Egregious fabrication of quotes at the Sunday Times?

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Regular LL readers know that we're not naive about the relationship between "news" and truth, especially when it comes to science reporting or the accuracy and context of MSM quotations and even video clips. In fact, we could fairly be accused of excessive cynicism. But this is breathtaking: "Science Reporting Gone Wild", Neuroworld, 1/18/2010; "The British media's 'Blonde Moment'", Neuroskeptic 1/28/2010.

Either Aaron Sell, a psychologist at UCSB, is lying about what he said to John Harlow, the West Coast Bureau Chief for the Sunday Times, or John Harlow seriously needs to be fired.

(Well, I guess there's also the "editorial computers hacked by a team from the Onion" theory…)

There are other reasons that I prefer to answer journalists' questions via email, but this is certainly a good one all by itself.

Based on the links above, or the dozens of other examples we've documented over the years, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that many if not most journalists feel free to mis-remember, select, edit, re-order, fill in, and generally simulate (not to say fabricate) quotes, to fit the story that they've decided to tell. When the mis-quotes are roughly congruent with at least some out-of-context piece of what the source actually said, then nobody usually pays any attention, even if a recording of the misquoted passage is easily available.

But another fact about journalists is that they sometimes — maybe often — don't really know much about the topic of their story. This is especially likely to be a problem with science reporting, where misunderstanding may lead to airbrushed quotes that are nonsensical, or at least largely unrelated to what any sources ever actually said.

Perhaps that's what happened here. And then again, maybe Harlow just doesn't care about whether or not what he writes is true, or is happy enough to write what he knows perfectly well to be false. According to the description of the sequence of events in the Neuroskeptic post, the last hypothesis is better supported:

Harlow, whose recent output includes "Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie no more" and that incisive piece of reportage, "Sandra Bullock overtakes Streep in dash for awards glory", wrote to Sell saying that he was writing an article about blondes, and asking whether Sell's data was relevant.

Sell hadn't considered hair color in his research, but he reanalyzed his data on Harlow's request. He found no association between blondness and personality, which is not surprising because it's hair we're talking about. Harlow, apparently unhappy with this, wrote the article anyway, simply making up various claims about blondes and attributing them to Sell and his paper, backed up with some fake quotes.

If that's what really happened, it goes well beyond the usual ignorance, carelessness, and sensation-seeking.

[Update — mgh reminds us of a similar event in 2006-2007, discussed here.  In that case, I concluded that "these people are not lying, exactly. They simply don't care one way or another about what the facts are, and this shifts their work out of the category of lies and into the category for which Harry Frankfurt has suggested the technical term bullshit". That was because he falsehoods seem mostly to have originated with others, and the journalists were mainly guilty of failing to exercise even the most elementary sort of checking.  Thus it was at least arguable that Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Goulay were bullshitters rather than liars.

In the case John Harlow's Blonde Warrior Princess article, we seem to be left with only two options: either the scientist in question, for some strange reason, lied to Harlow about unpublished aspects of his research, and then decided to deny it after Harlow based an article on that conversation; or else Harlow fabricated the whole thing, because he thought the fabrication would make a better story than what the scientist actually told him.]


  1. Stephen Jones said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    You certainly should make a tape recording of anything a journalist says. Perhaps you should insist he only speaks to you via software that does this automatically.

  2. Doctor Science said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    I'd been interested to hear from any males present: are you aware that adult blondeness is usually an acquired characteristic? Do you think that the (male) scientist and (male) "writer" are thinking of blondeness as something that comes from genetics, or as something that comes from a bottle?

  3. Andrew Ferguson said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    This is disgusting. How can this man be allowed to keep his job?

  4. Faldone said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    … just doesn't care …

    Some of y'all might remember the technical term for this.

  5. Fernando Colina said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    If you are going to have a blonde moment, Harlow is a good one to have it with.

  6. MattF said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

    @Doctor Science

    In fact, both blonde and non-blonde females have told me this– as well as how to distinguish cheap-blonde from expensive-blonde– but I find it difficult, for some reason, to bear all that in mind.

  7. Mark P said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    Although I have a pretty low opinion of journalism in the US, I am pretty sure a journalist at a reasonably respectable publication in the US would lose his job for making up things as Harlow appears to have done.

  8. Neuroskeptic said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 4:40 am

    To be fair, he may yet be fired, it's possible the Times is conducting an internal investigation… I very much doubt it, though. Sell responded several days ago and there's been no response as far as I can see, and the article is still up.

  9. NW said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 6:58 am

    A sort of linguistic point. You can't say this article is in The Times. Despite the facts that:

    The Times and the Sunday Times are published by the same company.
    The Times doesn't appear on Sundays.
    The Sunday Times only appears on Sundays.
    The Times website includes articles from the Sunday Times.

    Despite these, it is quite unreasonable to say the Sunday Times is the Sunday edition of The Times, because the two papers are so different. The Times is, whatever you think of the owner, a respectable newspaper of long standing and whose journalistic traditions can stand against any other good newspaper's. The Sunday Times is however lunatic tabloid garbage, notorious for promoting any bunkum that sells or gets people angry. How the co-exist in the same stable is a moral problem for the owner, and a linguistic nuisance for the rest of us, like a dwarf planet not being a planet or an extraposed subject not being a subject.

  10. Graeme said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    I'm just publishing a piece on Academics and the Media (Australian perspective). Would be very interested in any US studies or essays. The literature, outside an obsession with 'public intellectualism' seems thin.

  11. language hat said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    The Times is, whatever you think of the owner, a respectable newspaper of long standing and whose journalistic traditions can stand against any other good newspaper's.

    The long standing and the tradition are irrelevant to its current status; you could make the same claims for the New York Post, which has been a worthless rag for years now. My understanding was that The Times is only a shadow of what it was before its current ownership took over. Is this incorrect?

  12. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    @language hat:

    I think it is incorrect, in fact. I'm no fan of Rupert Murdoch, but I've being reading the TImes regularly for years and don't think it was significantly better pre-Murdoch. It seems to me to be one of those British institutions that has always been better at some indefinite time in the past.

    It's true BTW that the Sunday Times is not the Sunday edition of the Times but a separate newspaper.

    The fact is that none of the British dailies is at all careful or reliable in any of the science or medical reporting, though even so there are degrees; among doctors, the Daily Mail is particularly notorious for cruel misreporting of of new "miracle cures", to the extent that they must have an actual editorial policy promoting this sort of thing.

    Of the weeklies, the Economist is the shining exception – evident actual striving after accuracy. Pity it stands out so distinctly in this respect from the pack.

  13. mgh said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    Graeme, you may be interested in the flare-up a few years ago over another article in the Sunday Times that included fabricated information about scientific research. How it happened, and how corrections spread across the internet and finally into mainstream press, were documented with (some) detail. It was reported on a now-defunct blog called The Next Hurrah (here, here, here, here) and was also covered here on Language Log (here) as well as many other sites, and eventually as a front-page article in the New York Times (here).

    In that case, the Sunday Times 'scrubbed' the original article from its website. I can't recall (and can't find on google) whether a retraction or correction was ever published.

  14. mollymooly said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    For much of the 80s and 90s, the Daily Telegraph strongly outsold The Times, whereas the Sunday Times strongly outsold the Sunday Telegraph. This suggests the common man was aware of qualitative differences between dailies and similarly-named Sundays.

    The Economist has undoubtedly gone downhill since the 90s, which some blame on chasing the US market. I am too ignorant to form an opinion on this.

    Finally, my favorite bit from the STimes piece; even though you've already read it, I must share it with you:

    It may also help to explain the success of the lead character in Legally Blonde, the hit West End musical based on a film starring Reese Witherspoon

  15. Neuroskeptic said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    mgh: Thanks for reminding us of that – it's indeed very relevant. Although this is a case of "first as tragedy, then as farce", since in that case there was a political / Culture War angle, and the false claims were very serious. At least this time it's just about hair.

  16. dw said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 2:55 am

    This has been a really bad couple of weeks for British newspaper coverage of Southern California. In addition to the Sunday Times "blonde" fiasco reported above, the Daily Mail plagiarized an LA Times report about Dick Van Dyke appearing in the musical "Mary Poppins".

  17. dw said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 3:25 am

    I'd like to put in a word for the Financial Times as the one UK daily that does have some standards of accuracy.

  18. Picky said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 5:37 am

    The distinction between the Times and the ST means also that the ST doesn't call itself, as Neuroskeptic alleges, Britain's newspaper of record (unless I am way out of date – which is possible, since I try not to drop cash into Mr Murdoch's pocket).

    Whether the Times has gone downhill since Mr Murdoch bought it is a matter of opinion, of course, but mine is very strongly that it has.

    Another distinction we could usefully make before we lump all British journalism together is that "lies" are more likely to be found in national dailies, "bullshit" – and sometimes even something approaching truth – in regional and local newspapers.

  19. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    I'd like to second NW's point about distinguishing the Times and the Sunday Times. They have totally different editorial staff and a totally different approach to news. I'm no fan of the Times proper, but I doubt something like this would have happened there, or if it had there would be worse repercussions. I wasn't surprised at all to hear about it happening at the Sunday Times. This is a paper, after all, which thinks the height of pinnacle analysis is a pseudo-3D graphic, USA Today style. It's competing directly with the Mail on Sunday, and we all know what that paper's like, especially when it comes to stories about science or women.

  20. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 31, 2010 @ 4:37 pm


    Absolutely right about national vs local papers.

    I suspect this is to do with the costs of being caught out. Journalists reporting (say) a science story in a national newspaper know there is little comeback if they play fast and loose with the truth – much more important to be entertaining. But journalists reporting local events may well get into significant trouble if they get it wrong. Same with even a national journalist reporting on someone with political power or a litigious streak.

    You may well be right about Murdoch and the Times. My general cynicism about national press standards probably makes it harder for me to distinguish real significant differences in quality.

  21. Terry Hunt said,

    February 5, 2010 @ 7:17 am

    In my experience some local papers in the UK, while not necessarily guilty of active lying, can be remarkably uncaring about getting background information correct, particularly in the case of mildly specialist and/or scientific subjects. On half a dozen occasions I've seen my current local daily casually misrepresent or repeat common myths about 'natural world' topics, such as describing caterpillars with irritant hairs (an occasional local mini-plague) as "biting", "stinging" (in the active, wasp-style sense), "poisonous" and "venomous", all in the space of one small column.
    A piece about my local astronomy club's public open day a few years ago contained a couple of short paragraphs stuffed more densely with basic errors (on the level of "galaxies are found within solar systems") than I would have believed possible, none attributable to the knowledgeable people (all club committee colleagues) the reporter talked to, and all easily correctable by reference to any child-level astronomy book. As far as I can tell, the function of "fact-checking" I believe to be common in the US's local press is unrecognised by most UK local papers.

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    February 7, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

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