Every day now, we hear about the woes of readers unable to distinguish between “fake news” and real news, as if undependable news reporting is anything new. Readers and fact investigators have always needed to know how to figure out for themselves what to believe and what to question further.

Editor word built with wooden letters

I am proud to have been a journalist for nearly 20 years (The Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, The Economist, NBC and others). Where I worked we always tried to get it right so that nobody could accuse us of putting out something “fake.” But that doesn’t mean we were always right.

As Charles Griffin Intelligence uncovers facts about people we use the media (traditional, electronic and social) as critical elements in building a picture of a person’s life, connections and tendencies. The same goes for reporting on companies that are the subject of our due diligence.

But if everything we needed was in a newspaper, our clients wouldn’t need us. This is not because newspapers try to get it wrong. For a few reasons, the news has always been a “first draft of history”:

  • Newspapers must publish whether they have all the facts nailed down or not. Except for their ads, print newspapers tend to be around the same size every day. That’s not because we have the same amount of interesting news each day but because newsprint costs money. Websites have infinite space but finite budgets to hire writers and editors. Journalists often go with what they know, leave out reporting about critical elements of a story they haven’t nailed down, and hope to be able to fill in the holes in the following days.
  • “Spinning” and outright lying aren’t new. They are as old as time. Good journalists are expected to write stories that quote powerful or knowledgeable people as saying X, when the journalists suspect that the truth is not X. Journalists can’t call those they quote liars without proof, but they still go with the stories. Sometimes they never get to prove that X is wrong. Sometimes, if they believe the truth is X, they don’t try to see if it isn’t.
  • Truth is harder to pin down than we would like. Lots of well accepted scientific “facts” turn out to be incorrect, even without the constraints of deadlines and having to depend on untrustworthy people. Samuel Arbesman’s excellent book, The Half Life of Facts demonstrated how many “facts” cited in scientific journals turn out to be contradicted a short time later.
  • Most importantly, a lot of “fake news” turns out to be founded on impressions and rumors that the writers have not had time to verify before “publishing,” which today can mean “Tweeting.” Some of the bad information of today would have been spiked by good editors, but today the writers and editors are often the same people, and first drafts get published moments after they are written.

The solution? The same things that good editors have done from time immemorial.

  1. Question the source of the story. Has anyone credible verified it? If there are many injured somewhere, can you see whether a police, fire or ambulance source confirms that? We used to need reporters to call the fire department, but today the officials from the fire department often put out statements on the web that anyone can check. Real news stories ought to have confirmations from officials in them.
  2. Is the statement by the official accurately reproduced? Sometimes those publishing items can put words into the mouths of officials to make a statement saying X appear to say Y. if it’s big news, look at the statement for yourself and decide if the reporter was being fair.
  3. If you see the story reported “all over the place,” is the source the same for all the of hits on Google? 18 entries quoting the same source is no more comforting than a single source. A one-source file at a wire service once supposedly provoked the famous cable from the desk back to the field: “You alarmingly alone on this.”
  4. If the story depends on public records, can you find the public record to see for yourself? If “court documents” indicate something, you should be able to see the court documents. If they are the basis of a story on line, they should be reproduced so that readers can judge for themselves whether the documents have been reported accurately.

All this verification is to combat what I like to call “paint by numbers” investigation. When you see a paint by numbers book, you have limited ability to question the “truth” of what you are seeing. You can change the colors in the book, but the forms and relationships in the picture are fixed.

Painting by numbers is for children. Adults should look at the picture a news story paints, break it down to its elements, and assess it all with as fresh an eye as possible.