The Origins of Fake News – 1904 Article “Why People Disbelieve The Newspapers”

Fake News Has Been Around A Lot Longer Than You Think –  This 1904 Article Explains Methods That Have Changed Little In 100 Years

The internet has given the perceived notion that fake news is a relatively new phenomenon. Let’s say the term fake news is a misnomer,  fake news should more properly be called outright lies or nonsense.

Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Bok

Edward Bok had a good deal to say about “fake news” when he wrote an article that appeared in the magazine World’s Work in March 1904.

Bok’s article “Why People Disbelieve The Newspapers An Explanation Of The System; That Makes Accuracy And Truthfulness Difficult To Attain” still holds a great deal of relevance today.

Edward Bok was born in the Netherlands in 1863. He immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1870 when he was six years old. Bok had to quit school when he was in his early teens to help support his family.

In 1889 at age 26, Bok became the editor of the Ladies Home Journal.  Not only a talented editor but prolific writer, Bok stayed at the helm of the Journal for 30 years retiring in 1919.  He wrote,  “The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years After.” Published by Charles Scribner’s and Sons, the book won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize in Biography or Autobiography. Bok died in 1930.

In 2017 the dissemination of information, good and bad can be spread in a few clicks of a mouse. Many newspapers despite dwindling readership and circulation still have vast influence on what we all read. Then there are the web sites that masquerade as news outlets pumping out story after story.

One of the main problems of evaluating news is considering the source. The internet has made that problem worse, especially for young people. Stanford Graduate School of Education concluded that, “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

A 2016 study conducted by researchers at Stanford found “a dismaying inability by students to reason about information they see on the Internet, the authors said. Students, for example, had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from.”

Countless articles have been written about the lack of fact checking in media.

There is also the real concern of media bias both liberal and conservative.

Finally it’s not just the young, there is the inability of adults to distinguish obvious comedy or satire from news. Even some of our obviously outlandish satirical stories have inexplicably been taken as fact (or even worse, fake news) by a handful of readers, even though the stories are outright ridiculous.  We list those stories under the category of comedy. See links at bottom of this story to see examples.

In 1904 Bok theorized that in the race for speed, that is to get the news out quickly, newspapers purposely neglected fact-checking and would embellish or simply make up stories. Bok also discovered that this directive often came from the top down and saturated news organizations. In the rush to get a scoop on competitors and gain circulation, truth would be sacrificed.

The bigger the headline, the more outrageous the story, the more likely it would be that potential readers would not pass up purchasing a newspaper. Journalistic morals ignored lead to fake news.

Does this sound familiar? Why do people click on internet stories now?  Do you fact check what you have read? How have things changed in 113 years?

Today the goal remains-  how many eyeballs will come to a web site. Sometimes there is another agenda, but almost always it is to gain ad revenue. People still doubt the reality of what they read.

Here reprinted in full is Edward Bok’s article showing important lessons can always be learned from the past.

Why People Disbelieve The Newspapers An Explanation Of The System; That Makes Accuracy And Truthfulness Difficult To Attain

By Edward Bok

TIME was, and it is not so long ago, when folks believed what they read in the newspapers. But now, if people do not absolutely disbelieve all that is published in all the papers, surely much of the modern newspaper writing is regarded with incredulity. “Wait until tomorrow and it will be denied” is a frequent comment; and one need not always wait until the following day; it is too often the case that the evening papers deny what the morning papers print.

One reads in his morning paper a startling report of the shooting of a United States consul: when the evening paper comes out it says that the consul happened to be a hundred miles away from the spot where he was supposed to have been shot. Ten millions of dollars of Pope Leo XIII.’s savings are found and brought to Pope Pius X., and the weight of the bags of money and the watchful care with which the Pope’s ministers bear it to the Pontiff’s chamber are minutely described. That same day, when congratulations pour in upon, the Pope, he smiles and sadly says that he wishes the report were true. A man is killed by a fellow-player on the golf-links in the heat of an exciting game; the next day it is proved that the “murderer” had not played golf for a month and did not even know the man whom he was supposed to have killed. A Boston man is nearly killed riding to hounds, and the story is “worked up” with all the details of the accident. His family is alarmed. The anxious wife causes telegraph and telephone messages to be sent to the different hospitals to find where her husband was taken, only to have him walk into her room an hour later perfectly well. He had not even thought of a cross-country ride. And so the stories go on, day after day. After a while people naturally ask: “What may be believed?”

The newspaper editor, when asked about these fictitious tales, answers: “We exercise all the care we can, but, of course, we have to believe what our correspondents send and what our young men bring in. We are not responsible.” This would place blame on the correspondents and the reporters. But are they really the culprits?

