Telling stories

Lies, Myths, Tall Tales and Reporting

Posted by southwrite on June 9, 2014

Man in Hat Poker

This weekend I was on a travel writers’ tour in Macon. This Middle Georgia city is both historic and well preserved with an excellent stock of 19thhomes and buildings. Some of the best examples can be found in the College Hill Corridor where many pre-Civil War planters and post war industrials built fine and sometimes palatial homes. It also has its share of myths.

On a drive through this largely residential section of town surrounding Mercer University, our guide noted the widely believed and reported story that a certain celebrity had lived in one of the homes was simply not true. The story had been told until it took on a life of its own. It wasn’t true, however.

That happens quite a lot in journalism. Stories are reported and later found to be false or at least exaggerated. Sometimes these falsehoods are a result of poor research – not asking enough questions of enough people. A particular story may be reported and then picked up without question because it first appeared in a reputable and trusted source – like say The New York Times.

Then it continues to be repeated until it becomes fact. Other times bad information comes from sources who have an agenda to advance and are able to convince journalists they are telling the truth when they really aren’t.

That seems to be what happened in the case of Somaly Mam. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been backtracking from stories he wrote about the woman who “described having been trafficked into a brothel as a young girl in Cambodia, then escaping and helping others—and she came to run a couple of organizations in Cambodia that battled forced prostitution. She wrote an autobiography, was feted at the State Department and Kennedy Center, and celebrated by journalists. Including me. I wrote one column about her life story in 2008 after her autobiography was published in the U.S., and made several references to her after that, most recently in 2011.”

Now he along with other publications are being accused of promoting accounts that may have been false. While we won’t know for sure until the dust settles, the case illustrates the problems all writers have when they deal with sources. Are they telling you the truth?

Every serious reporter tries to verify what they’re told. In fact, there’s a saying in the newspaper business that “if your mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.” Kristoff went to some effort to verify Man’s story, but apparently it wasn’t enough. And, as he notes in this column he still hasn’t been able to verify that the story was true or false.

It can be difficult to vet facts under pressure of time and distance. Yet we all have to do so. Sometimes the extra research pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. What’s left then is to go back to correct the record. That’s especially important when other sources are calling your work into question. CBS news anchor Dan Rather and other news personnel were forced to quit after a report on former President George Bush’s National Guard service was shown to be false. The problem was once again sources who apparently lied and even produced fake documents to support the claim.

For every writer who deals with sources in search of material for publication, there exists a fundamental need to question and verify. Sometimes it will be enough and other times it won’t. Sometimes it comes down to what you believe – what doe syour gut tell you? Does this story have the ring of authenticity or is there some nagging question in the back of your mind. If it doesn’t quite sound right, maybe it isn’t. and maybe you should keep asking questions.


One Response to “Lies, Myths, Tall Tales and Reporting”

  1. Lisa said

    There is research that it’s harder to counteract bad info once it’s out there, too. So even if you find out it’s wrong and attempt to correct it, fewer people are listening than who heard the initial blast of false info.

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