Stylish correction from the Observer readers’ editor

October 14th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in danie krugel | 70 Comments »

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

Stephen Pritchard
Sunday October 14, 2007
The Observer

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.

Very nice.

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.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

70 Responses

  1. emilypk said,

    October 15, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    If these journalists are going to do internet credibility checks perhaps someone should teach them how.

    Step 1: Google name + scam.

    Takes twenty seconds and works almost every time.

  2. Robert Carnegie said,

    October 15, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    There are 552 Google results for my name + “scam” and I haven’t tried to sell -anything-. To be fair, it doesn’t say that I have – except when my name is randomly stolen to sell diet pills, for which I am not really a good advertisement.

  3. emilypk said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:39 pm

    I am, of course, assuming the journos can read as well as count.

  4. quietstorm said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Going back to the frightening ‘Doctor of Journalism’ blog….

    “In short, most journalists view their job as producing news, not public information.”

    Would someone, preferably someone of a humanities bent, please describe to me in detail (although bearing in mind that I can cope with words of more than one syllable!) the distinction between “news” and “public information”.

    I had thought, naively, that these were one and the same thing. After reading some of these blogs I am in danger of equating:

    “news” = entertaining, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s fictional or not

    “public information” = non-fiction, checked information.

    As a newspaper-reading punter, I had (naively, again) thought that most journalists were at least trying to provide us with the latter. If it’s so difficult to produce stories within deadlines then employ more people. Most scientists are quite badly paid already, so newspaper owners wouldn’t break the bank by tempting a few over to science reporting.

  5. emilypk said,

    October 15, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    It does rather suggest newspapers are mainly for salacious entertainment, and blogs for critical analysis and vetted information.

    Which is rather amusing.

  6. Martin said,

    October 16, 2007 at 3:43 am

    Emilypk, I’ve just googled my name + scam and come across some remarkable facts (I’ve never googled myself before).

    I was born in Limerick and have had an eventful life. I’ve been a poet, sailor, sound recordist, actor and producer. I’ve become a District Attorney and been an Air Force Colonel. I own my own funeral home and died due to being given the wrong blood type (handy, owning my own funeral home, I suppose).

    However, as none of the above is true, I think journalists will need to do more than just that.

  7. trickcyclist said,

    October 16, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    How mysterious… The Observer article about MMR posted by Gimpy above (,,647859,00.html) appears to have disappeared! Now why would that happen?

  8. buffalo66 said,

    October 16, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    seems to be back again. maybe it really was just a temporary fault.

  9. emilypk said,

    October 16, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Holy rampamt literalism, Batman. I also give journalist credit as being able to choose another noun if the name is a common one–I did say “almost every time” after all. Seriously, I think that is checking facts online is a part oof the job they should master the Google Fu well enough to check “Krugel” online and not have him come up smelling of roses. In fact I don’t know what keywords you could have used even a few months agop that wouldn’t have raised a red flag. That was my point, next time I will be careful not to make it by representative example.

  10. RS said,

    October 16, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Previous discussion of Observer staff and MMR attitudes:

  11. pv said,

    October 16, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    emilypk, maybe what Stephen Pritchard is really saying is that they at the Observer aren’t very good with this Interwebby thingy – but then neither is anyone else, so no-one should be too hard on them. Something daft like that, anway.

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    umm hi IrritatedInsider.

    i guess i’m not going to delete your comment, because that would be melodramatic, but i’m not going to write about it either. i know it sounds spectacularly sanctimonious but i don’t really do gossip.

  13. shoshin said,

    October 17, 2007 at 2:27 am

    Unfortunately because newspapers are usually internationally owned, this piece of rubbish ran as far away as New Zealand, where I live. And we don’t get to see the retraction that was posted in the orginal paper. As a former journalist who bailed for many of the reasons cited above, I know it is all too easy for these stories to get through. Most journos have no science backgrounds or understanding of scientific method. Most junior journos here tend to be young women in their 20s who have finished a bachelor of anything at all, realised they can’t get a job so they do a post-grad journalism diploma. For example, in one news conference the news editor asked us if gifted children were “fast” or “slow”. The main driver in a newsroom is to get a front page story or as close to the front page as possible. Fact checking? That’s a joke as newsrooms are so understaffed reporters are covering several rounds. I now work in communications for a research organisation and make sure I provide all the references, sources and contacts so I can get a reasonable amount of accuracy in the story. Nonetheless, when a major reserach paper was released by one of our scientists, Reuters completely misunderstood it and unfortunately that was the story that ran worldwide!

  14. Diotima said,

    October 18, 2007 at 9:55 am

    When I read a science or medicine article in either the Guardian or the Observer, I always check to see whether it has been written by a ‘home affairs correspondent’ or ‘social affairs correspondent’;. Typically when a dubious or ludicrous piece on matters broadly scientific is printed, it flies under such a flag of convenience.

  15. Diotima said,

    October 18, 2007 at 10:17 am

    Ambrielle is quite right. The Obsever, faced with falling sales, is trying to reposition itself as a kind of centre-left Daily Mail, if you will forgive the oxymoron. The Guardian and Observer both follow the Mail’s lead with certain stories, but always add a centre-left frame. I read the Mail online—one might as well know what they think.

  16. Diotima said,

    October 18, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    I am from East Cork (county not city) and once, googling my name, (unusual Irish name as it happens) I found that I was a black rap singer and a Professor of Medicine at TCD.

  17. Martin said,

    October 19, 2007 at 12:57 am

    I thought it might be interesting to investigate people with the same name as me a bit more, but then I realised that if Dave Gorman can only make it quite interesting, what chance have I got!

  18. fiwallace said,

    October 26, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Is it too much to hope that the resignation of the Observer’s editor might be linked to any of this?

    Oh – he’s being lauded for his extraordinary contribution to journalism.

    Probably not, then.

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