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Island of Doubt: What to do when the lie becomes the story

Island of Doubt: What to do when the lie becomes the story

Picture of William Heisel
[Photo by GotCredit via Flickr.]

When you are dogged and doubtful about your reporting at the same time, you will turn up half-truths, inconsistencies, and outright lies. Your job as a journalist in these cases is to decide which of these make a material difference to the story.

But when the lie is so central to the basic underpinnings of your piece, you need to adjust your approach entirely.

Begin with owning it. Speaking as a reporter who cringed every time someone contacted me to say that I had screwed up their name or title or place of business in a story, I know how it feels to own up to a mistake. And that’s just a small mistake. When it turns out a source has been lying to you about a central theme of a story you care deeply about, it can be agonizing to have to own that fact. Especially if you have quoted this source before. Especially if you have published the big lie that this source has been pushing before.

This was the case with Marilynn Marchione at the Associated Press when she found out about a pilot, William Hamman, who had claimed to be a cardiologist. She had previously written about him giving a training to other doctors, despite the fact that he had no medical license and no certification in cardiology. Marchione could have just ignored that inconvenient truth, but instead she did a very thorough, thoughtful follow-up piece about the pilot and many of the different ways he had been able to get away with his fake medical credentials.

One of the most interesting things she discovered was that — unlike her reaction to discovering the lie — other organizations weren’t bothered at all, as Marchione reported:

Even after learning of Hamman's deception, the American Medical Association was going to let him lead a seminar that had been in the works, altering his biography and switching his title from ‘Dr.’ to ‘Captain’ on course materials. It was canceled after top officials found out.

Then find out who else has been buying the lies. Ivan Oransky did this nicely with Hamman and does it regularly on his Retraction Watch blog. Oransky famously broke the story about the study on attitudes toward same-sex marriage that relied on fabricated survey results. He did this, as he does with most of the news that he and Adam Marcus break on the site, by contacting all the people involved. He contacted the researcher accused of the fabrication. He contacted the senior author on the study. He contacted the journal, Science, that published the study and later retracted it. The senior author, Donald Green of Columbia University, told Retraction Watch:

Michael LaCour attended my summer workshop on experimental design in 2012 and proposed at that time a project that involved both canvassing and internet surveys. It sounded to me too ambitious to be realistic for a graduate student but in principle worthwhile.  … Several weeks after the canvassing launched in June 2013, Michael LaCour showed me his survey results.  I thought they were so astonishing that the findings would only be credible if the study were replicated.  … Michael LaCour and Dave Fleischer therefore conducted a second experiment in August of 2013, and the results confirmed the initial findings.  … Given that I did not have IRB approval for the study from my home institution, I took care not to analyze any primary data — the datafiles that I analyzed were the same replication datasets that Michael LaCour posted to his website. Looking back, the failure to verify the original Qualtrics data was a serious mistake.

You can see throughout that quote multiple opportunities to catch the fabrication. There’s essentially a road map for you as a reporter to find out how a falsehood — a series of falsehoods really — made their way into the scientific literature. This kind of lie matters because it has major consequences for our mutual understanding of each other, for social policy, and for the law. So it’s worth tracking the evidence trail, as Oransky did and as others followed.

Take a look back at that quote from Green. There are lessons there, too, for reporters at the beginning of their reporting. One of the biggest ones is: Be very skeptical when something sounds too good to be true.

I’ll write more about that in my next post.

[Photo by GotCredit via Flickr.]

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