scientific study and jumping to a conclusion that is premature, only one of several possible, or simply nonsensical. Even something so trivial is often not understood as that “the study failed to show X” does not automatically imply “the study showed not-X”.

  5. To understand that the “common wisdom” among journalists, politicians, and the average citizen is often very far from what science actually says and to give preference to scientific opinion over personal opinion when reporting.
  6. To, as a counter-point, understand that not everyone who claims to be an expert actually is, that scientists often differ in opinion, and that the softer sciences are often fraught with ideological concerns.

    Experts tied to political or ideological movements are particularly likely (deliberately or through a biased world-view) to make flawed claims. To boot, the risk of encountering “experts” who simple lack the intelligence, tools, and/or depth and breadth of knowledge is considerably higher when talking with a member of a movement than with, say, a university professor.

  7. To always respect and convey any uncertainty present, especially in a legal context. For instance, someone suspected or accused of murder should always be referred to as “murder suspect” (and so on). In fact, considering how many miscarriages of justice take place, it is better to speak in terms of “convict”, “convicted”, and similar, even after a suspect has been found guilty—and to speak in terms “found guilty” rather than “guilty”. (In the U.S. system of bartering confessions for less punishment, not even a confession can be seen as conclusive proof of guilt.)
  8. To always give both parties in a controversy an equal say (or at least the opportunity for it) and to never side with either one in a news item. (That a journalist will side with one or the other in private is often unavoidable.) Siding within an opinion piece or analysis might or might not be justifiable depending on the circumstances, but it is clear that the siding should be based in reason and not emotions or prejudices about the parties involved.
  9. To never distort or exaggerate someones opinions or statements, including making assumptions about intent, motivation, inner state, unstated opinions, etc. A particular problematic case (that I have often complained about) is distortions like someone protesting against (militant) Islamism but being categorized as anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. Another is the common assumption or claim that someone is racist or sexist based even on a factual, scientifically uncontroversial claim that does not fit the own world-view.

I stress that this list is by no means complete. There are likely many items of a similar type that can be added, with an even greater number coming from other areas, at least some of which are present in many current attempts at similar lists*. I could probably write several blog entries alone on journalists’ use of language… Admittedly, these several blog entries would be on the wrong abstraction level for a discussion of press ethics, but the point is that there other problem areas.

*While much of the above goes contrary to what many journalists appear to consider their role and would imply a major change of course.

I further stress that this list is intended for journalists and their like. Some of it can be taken to apply to e.g. bloggers or commenters too, especially where issues like representation of others’ opinions and other matters of “intellectual honesty” are concerned; however, much of it is simply irrelevant, redundant, or impractical when we move away from traditional journalism. (Starting with something as simple readers’ expectations: Blog–personal opinion. News paper–facts.)

As an aside: It is almost funny that the “fake news” debate has started in the wake of increased criticism of the press (at least in Germany). Even the phrase it self is close to the “Lügenpresse” (“lie press”, “liar press”) used by some German groups to belittle the press. While “Lügenpresse” has caused an outrage among journalists, I can only see it as unfair on two counts: Being too much of a blanket claim, seeing that some areas are worse than others, and ascribing a deliberate intent to the reality distortion that is often going on. More often than not, I suspect, it is just incompetence, in particular lack of critical thinking, that causes the distortion.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2017 at 12:07 am