Several years ago it was reported that the Queen of the Netherlands and her consort had quarreled. Domestic unhappiness was rife at The Hague: the Prince had even beaten his young Queen. It so happened that I had access to special facilities to learn the truth, which was, as is now well known, exactly the opposite of the report. I was careful that my information should have unquestionable authority, and with it I sought the editor of one of the largest newspapers, who was making the most of the story in his paper. I proved to him that there was not the first semblance of truth in the report. He acknowledged this. “But, you know,” he said, “‘first-page stuff’ is pretty scarce just now, and I’ll have to keep this thing up a bit. It doesn’t hurt Wilhelmina and makes good reading.” And he cabled his “London man” to send “more ‘special’ about the Wilhelmina matter.”

“No more. All false,” came back the response the next day. “Keep Wilhelmina matter alive. Send daily special for first page,” was the message that went back.

“What was I to do?” this correspondent asked me some time afterward. “Of course I ‘faked,’ or it would have cost me my job.”

Here is a similar instance that occurred, not in the office of a “yellow” paper, but in the editorial room of what is generally accepted as a reputable newspaper.

A report came over the cable that an English manufacturing concern had placed an order for 5,000 tons of steel with the English representative of the United States Steel Corporation. The message went to the managing editor. Steel stock was low that day. The paper had “interests.”

“Work this up. Miller,” said the editor, and with the order went a look.

“The ‘old man’ tells me to work this up,” said the man to the financial editor of the paper. “How far would you go?”

“As far as your imagination will carry you, I should say,” was the reply.

When the story appeared the tonnage of the order had surprisingly changed, and when the correspondent in London read his despatch in the paper a week later he could scarcely believe his eyes.

And “our young men who bring in the news” — are they to blame? Let us see.

A reporter on a New York newspaper of standing was sent out by his editor to “cover” a Bryan meeting during the campaign of 1900. He brought back a report that after Mr. Bryan had been speaking five minutes a number of people walked out.

“I would change that,” said the editor as he looked over the report, and taking his pencil he scratched out “a number of people” and substituted for it “nearly half the audience.”

“But there wasn’t a hundred,” said the reporter.

“Send this up,” said the editor to the “copy” boy, and the report went to the composing-room.

“What did you do?” I asked the reporter.

“Do? I’d be hanged if I would stand for that sort of thing, and I gave up my job then and there.”

“Did you ‘cover’ the new play at the Blank Theatre this evening?” asked an editor of his dramatic critic not long ago.

“I did, and it was pretty bad,” was the reply.

“Forget that it was bad,” said the editor, “and let me see your story before you send it up.

The dramatic man wrote the truth, but chose the softest terms possible. When he handed it in the story was “fixed.”

A young man was sent by his paper to report a certain meeting “for a column.” He brought back an account that required only about a quarter of the space. “It wasn’t really worth more, Mr. ,” explained the reporter to the city editor. He had given the meeting its exact relative worth.

“Work this up for a column,” said the city editor, calling another writer. Then, to the reporter: “See how he does it, and learn.”

But these are the sub-editors. Surely the heads of the papers do not sanction that sort of thing. Let us see.

I attended in 1900 the Philadelphia Republican Convention that re-nominated McKinley for President and named Roosevelt for Vice-President. I was surprised at the lack of enthusiasm. I asked the “head-writer” on a leading newspaper how it compared with other conventions.

“Stupidest convention I ever attended. You see, the nominations were cut-and- dried. The expected happened. That accounts for the lack of ‘go.'” This was the principal editor of one of the best-known newspapers in the country, and he was to “do” the story himself.

The next day I could scarcely believe my eyes when I read of the “unprecedented enthusiasm” which made this convention “eclipse all previous conventions in spontaneity of outbursts of applause.” The writer had seen many conventions, but this “far overshadowed all in the tumult of enthusiasm, which lasted fifteen minutes.” But as I had been there I knew that it had lasted just three minutes.

I saw the editor the next day. “Did you write that?” I asked.

“Yes. Why?”

“But I thought you told me “

“Oh, well,” he answered, smiling, “it would never do to say that. Of course the account was somewhat embellished. But we have to ‘whoop it up’ for the party, you know.”

Take what is called the “office work” of the average newspaper — the work, in other words, done by the editors, whether with shears or with pen. If one happens to read the New York Sun, for example, in the morning, and chances to live in a neighboring city and to take a local paper in the after- noon, it is amazing how startlingly similar he will find some articles. These articles in the out-of-town paper will each bear the date- line “New York,” as if they had been telegraphed to the paper from that city.

During the Boer war the Sun used to publish on its editorial page a very intelligent summary of the previous day’s events in the Transvaal. Again and again, in out-of-town afternoon papers, have I seen this same summary, without a change of a line, printed as original editorial matter, even where a later despatch on the opposite page denied the most important statement in the summary.

I will not say that these practices are typical of every newspaper throughout the land. It would be a lamentable condition if they were. But of how many newspapers can it be said, even by its own editors and reporters, that a policy of the strictest honesty and conscientious regard for the truthfulness of its news prevails in their offices? There are such papers. If they are not very many they are correspondingly influential.

