Wikipedia:Fact laundering

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This essay describes the phenomenon of "fact laundering", which bears many similarities to the illegal financial process which bears a similar metaphoric name, "money laundering". In money laundering, "dirty" funds obtained through a criminal enterprise (narcotics trafficking, prostitution rings, etc.) are "cleaned" by running the money through a front organization (e.g., a phony small business or a series of "shell" companies). The money that leaves the "front organization" appears to be revenues or profits from a bona fide business, and as such, it can be used without fear of questions from law enforcement agents about "where did that money come from?" With fact laundering, dubious information and unreliable sources are "whitewashed" by the information being included--accidentally or for other reasons--in a reputable newspaper article.

There are a number of circumstances which result in "facts" being included in Wikipedia articles for which there are no reliable sources or which cannot be verified. Many of the improperly included facts result from "passing through" a medium which is generally considered a reliable source. Thus the characteristics of the secondary source function as cover for a dubious source. This made up report of an allegation is typical. "The New York Times reported on October 13, 2006 in a copyrighted story that Jack Sprat has charged that his wife could eat no lean.[1]" While the article could be cited and quoted as a reference for its statement of Jack's opinion, it should not be used as a means of implying that its statement is a fact.

Scientific discoveries[edit]

  • Pavlov Katchov (1965- ). Russian scientist and head of Karamazov Institute. In 1999, the New York Times reported that "Dr. Katchov has found the cure for cancer"[2]


Another example can occur with purported new scientific discoveries or inventions. A reputable newspaper may run a very short piece that tries to give the reader a general sense of the claims that are being made. Since a generalist-audience newspaper's staff may not include professional scientists, scientific terminology with a very specific meaning may end up being used rather loosely, and so the paper may lead with a headline like "Russian scientist finds cure for cancer". The accompanying story may try to explain the entire process in broad strokes, giving the impression that the scientist has developed a proven new cure for cancer. In fact, a scientific journal reviewing the research may describe the research in much more guarded, restrained terms, stating that "Dr. Katzchov has released research data that suggests a positive correlation between certain blood factors and the rate of cancer cell regeneration in mice embryos". Whereas the generalist newspaper is boldly asserting that Dr. Katzchov has "found the cure", the scientific source says nothing of the kind. Generalist newspapers may be a reliable source for relatively straightforward news issues, such as whether or not a president has been elected-- but they are not usually a good source for a sophisticated, nuanced analysis of technical or scientific matters.

"The greatest singer/dancer/athlete in the world"[edit]

  • Chrostini Aguileri (1977- ). Pop singer and dancer. In 2004, the New York Times reported that "Chrostini Aguileri ...[is] the greatest dancer in the world".[3]


Fact laundering can also be used by POV-pushing editors who are dying to get a reputable source to "prove" a point that up till now they have only been able to source by using unreliable sources, such as fan websites and blogs. Let us say that a POV-oriented editor seems to be obsessed with having the statement that "Chrostini Aguileri is the greatest dancer in pop music" in her article. Other editors keep challenging and reverting this statement as POV, Peacock words, Weasel Words, etc. The POV-oriented editor then tries to find a source to placate the critics. The only sources are fan pages and blogs, which the other editors dismiss as unreliable. Then the POV-oriented author does a search of major newspapers using the search string "Aguileri...greatest dancer", and lo and behold, she or he finds a short article in the New York Times by a junior staff writer about pop music and videos.

In the piece, the NYT writer makes quips about different dancers in pop music, and then, in passing, makes a single reference to CA, noting that "fans of Chrostini Aguileri see her as the greatest dancer in the world". The NYT article seems to be just confirming that fans believe Aguileri to be the greatest dancer. The writer is not an expert in dance or performing arts. However, now the POV editor is in "Fact Laundering Heaven", because now the Wikipedia article can include the creatively out-of-context quote "Chrostini Aguileri ...[is] the greatest dancer in the world", which is sourced from the New York Times.

Slip-ups by newspaper writers[edit]

  • The Binglemaster 9000 is a kitchen accessory developed by Bingleworth International Inc. in 2006. In 2007, the Washington Post stated that the "Binglemaster 9000 is a brilliant revelation for the kitchen that can turn an inexperienced cook into a masterful, innovative chef"[4]

The above made-up Wikipedia article excerpt seems to be quite respectable. Yes, there are weasel words and Peacock terms in the lead, but it is a direct quote from a reputable paper, so it must be OK. More research reveals that the quote is an exact "cut and paste" from the Binglemaster 9000 promotional website, which gushes that the "Binglemaster 9000 is a brilliant revelation for the kitchen that can turn an inexperienced cook into a masterful, innovative chef". Yes, even reputable papers sometimes let boo-boos like that slip by. Check out the "omissions and errors" box in a major newspaper, and you will see statements like "The paper regrets to inform its readers that Pavel Katchov was mistakenly referred to as a Uzbekistani guerrilla warlord. Dr Katchov is in fact the head of the Karamazov Institute, and he has no connection with military activities". Oops!

Sometimes a staff writer is behind in getting their copy ready for the presses, and some "cut and paste" content that they had been planning to paraphrase or use in quotes ends up accidentally getting inserted straight into the text, as if it were the writer's own opinion. For the POV or Conflict of Interest-oriented editor, though, slip-ups like these are wonderful, because now the unreliable, dubious promotional statement has been whitewashed and cleaned by its accidental inclusion in a reputable newspaper's article.

Mercenary newspapers[edit]

  • The Omsnato-12a hybrid canola seed is a genetically modified canola seed developed by Omsnato World Industries in 2002. According to Biscayune Sun Times-Register science writer John Jones, "Omsnato-12a is an entirely safe new form of canola seed which will offer better yields for farmers, more sustainable agricultural land practices, and healthier agricultural regions"[5]

The above made-up Wikipedia article excerpt depicts the use of a clipping from a "mercenary" newspaper. By "mercenary newspaper", we do not mean a trade publication for soldiers of fortune ("New strafing techniques for firing into crowds of protesters for 2007: see inside"), but from an ethical standpoint, the two are somewhat similar. By "mercenary newspaper", we mean a news publication that is willing to sell its writers and reputation as a "news organization" to the highest bidder. Instead of standing tall as a beacon of editorial independence, a "mercenary newspaper" will write stories to order. Sometimes there is a discreet disclaimer, noting that the article is an "Advertorial" or "Paid content" or "special advertising news feature". But not always.

The results of mercenary newspaper writing may appear similar to the slip-ups described above (the Binglemaster 9000), but whereas the Binglemaster 9000 example was a careless accident, the Omsnato-12a story is a cold, calculated effort to sell the public's trust in newspapers to corporate interests which have an agenda to mislead or misdirect the public. As with the Binglemaster 9000 example, one way to spot "mercenary" news articles is sometimes they are written in such a lazy fashion that entire passages are "cut and pasted" directly from a company or product's promotional website or press kit. While showing a cut-and-paste does not prove that the newspaper article writer is a "mercenary" writer-for-hire, at the very least it shows that the writer is lazy and is merely parroting the "official line" of the company or product.

References[edit]

  1. ^ [http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/13/poetry/doggerel/sprat.html "Sprat Disses Wife" New York Times October 13, 2006 (made-up example!)
  2. ^ "Katchov cures cancer". New York Times. (entirely fictional and made up example!)
  3. ^ "Whole lotta booty shakin' on MTV". Staff writer New York Times. (silly made up, fictional example...no such article exists!)
  4. ^ "New kitchen gadgets for 2007". Washington Post. (silly made-up example. Entirely fictional)
  5. ^ Jones, John. "Omsnato's new canola seed a boon for farmers-and consumers". Biscayune Sun-Times Register.(Entirely fictional, made-up article and statement)