When What a Journalist Says Is Not a Lie But It’s Also Not Really True

When big cities had two or three newspapers plus radio and television stations competing for great crime stories, a former reporter for the Chicago’s  City News Bureau told me how he sometimes got exclusive details and quotes from people involved in the story. He’d call from a pay phone at a police station and say, “This is blankety-blank from 9th district police headquarters—we need more information on what happened there tonight.” The recipient of the call assumed he or she was talking with the police and and the reporter often got good details and quotes, usually never disclosing who he really was.

That not-a lie-but-not-really-true approach to journalism has evolved into today’s clickbait headlines. Come up with the headline, then add whatever you can to make the headline not a lie but also not what traditionally was true journalism.

People in politics and public relations have long operated that way—what’s different is that so many journalists now do it.

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