Monday, July 6, 2015

Assumptions in reporting

By Cristin Nelson

Over the weekend, I caught up on the rest of the ethics readings that I hadn't had a chance to finish earlier.  The story that most interested me was that of Jonah Lehrer, who fabricated quotes, plagiarized his own works, and rearranged facts.

This blog post by Seth Mnookin, linked to in one of the assigned articles, compared some side-by-side examples of Lehrer's original source material with his final product.  The examples are enlightening--as I read them, I was thinking that a lot of writers probably write this way.  Lehrer inserts small dramatic touches into the source material, and writes assumptions that cannot be proven.

For example, Lehrer recreates a scene (originally from Leon Festinger's When Prophecy Fails) in which a group of cultists are waiting for the rapture, which is supposed to arrive at midnight.  When midnight passes without incident, Lehrer writes, "the cultists began to worry.  A few began to cry."  The weeping is perhaps the most obvious addition--this didn't happen in the original material.

But the cultists' worry is also problematic.  The source material specifically states that as the time for the rapture passed, the cultists sat frozen, motionless, without expression.  This worry, then, is invented and assumed by Lehrer.  It is plausible that the cultists did begin to worry, but it is perhaps equally possible that they did not.  (In fact, it could be a more interesting story if they didn't!)  No one should assume that they know the inner thoughts or feelings of a person under stress, particularly a person who subscribes to an unfamiliar, fringe belief system.  It may also show Lehrer's hand by revealing his beliefs of what constitutes normalcy, making me question his objectivity.

I feel as though I have seen this type of writing online (and am probably even guilty of it myself), because I can see how it would be easy to do.  Societal norms are so strongly ingrained in many of us that I would probably also have assumed some sense of worry on the part of the cultists, given that it is probably "normal" to worry in a scenario where you expected some huge event that didn't take place.  It was a good, specific example of how "assuming facts not in evidence," even a small detail, is a dangerous insertion of yourself into the story.

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