Where Does Bad Journalism End And Fake News Begin?

I’m sure we’ve all heard criticism from the US President, and others, of the New York Times, and because of the era we’re in, we dismiss that criticism because of who it’s coming from. Should we?

On May 24th the New York Times ran a story, an exclusive, with details about the Manchester bombing. That article can be found here.

Found at the Scene in Manchester: Shrapnel, a Backpack and a Battery

The Author, C.J. Shivers, is no new-dog-on-the-block. Shivers is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist – but wow did he get this one wrong.

Now, the title of this blog questions when poor journalism becomes fake news. So, the part in question is towards the end of the New York Times article.

Currently it reads as this:

It is not clear from the law enforcement images if the object was a simple plunger switch, or included a timer or a receiver that could be operated remotely via radio signal – or some combination, or something else.

Such redundancy, if the object was the switch, could give the bomber or a cell more than one option for deploying the device, and suggest that the bomb was not as simple in design as many terrorist devices, which often are crude and prone to failure or haphazard effect.

However, this was not the original text as posted. When the New York Times article went live originally, it included the following section: (the differences are in bold)

It is not clear from the law enforcement images if the object was a simple plunger switch, or included a timer or a receiver that could be operated remotely via radio signal – or some combination.

Such redundancy could give the bomber or a cell more than one option for deploying the device, and further suggests that the bomb was not as simple in design as many terrorist devices, which often are crude and prone to failure or haphazard effect.

 

If we break this down:

Paragraph 1: We don’t know if the bomber had this particular thing we’re mentioning

Paragraph 2: Part 1: If this thing did exist, it could give the bomber more options.

Paragraph 2: Part 2: This suggests to us that the bomb was not as simple as others (which are more crude and prone to failure)

What they’ve done here, is make it right. But what they actually did in the first instance was present a possibility, and then treat it as fact. Not only is this professionally wrong, but it’s arguably very dangerous. This is making something up, and printing it. This is, surely, fake news?

Let’s try that in a separate context – allow me to give the same treatment to another story.

It’s possible that Barack Obama had Donald Trump’s phone lines tapped during the election campaign.

This shows that Barack Obama was concerned about Trump and felt justified in undertaking an invasion of privacy on a presidential candidate.

The New York Times introduced an option, a possibility, then proceeded as if it was fact. This is the same type of thing that Trump himself has been (rightly) lambasted for many times over.

Many public figures have spoken out about the need for publications and journalists needing to be above reproach in this era, that a mistake by one of them will be seized on by the likes of Trump as a reflection on the accuracy and ethics of all reporters and journalists.

This Manchester story is a prime example of why words matter, one could be forgiven for reading the original text of this article and coming away thinking, “so the group behind the bomb is better equipped, with better designed equipment, less prone to mistakes, because they introduced this alternative method of detonation.” Because that’s how the article treats itself.

Poor show, New York Times, poor show. Don’t give the most dangerous man in the world, Señor Naranja/POTUS, any other reason to discredit the fine work done by journalists in getting to the bottom of the stories that matter.

Someone came in after C.J. Chivers and changed the article from its place of guesswork-and-self-confirmation to a more appropriate position of positing an idea, and treating it as such, but this doesn’t change what was published initially – in an article which undoubtedly went around the globe.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *