Circular reporting

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Two basic ways that circular reporting can happen. Dashed lines indicate sourcing that isn't visible to the final reviewer. In both cases, one original source (top) appears to the final reviewer (bottom) as two independent sources

Circular reporting or false confirmation is a situation in source criticism where a piece of information appears to come from multiple independent sources, but in reality comes from only one source.[1][2] In many cases, the problem happens mistakenly through sloppy intelligence-gathering practices. However, at other times the situation can be intentionally contrived by the original source as a way of reinforcing the widespread belief in its information.[3]

This problem occurs in a variety of fields, including intelligence gathering,[2] journalism, and scholarly research. It is of particular concern in military intelligence because the original source has a higher likelihood of wanting to pass on misinformation, and because the chain of reporting is more prone to being obscured. The case of the 2002 Niger uranium forgeries was a classic instance of circular reporting by intelligence agencies.[4]

Examples involving Wikipedia[edit]

Diagram illustrating circular reporting by Wikipedia and the press

Wikipedia is sometimes criticized for being used as a source of circular reporting.[5] Wikipedia advises researchers and journalists to be wary of, and generally avoid, using Wikipedia as a direct source, and instead focus on verifiable information found in an article's cited references.[6][circular reference]

In the following examples, false claims were propagated on Wikipedia and in news sources because of circular reporting. Randall Monroe, in his comic xkcd, called this phenomenon citogenesis.[7]

  • Wikipedia and The Northern Echo: In January 2014 a statement was anonymously added to the Wikipedia page on UK comedian/broadcaster Dave Gorman stating that "he had taken a career break for a sponsored hitch-hike around the Pacific Rim countries". When this was questioned, an article published at a later date (September 2014) in The Northern Echo, a daily regional newspaper in North East England was cited as evidence. The falsity of the original claim was confirmed by Gorman in an episode of his UK TV show Modern Life is Goodish (first broadcast 22 November 2016).[8]
  • Wikipedia and Der Spiegel in 2009, regarding Karl-Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.[9]
  • Wikipedia and The Independent in 2007, propagating the false information that Sacha Baron Cohen worked at Goldman Sachs.[10]
  • Wikipedia on the coati beginning in 2008, when an arbitrary addition "also known as....the Brazilian aardvark" by an American student resulted in much subsequent citation and usage of the unsubstantiated nickname as part of the general consensus, including published articles in The Independent, The Daily Mail, and a book published by the University of Chicago.[11]

See also[edit]

External video
How false news can spread - Noah Tavlin, TED-ED[12]


  1. ^ Marcus Sterzer, CD; Patrick McDuff B.A. & Jacek Flasz (Summer 2008). "The Challenge of Centralized Control Faced by the Intelligence Function in Afghanistan" (PDF). Canadian Army Journal. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-05.
  2. ^ a b "The Cocktail Napkin Plan for Regime Change in Iran". Mother Jones. June 2008.
  3. ^ Micheal T. Hurley; Kenton V. Smith. "8". I Solemnly Swear. p. 128. ISBN 0-595-29947-4. Circular reporting occurs when what is reported is fed back to the originator in revised fashion which makes it difficult to objectively view the end product until you can trace back the sources to determine where the original information actually came from. Pan Am would eventually try to play that game by trying to introduce into court news reports that they themselves had a hand in producing. Google Book search, retrieved on 23 July 2009.
  4. ^ Drogin, Bob; Hamburger, Tom (2006-02-17). "2006-02-17". Los Angeles Times. This became a classic case of circular reporting," said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters. "It seemed like we were hearing it from lots of places. People didn't realize it was the same bad information coming in different doors.
  5. ^ Timmer, John (May 2009). "Wikipedia hoax points to the limits of journalists' research". Ars Technica.
  6. ^ "Citing Wikipedia". Wikipedia. Retrieved 2019-03-29.
  7. ^ "xkcd: Citogenesis". Retrieved 2018-09-20.
  8. ^ Hardwick, Viv (9 September 2014). "Mears sets his sights on UK". The Northern Echo. Retrieved 30 August 2017. He once hitchhiked around the Pacific Rim countries
  9. ^ "Wie ich Freiherr von Guttenberg zu Wilhelm machte" (in German). 2009-02-10.
    "False Fact On Wikipedia Proves Itself". Slashdot. 2009-02-11.
  10. ^ "Wikipedia Article creates Circular references". Tech Debug blog. 2009-01-14.
  11. ^ "How a Raccoon Became an Aardvark". The New Yorker. 2014-05-19.
  12. ^ "How false news can spread - Noah Tavlin". TED-ED. August 27, 2015. Retrieved August 29, 2015.