How journalism works: Sex, lies and voice recorders

How journalism works: Sex, lies and voice recorders

News Ltd excelled itself this weekend with a piece of journalistic sleight-of-hand designed to deceive readers in the quest for more website clicks. The story — Erotic dancers at charity launch for sick kids — first appeared on the front page of the NT News as well as on their website. It wasn’t long before other websites in the News Ltd group picked up on the story’s “click potential”, resulting in the piece being repeated at The Australian and becoming the featured story on the home page of

The article concerns the appearance of the Papparazzi Dancers at a charity function supporting Ronald McDonald House and reported the complaint of an unnamed ‘guest’ at the event who complained about the nature of the act.

“It was in the most (sic) poorest taste – they were taking their clothes off,” the source said.

“It was disgusting, the fact they were announcing a child’s charity is in such poor taste. homepageAlthough the original story was accompanied by attractive, but hardly controversial promotional photos of the dancers in question, by the time it reached the home page it was accompanied by an entirely different image – a salacious and tittilating bum shot completely unrelated to the story. So, with the headline proclaiming the troupe to be ‘erotic dancers’ and a suggestive – if unconnected – photo, plenty of clicks would follow.

It’s not surprising to discover that the story is highly flawed, if not entirely untrue. The Papparazzi Dancers are, it transpires, a dance troupe – not strippers as the story alleged. But in the world of online journalism, truth takes second place to sex – especially as an excuse to include racy images.

Three tricks were employed by this article to create the impression of a shocking, sexy story.

The unnamed source

All journalists are trained to corroborate their stories before going to press. The importance of factual accuracy used to be essential to any news room. Yet, as newsrooms have moved from investigators of truth to mere marketers of content, the time available and the motivation to check some stories has fallen away.

This particular story rests entirely on the hearsay of an unnamed ‘source’, supposedly a guest at the event. It is one anonymous person’s word against many, but the source has two things on his or her side.

  • The story contained allegations of sexual content, making it attractive to a journalist
  • The source remains anonymous, hampering further follow ups or debunking

The lack of accountability when using an unnamed source prevents any genuine backlash. Who is this person? Is there another reason for these bizarre claims? Did they profit from making the claims? Are they related to the reporter in any way? There are plenty of additional questions one would want to ask a source making claims that otherwise don’t stand up, but we are prevented from digging any deeper.

And so a single unknown person that we cannot question is given more significance than many official sources.

The journalist had attempted to corroborate the story by calling all other parties connected with the event, but as their answers actually debunked the entire story, the decision was obviously taken to run the story even though the basic premise was unproven. All the official on-the-record denials are never allowed to burst the reporter’s ‘scoop’. If the unnamed source’s allegations are more interesting than the truth, then the unnamed source’s views will be accepted. What happens next is an extremely common journalistic trick that distorts truth behind the appearance of even-handed investigation.

The buried denial

Read the headline and the first part of the story and you would come away thinking there was something in the claims. It isn’t until you get to the final paragraphs that the most strident denials appear. It is as if the reporter ranked the denials in order of weight and ensured the most damning make it into the final paragraph. Journos understand that many readers only digest the first two or three paragraphs of a story before either moving onto the next one or making up their mind. As the opening paragraphs of this story put forward the allegation of ‘strippers’ quite forcefully, the later denials are viewed through a reader’s predetermined viewpoint. “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. It’s obviously true.” And that’s if they get that far.

Yet, every other quote in the story – from the charity organisers, the television station, the local mayor and the manager of the troupe – completely demolish any and every claim from the source. The dancers were not strippers, the manager tells us.

“Dancers even have (outfits) gaffer-taped to their skin so there would be no wardrobe malfunctions,” he said.

The charity spokesman was unaware of any complaint and…

…after investigating the allegation, said the dancers “were not a troupe of strippers, they were fully dressed”.

Even the Palmerston Mayor couldn’t understand how the claim could be made.

“It was nothing inappropriate, we had entertainment by dancers,” he said. “If someone was complaining, they must have gone to a different event than I did.”

Supposedly, the journalist has therefore created a balanced report and probably convinces him or herself that they have been fair to all parties. But the structure of the story severely undermines the truth and creates a distortion in the reader’s mind. This is definitely intentional and, like my post on Monday, is another example of how the myth of journalistic impartiality can be manipulated.

Yet, there is a third trick at play here as well; designed to discredit the deniers.

Quoting out of context

In diligently calling those connected with the event for comment, the journalist – voice recorder in hand – would have asked many questions in the hope of getting the few words required to create the desired angle. Quite often, a journalist will have a specific quotation in mind before even picking up the phone and merely trawls until the right soundbite is uttered. The journalist will ask, cajole and pester until the spokesperson says the required words. Other times, the journalist will be deliberately provocative so as to encourage a particular reaction. I can’t say what happened in this particular case, obviously, but the practice is common in modern newsrooms, as described in Nick Davies’ book, Flat Earth News.

Many of the comments posted by readers after the article leapt upon a particular quote from troupe manager Daniel Cunningham.

“A number of the dancers have tertiary training, but it’s tasteful, lighthearted entertainment,” he said.

“Is he trying to say that people with tertiary degrees don’t strip, or that stripping is not stripping if the dancers have tertiary degrees?” says one commenter. “And who cares that they are tertiary trained – talk about red herrings. It is clearly inappropriate.” says another.

But what we don’t know is the question Cunningham was asked that provoked that response. It does seem an odd statement within the context of the story, but what about the context of the conversation Cunningham had with the journalist? By taking this statement, removing the original question and the discussion around it, instead presenting it as his response to the main allegation, it is designed to undermine Cunningham by suggesting he is advocating stripping by virtue of the dancer’s education level! As, previously, I have similarly been quoted out of context by a journalist, this line leapt out at me as quite possibly a classic example of the trick.

Content – not truth

Today, journalism is less about producing genuine news – although that obviously does happen – and more about producing and distributing ‘content’. It has become commoditised to the point that a flawed piece that can generate lots of clicks or paper sales is given more priority than an accurate piece with less widespread appeal.

The pressure of producing content for a regularly updated website and other media channels on top of the regular newspaper, in newsrooms that have seen dramatic reductions in staff over the last couple of decades, would inevitably lead to cut corners and tricks.

But when the line becomes blurred between truth and controversy merely to justify a titillating story and a sexy bum shot, we have to ask whether we are being served appropriately by the organisations we rely on to interpret the changing world around us. Rupert Murdoch still insists that all News Ltd sites will eventually have a paywall to charge readers. Something tells me we’re not going to pay for this standard of gutter journalism.