Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 3 March 2014

The Truth about Sloppy Reporting

On Mondays I like to pick something from the Sunday papers to talk about in my blog. Today is no exception.

I often pick something newsworthy, or at the very least snark-worthy, and I suppose this counts as a snark, but it’s not exactly topical.

To some extent we all believe we can rely on the news, maybe not the gutter press, but probably the broadsheets. We all pretty much rely on what we read as being some sort of version of the truth.

It isn’t.

Not only is more and more opinion creeping into our daily dose of news reporting. Not only is every news journalist expected to have some kind of opinion, but then this happens:

...arch-villain Auric Goldfinger the quintessential enemy of James Bond, whose closest companion was a fluffy white cat.


Moulin de la Galette by Van Gogh
for sale
The article was about the sale of a Van Gogh painting, which was what made it interesting to me. The painting was owned, apparently, by an American industrialist who inspired Ian Fleming to create Goldfinger. Well, do you know what? I have to doubt that. I have to doubt that because the reporter didn’t know that the damned cat was owned by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and so the dominos begin to fall, and I have no idea whether anything in the article means anything.

Now, I have to doubt whether anything that Vanessa Thorpe, Arts and Media Correspondent for the Observer, writes means anything... And the dominos keep on falling... And, since the Observer employs Ms Thorpe, I have to wonder whether anything the newspaper chooses to print actually means anything.

I could, I suppose read more articles on this subject. I could, I suppose do my own research and find out about this painting, but that’s exactly why I read the papers: to find out what’s going on in the World. To find out what’s being reported on and to learn something, not to find daft errors and then go on fact-checking missions to discover what else is wrong with any given articles, or to try to home in on the actual facts of a story.

And what about the articles I read where there are errors that I don’t spot because I happen not to be familiar with the subject matter? What about them?

In yesterday’s blog, I talked a bit about Google and fact-checking. It’s not difficult or complicated. Yes, I know, the news moves fast, but this was an article for a Sunday newspaper, and there was time to fact-check. All Ms Thorpe needed to do was type Bond Villains into Google and she was good to go. And, let’s face it, if she wasn’t sure of her facts, she didn’t need to describe the owner of the painting in terms of being the template for Goldfinger at all.

In fact, a Van Gogh selling might be news, but this little tidbit about the painting’s previous owner isn’t. This little factoid is window dressing. When did our news start coming with these fripperies? When did straight reporting stop? When did emotive language and sidebars become a thing?

All this stuff queers the pitch. All this stuff takes up room that could be better utilised reporting on real things, informing us about what’s really going on in the World, without editorialising. That way, maybe we’d all be a little more politically aware and a damned sight more savvy.

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