The difficulty lies chiefly in the organization of the modern newspaper itself. It would not be right to say that the proprietors or the publishers are dishonest. But conditions have been allowed to enter into newspaper work that make it impossible to be as careful as men used to be in making sure of the accuracy of news. First, it is the ambition of every newspaper editor to see how “good” a paper he can make. But the term has been changed to mean how “big” a paper can be made. In spite of the increased bulk, newspapers are sold cheaper than they ‘ were ten years ago. At that time two cents was the prevailing price; now it is one cent. In other words, twice as large a paper must be made today for one- half the old price. The newspaper requires a larger staff to make the larger paper; true, also, that the advertiser pays for space on a more generous basis, offsetting the lower selling price of the paper.

The country has grown larger: telegraphic facilities are cheaper and more generously used, and the influx of news is larger. But the newspapers have not been content to keep pace with these changed conditions. In their craze to be bigger than their rivals, when the real news is all used they print what are called “specials.” News items are embellished or “worked up,” so that, except in a very few newspapers, a piece of news rarely receives its relative value. A piece of news into which a sensational element can be introduced is at once “worked up” into an article and occupies space that is disproportionate to either its value or the truth. Careless writing is the result, and, worse than that, an untruthful presentation. The sense of proportion and the moral value are lost: everything is forgotten except the craze for “a spread that will sell the paper.”

The use of abnormally large headlines seems to attract a certain part of our public which likes to have its news dished up in a sensational manner. The paper sells better; the proprietor orders his editor to “keep it up.” Naturally the head -lines grow larger and larger, and more and more out of pro- portion to the value of the news under them. The editor, in turn, instructs his sub-editors and reporters to look out for “head-line stuff,” for news that will “work up well,” for “first-page stories” which will bear a “scare heading,” and all through the office, from proprietor to reporter, the sense of relative values is lost. The reporter has his preconceived ideas of news changed; his scent becomes sharp for news that will get his reports on the first page — which to a reporter paid for the space that he fills means extra pay, and to a reporter on a salary means recognition; and if he becomes less careful of his facts and more intent upon the possibilities of his “stuff” to carry a glaring head-line, is he altogether to blame? The whole staff of the office is keenly alive to what can be done with the news that is brought in to produce the “scare-lines,” and too little thought is given to the trust- worthiness of the news itself.

Even a newspaper that refuses to lend itself to this sensational presentation of the news feels these influences more or less. It sees its sensational neighbor gaining in circulation, sometimes at the expense of its own circulation, and the thought naturally comes to its owner: “How can we meet this competition without seeming to do so?” He usually increases the size of the paper. His old policy is, in general, adhered to, but more news must be had to fill the extra space. There is an increase in the number of pages for local news. “And,” as one city editor said to me not long ago, “I have four pages to fill with local matter instead of two, and yet we can sell the paper for no higher price and we can’t pay as much to our reporters.” The reporters were asked to fill the extra space at the rate of $3 per column of 2,000 words each.

“The result is,” said one of the reporters on this particular paper to me, “we get a worse class of news, and what we get we ‘stretch’ out into as many words as we can to help fill the space. It takes a good story to fill a column, and then to get $3 for it, after a whole morning’s work and writing — well, it doesn’t pay.”

“But a reporter’s honesty isn’t based on his pay?” I asked.

“No; of course not,” he replied. “But human nature is human nature. A man is more careful in work for which he is well paid. There isn’t inducement enough for a man’s best or most careful work at such prices — that is all. Try as he may, let him be as honest as he means to be, he unconsciously becomes careless in his work.”

In other words, all along the line the moral responsibility ‘ of print is either lost or it becomes dulled. And the fault is directly traceable to the head. A newspaper rises no higher than its source. If the order of the establishment is to “sell the paper,” that is the one aim kept in view by everybody employed on it, often to the forgetfulness of all else. If the policy of the organization is to “make as big a paper as possible,” that fact will take precedence in the minds of all employed on it. In the one case the abuse of the highest office of a newspaper may be more barefaced and deplorable than in the other, but in the long run the result is practically the same — the moral standard is lost.

That is the crime of the modern news- paper — the forgetfulness of the moral responsibility that should be felt for whatever it publishes. It is not possible for a newspaper always to be accurate. The best of correspondents and reporters may be misled. The paper must handle news quickly. Sometimes the most important items come in at the twelfth hour, and the public demands that it shall all be promptly published. The time available to verify statements is often very scanty.

In many offices there is no effort to be honest or careful. Dishonesty in news is either quietly winked at or unblushingly countenanced. Everything is sacrificed so long as a piece of news that will make a “good story” is worked up into a “scare head-line” so as to “sell the paper.

It should not be a matter for surprise — certainly not to newspaper men themselves — that the public either positively disbelieves or accepts with mental reservation much of what is printed, for the public has learned by experience after experience that accuracy and truthfulness are not common.

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