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British newspaper writing is famously more vigorous and readable than its American equivalent. But this comes at a price: there’s a good chance that anything you read in a British newspaper isn’t true.

When I worked as a leader writer for an American ­paper I was embarrassed when I was told that it was official policy not to trust any item in any British paper except the FT. American journalists work within a stringent code of ethics. If a journalist for a major paper or TV network is found to have run a false story — perhaps because it was “too good to check” — then his or her career is generally over. In Britain, getting caught telling or repeating a lie is much less serious than cheating on expenses. This is especially true in the world of foreign reporting.

Take the broadsheet reporters who claimed there had been a massacre at “Jeningrad” in the West Bank on the dubious word of a single source. Even after all parties to the conflict pointed out that this massacre was a fantasy, the hoodwinked correspondents retained the trust of their editors.

There was the highly regarded foreign correspondent who won a prize for articles which included an interview with a top Taleban official who turned out not to exist at all.

Nevertheless I continued to insist to my American bosses that we should generally trust British papers. Then I came across a story in an English broadsheet announcing that a British Special Boat Service commando was being considered for the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military decoration and the equivalent of the Victoria Cross. After forwarding the piece to my boss, I was assigned to write a leader about this wonderful example of transatlantic appreciation.

The defence correspondent of the British broadsheet in question had given no source for his claim. But less than five minutes research revealed that it was legally impossible for foreigners to be awarded the Medal of Honor. (The SBS commando did exist and had fought with extraordinary bravery.) Nevertheless the broadsheet had reported a mere rumour as fact. Apparently it was one of those stories that are simply “too good to check.”

 
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Herb S
May 31st, 2008
10:05 PM
It's safe to say that newspapers around the world cannot be trusted to give the reader accurate reporting. Most stories now have embedded within them a strong dose of opinion disguised as news. And we must not forget that many stories we read are lies and/or distortions because of what has been left out, sometimes due to ignorance, often because the reporter doesn't want the reader to get the "wrong impression".

Eric Wilner
May 30th, 2008
2:05 PM
There's also a good chance that anything you read in an American paper - at least, in the general news sections - isn't true. Just about any general-news story that relates to a subject with which I'm personally familiar will be seriously out of line with known facts. This leads me to assume that the rest of the news is, at best, severely garbled. Some of this is due to political bias, some to sensation-chasing, and most, I believe, to a tendency for general-news reporters to know nothing about everything, thereby being unable to do any meaningful fact-checking.

Ronald Haak
May 30th, 2008
2:05 PM
This profile overlooks the empty and sourceless pro-invasion reportage by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller that appeared more than once on page 1 of the New York TIMES in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Six years after these articles appeared and were discredited, and for which the TIMES very belatedly apologized, lo and behold Michael Gordon was back again in the pages of the New York TIMES in May, 2008 offering us ominous hints that a pre-emptive strike against Iran is just common sense, and buttressed his article {AGAIN!) with unnamed sources, in a virtual replay of the push he gave war forces in the run up to the Iraq invasion. If the TIMES does have a strict policy of accountability, it suspends that policy when the drumrolls of war are gaining strength.

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