multi-storied #9: Where's the lie?

In December, for an end-of-year package put together by Rest of World, I wrote about a woman who was raped and killed in the fields in Hathras, a district in northern India. The crime occurred in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, so it provided a grim case study in the kinds of problems reporters will run into as Covid-19 persists: not just the dilemma of how to keep themselves and others safe and uninfected, but also the propensity of governments to use the disease as an excuse to constrict journalism.

A genuine worry, in this era, has to do with remote reporting. For a nearly a year now, journalists everywhere have had to do their fact-finding online: glitchy WhatsApp calls, interminable Zoom meets, awkward requests to people to spin their phone cameras around and show us their surroundings. Needless to say, this is just the absolute worst. In a sensitive and politically charged story like Hathras, the process is difficult to trust, as I wrote: "Who could tell whether, during a WhatsApp video call with residents of Boolgarhi, there wasn’t an official just off-screen, coaching them on what to say?" But even in more routine assignments, online reporting is full of pitfalls. I've certainly found one thing: that people lie more to me over Zoom than they did in person. Not always malicious lies, mind -- just white lies, fibs, small untruths, things that are easily caught out as my reporting progresses or as I do my reading later. But it's as if subtracting the human presence somehow licenses the mind to care less about telling the truth.

I've been fretting about this, in particular, because we've been reminded particularly urgently of late that even the most conscientious journalism can sometimes stumble when it comes to liars. Three prominent cases:

  • The New York Times had to retract the core of Caliphate, Rukmini Callimachi’s podcast about a self-professed member of ISIS. Turns out said member was, as a Times review found, “a fabulist who spun jihadist tales about killing.”

  • Elif Batuman, a superb writer and diligent reporter, found she’d been lied to for a story she wrote for the New Yorker in 2018, about Japan’s rent-a-family industry. Some of the lonely people she interviewed were, in reality, married—and, in a couple of cases, married to each other.

  • The Atlantic retracted an article about the mania for niche sports as a ticket into prestigious universities. Here too, some of the interview subjects had lied, even to the magazine’s fact-checkers. In this case, though, the writer herself was found to be complicit in the deception.

These are all very different situations, of course, but they’re underpinned by the same basic reality: people lie. And without doubt, it is the journalist’s main job to sieve the things they’re told, and to present to the reader the closest thing to the truth that they can possibly find. (I’m leaving aside here, for the moment, any slippery post-modern notion that there is no single truth, as well as any Rashomon-based pleas that the truth lies in the eyes of the beholder. Certainly in the three cases above, neither of these arguments could be made.) Conscientious fact-checkers offer good security against liars, but even they do their work over the phone, and therefore have limitations. So the question arises: Is journalism lie-proof?

The honest answer is “No,” particularly because journalism is forever running against time: first draft of history and all that. But that answer must never be used as absolution for journalists; it can’t be an excuse for slipshod work. Media critics have pointed out that every one of the big, big lies in these three big cases could have been caught. (I particularly recommend this essay, about how Batuman may have been unconsciously fallen into the “Weird Japan” trap.) Small lies may be the price we sometimes pay for having to work fast, and they’re fiendishly difficult to check. (“I wore a blue suit that day,” someone may tell me. A fact-checker will confirm this with the source later as well, but unless the colour of the suit matters, she won’t ask for further evidence.) The acceptance of a big lie, though, suggests something else. It suggests that the journalist has gone into an assignment too convinced of the story she wants to tell, rather than finding the story to tell.

In other news: I started a new job this week: at the news web site Quartz, covering what is being described delightfully as the Future of Capitalism. (My first story, though, was about Donald Trump’s near-concession: an auspicious start.) The Future of Capitalism is really the Future, and I’m planning to track this theme broadly, finding clues to the Future in as many fields as possible. Examples of how markets work and how regulation works are everywhere, after all. (Right now, I’m hunting down wallet designers.) So if you’re in the movie industry, or in publishing, or in sports management, or crypto or government or war memorabilia or art or wallet design or…anything, and if you have a case study from your field that fits my bill, please write in!

Happily, I will still continue getting my long-long-form fix at the Guardian’s Long Read. All of this feels like such a great mix of formats and themes for the year ahead. I’m excited. On that note: happy 2021, everyone!