I went to a lecture by the Freakonomics guys a while ago, and someone asked about the routine inaccuracy of news stories in the media. Look, said one of them (although I’ve got no idea who): the thing about journalism is, people expect it to be a true account of the world, but we’ve forgotten what the nature of journalism is. A reporter isn’t a superhuman essayist researcher, they are your surrogate, your proxy. When there is a fire on your street at two in the morning, and you can’t be bothered to go out in the rain, a reporter goes along in your place, and tells you what’s going on, but he only does what you’d do: gossips with the neighbours; gets a word or two from whichever member of the emergency services happens to be walking past; and passes that on.
Sometimes I wonder if we are at fault for expecting newspapers to be accurate.
Anyway, I think this from the Observer’s Readers Editor (reposted below) is quite stylish. News runs fast, papers get thrown together in a hurry, I guess ludicrousness can get through in all fields, and this was just one silly little news story.
Although my heart has rather hardened since reading the Mirror on Krugel:
Varenda Gouws, 45, said Krugel led her and husband Willem on a wild goose chase after son Rayno, 20, went missing last year during a hiking holiday. She gave Krugel a hair from Rayno’s razor. He fed it into his Matter Orientation System, that he claims combines DNA testing and GPS – satellite technology to track down missing people anywhere in the world.
“First Krugel told us Rayno was still in Knysna so we went to Knysna. Then he said he was in Port Elizabeth 150 miles away so we went to Port Elizabeth. Then he was in East London so we went there. Then he told us ‘No, he’s in the Transkei.’ It was an endless track. We drove through South Africa for 4,300 miles. He absolutely convinced us saying ‘Rayno is moving’. He said he must be in a truck or a car because he was moving so fast.
“Every time we left our jobs and packed up and went to these places and put articles in the newspapers. It cost us a fortune. But it’s not the money, it’s the mental torture. Being told your child is all right, he’s moving around. We thought, ‘Why doesn’t he contact us?'”
Rayno’s remains were eventually found eight months after he vanished in a forest outside Knysna. It is thought he died from a snake bite.
Varenda said: “It was clear that he had been dead for eight months because there was no flesh on the bones and there were ferns growing through the body.
“But when I phoned Danie to tell him, he was really aggressive. He said it was not possible. He blamed me.
“He said ‘This is a lie. Nobody can tell you how long a body is dead’.
“He didn’t want to hear he had made a mistake.”
It’s hard not to be moved, and I guess I’m as much of a sucker for tragic stories as the next tabloid reader.
But look. It’s great that they sorted the silly story about the man with the magic box. Now somehow, just maybe, the Observer could finally do something, no matter how late in the day, to put the record straight on their infamous and entirely fabricated MMR scare which appeared on the front page, and produced two bizarre non-corrections before simply disappearing unannounced.
I wouldn’t say this if we were talking about MMR fantasists at the Daily Mail: but the Observer is a proper newspaper. To me this seems like an extremely important story with very serious public health implications which could be simply and thoroughly put to rest.
But I’m not a journalist, and I guess I have to accept that there are some things which I simply don’t understand.
The readers’ editor on… DNA and the hunt for Madeleine
Sunday October 14, 2007
Journalism has never been under such intense scrutiny as it is today. Readers can no longer be handed tablets of stone by the established media that then retreat behind high defensive walls at the first sign of attack. There is nowhere to hide. The internet bursts with information, laying all reporting open to instant verification, refutation, analysis and criticism.That criticism can often be shrill, intemperate and inaccurate, but it can also be devastastingly effective in unpicking flawed stories.
Last week, under the heading ‘Forensic DNA tests “reveal traces of Madeleine’s body on resort beach”‘, The Observer reported as fact that ‘traces of Madeleine McCann’s body were found on a Portuguese beach weeks after she was reported missing’ by retired South African police superintendent Danie Krugel ‘using a combination of Madeleine’s DNA sample and GPS satellite technology’.
Krugel was said to be ‘from the University of Bloemfontein’, giving the impression that he was an academic, and to have had success in tracing for South African TV five girls who had gone missing in the Eighties.
Bloggers were quick to condemn the paper for giving credence to the efforts of a man whom they said was at best a crank and whom, they claimed, may impede the search for Madeleine with his ‘hocus-pocus’ technology. Readers wrote to complain that the paper gave the firm impression that a forensic expert had found and analysed a DNA sample.
Krugel is no scientist. He is actually director of security at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein. He claims to have developed a device that uses a single strand of hair to trace the whereabouts of missing people – ‘the sort of thing that you expect to find in a science-fiction novel’, as one blogger put it.
A transcript of the South African TV programme reveals that Krugel led searchers to where he believed the six (not five) girls were buried, but excavations found bone fragments from four males and two females and no conclusive DNA match could be made.
The story noted that Krugel had spent four days in Praia da Luz, the resort where Madeleine went missing, following a request for assistance from her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann. Our reporters learnt this from a conversation last Saturday with the family’s representative, just a few hours before the paper went to press.
They tried without success to contact Krugel and, working under pressure, reached instead for that double-edged sword, the internet, where they found several references to his past activity that appeared to lend credibility to his claims.
They now both agree that, at the very least, the piece should not have turned Krugel’s supposed findings into concrete fact and should also have included a considerable amount of critical comment about his methods and ability – points that could also have been picked up in the editing process.
It’s also disappointing that this appeared in the newspaper that was first to discount the wilder DNA theories that swirled around the Madeleine inquiry last month, theories that are now largely discredited.
What’s interesting to me about the development of blogs (and developing Pritchard’s theme) is that while on the one hand, bloggers are regularly pointing out how totally bogus the content of newspapers can be, at the same time, all kinds of people pop up on the internet who are actually quite reliable, like, oh I don’t know, me, or some of your other favourites.
That’s interesting because it represents an increasing sophistication in our sense of authoritative sources. In the past there was a blanket “it’s in print therefore it’s this true [holds out hands]” (or “false” if tabloid).
With blogs, people develop a more naturalistic sense of authority: good bloggers link directly to primary sources, so you can see if we give a faithful account of their content for yourself; we also link to the arguments made by others, so you can see if we’re strawmanning them, misrepresenting them, or responding only to peripheral points while neglecting the meat of their case, again, all for yourself. And crucially, over time, you can develop a sense of whether we are morons or not, individually, for yourself, and maybe stop checking our working.
This transparency and referencing is a huge feature and something blogs share with academia, but not with mainstream media, who could always previously rely simply on their natural authority. There’s a pleasing symmetry in the way that the erosion of this authority is coming from the source which also models, at its best, an alternative way of working. Viva.
Although I also like newspapers, especially when they have (a) amazing photos (b) vision (c) funny people and (d (most importantly)) interesting essays I wouldn’t have thought to look for myself. That last one, if I think about it, is the reason why I still continue to buy newspapers, as a routine: as a kind of targetted aggregator which will throw up some interesting wild cards, because I already have access to the entire world, but I need someone to pick out the fun bits. It’s also why the free sheets are basically useless to me.
So newspapers, think of yourselves as, er, text jockeys, spinning hot… tracts. And be better.