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Checking sources for ‘fake stories’

February 5, 2021

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“Fake news” has become a thorn in the side of reporting. Yes, there are always stories that have failings in bias, bad research, or other problems. But the idea of fake news sounds like something entirely made up.

While annoying though, the idea of fake stories has some basis in reality. Forget famous cases of journalistic fabulists. Instead, there are ready examples of sources for stories completely making things up.

Recently, both the New York Times and New Yorker were forced by the weight of evolving evidence to walk back major stories. For the Times, it was the core of its 2018 podcase series Caliphate, as NPR’s David Folkenflik wrote in mid-December 2020. The central source, Shehroze Chaudhry, was charged by Canadian investigators, of having made up his story of being an executioner for ISIS.

“We fell in love with the fact that we had gotten a member of ISIS who would describe his life in the caliphate and would describe his crimes,” New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet tells NPR in an interview on Thursday. “I think we were so in love with it that when we saw evidence that maybe he was a fabulist, when we saw evidence that he was making some of it up, we didn’t listen hard enough.”

But more to the point for business journalists is the case of the New Yorker handing back a 2019 National Magazine Award, which, according to the Wall Street Journal was a first, because the story turned out to be bunk.

The 2019 award in feature writing went to the New Yorker and staff writer Elif Batuman for the April 2018 article, which described two people who said they were clients of a Tokyo-based service called Family Romance. One said he was a lonely widower who hired actresses through the company to play the roles of a wife and daughter, and the other said she was a single mother renting a substitute father for her daughter.

In a December 2020 editor’s note added to the online version of the article, the New Yorker said both purported clients were in fact married. The woman appears to be married to the owner of Family Romance, the note said. The findings about the three people, which followed an internal New Yorker investigation, “broadly undermine the credibility of what they told us,” the note said.

Apparently, New Yorker staff writer Elif Batuman had been concerned about whether her sources were being truthful

Both these examples come back to something I repeatedly criticize: the love of a good yarn. Reporters tell stories, true, and well-constructed narrative is stock in trade. But more fundamental is a commitment to the truth and fact. The temptation can be great, among both reporters and editors, to fall in love with a story, to want it to be true, to yearn for the accolades and career boosts.

But with every story, you must assume that any and all sources could be lying to you. That they can have reasons of their own to draw you into their schemes. That they are willing to twist facts and outright make things up for their own ends. That they’re willing to see you skewered on a pike outside the fortress of journalism as a warning to others who might be overly gullible.

Remember the adage that if your mom says she loves you, check it out? Do that. You have to dig in to verify claims, whether it’s that people are unmarried and unknown to one another, products have certifications they claim, businesses have the reach and sales they boast of.

I recently worked on a roundup of a certain type of business-to-business service. There was a company marketing nationally that asserted locations it didn’t have: a location in one state that a search proved was a residential home and another in a Texas business suite in which the property managers had never heard of the company. The owner of another one didn’t want to admit to a serious of apparently unrelated names. (I finally traced down the truth by going to not just state records but finding city DBA licenses.)

You can’t trust people. Many are on the up-and-up, but don’t let yourself be taken for a fool. Do the extra research and avoid being played.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

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