Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Why Newspapers Lie

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Everybody’s always lamenting the decline of newspapers. Without newspapers, the argument goes, who will do the fact checking, investigative reporting and maintain journalistic standards of fairness and integrity?

Unfortunately, these virtues apply only to a small number of subjects, such as politics.

There are certain topics covered by the media where you’ll find an institutional, unwritten agreement that it’s OK to skip the fact checking, avoid the investigative reporting and throw journalistic standards out the window.

Technology is one of those topics where anything goes. Publishers, the readers and the reporters and editors themselves all give them permission to lie.

And who publishes the truth? Usually bloggers and online media do.

If you think I’m exaggerating, I’ll prove.

Lie #1: Apple is the Most Valuable Company Ever

Every major news organization in the United States published this bald-faced lie in the headline, from Bloomberg to the Wall Street Journal to USA Today to Reuters.

The lie adorned reporting on Apple’s market capitalization (the total value of tradable stock), which reached approximately $623 billion Monday.

The truth is that Microsoft, not Apple, is by far the most valuable company in history. In 1999, the valuation of Microsoft peaked out at $620.6 billion which, when adjusted for inflation, equals $850 billion in today’s dollars.

Most stories didn’t even mention the lack of inflation adjustment, as if it were an irrelevant factor.

If we’re going to live in the land of make-believe where the value of things is compared historically without regard to inflation, why not run a whole series of shocking and deliberately misleading stories?

For example, in this story about how Americans now spend less on groceries than ever before, why not ignore inflation and say in the headline that Americans are spending far more on food now than 100 years ago? If you ignore inflation, it’s true! Sure, it’s totally misleading, but what a great headline!

The reason they didn’t do this is that the story isn’t about tech. When you cover the technology industry, it’s okay to lie and mislead. There’s no penalty, no follow-up and no need for a correction.

While most major newspapers reported the lie, a blogger writing for the Columbia Journalism Review printed the truth.

Lie #2: The Indian Government to Give $35 Tablet to Millions of Students

Two years ago, the Indian government made a big announcement, saying Indian universities had made a “breakthrough” of some kind, and that the government would be able to produce solar-powered touch-tablet computers costing only $35 each.

India’s human resource development minister, Kapil Sibal, unequivocally assured reporters that the government would deliver one million “Aakash” tablets to one million students by the end of 2011, and that within a year, “millions” of Indian students would be using them.

The Aakash project never produced a $35 computer, but instead a more expensive one riddled with bugs and problems. A few students got clunky, nearly unusable units, but the whole project fell apart and the promise was never kept.

At the time of the announcement, however, the largely unreported context was that the same government had made similar claims before, and none of them ever delivered.

Three years ago, the Indian government announced a $10 laptop called the Shaksat. Remember that? In February of 2009, the Shaksat was to be rolled out within six months and used by millions of students across India. It never happened.

There was another similar grandiose project that failed in 1999.

Still, when the media covered the $35 Aakash tablet announcement, most of them didn’t report the news that the Indian government was making another promise. Nor did they report the context of prior promises. They reported that the Aakash laptop was going to happen.

For example, BusinessWeek’s headline was: “India to provide $35 computing device to students.”

Most media outlets broke one of the cardinal rules of journalism: You don’t report claims or promises as fact. You report that the claim or promise was made.

Imagine if domestic political promises were treated as facts by the media. We would have screaming headlines proclaiming that “Nation’s Energy Problems Solved; Obama Promises End to Foreign Oil Reliance.”

But that would be ridiculous, and most newspapers would never do that. Every presidential candidate since the Nixon administration has promised dramatic shift to alternative fuels, and it never happens.

More importantly, the promises are reported by newspapers as mere promises, rather than reporting the promises as something they know will happen.

Why do newspapers lie then about the $35 tablet claim? Because it’s tech! And anything goes.

The record on this one was set straight by another blogger — namely me.

Lie #3: Saudi Government to Create City for Women Only

Tech isn’t the only area where reporters have given themselves a license to lie. I’ve noticed over the years that reporting about societies that have social norms vastly out of line with Western values doesn’t have to be honest.

One recent example is the widespread report this month that Saudi Arabia would create a city just for women. ABC News, published a typical headline, for example: “Saudi Women to Get Their Own City.”

Hundreds of mainstream media outlets covered this story in the same way. It was a lie.

It all started with a banal press release issued by the Saudi government, which had a headline that read in part: “First Industrial City being readied for Women in the Kingdom.”

The press release very clearly specified that the “city is not closed or not intended for women only.” The news was that special areas inside factories and offices would be set aside for women workers.

Still, one publication reported a “women-only city” and then others wrote their pieces based on the erroneous reporting of the first. A domino effect took place, and the City of Women became a well-documented “fact.”

Again, the me-too stories weren’t based on truth or fact. The “fact” would be that some other publication reported a city of women. That was a fact. What they actually reported, however was a lie, because they reported a false claim as fact.

It took a blogger writing for Al Jazeera to set the record straight.

The question is: Why does the mainstream news media feel comfortable lying about topics like technology and countries like Saudi Arabia? What do these two topics have in common?

In both cases, the topics are considered by newspaper reporters and editors as fundamentally unknowable, exotic, mysterious and, in any event, surrounded by hype and lies anyway. They’re extreme topics where extreme things happen. So when some extreme-sounding story comes along, it must be true!

That’s my theory, anyway.

There are many reasons to save newspapers. But fact checking, investigative reporting and maintain journalistic standards of fairness and integrity on certain subjects like technology aren’t among those reasons.

For that, thank goodness we have bloggers.

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