Five Ways to Spot a Bogus Story

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 1 2012 9:30 AM

Five Ways to Spot a Bogus Story

I bow to David Wong, whose Cracked listicle identifies the five marks of bogus stories.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

5. The headline contains the word "gaffe."
4. The headline ends in a question mark.
3. The headline contains the word "blasts" (or lashes, etc, and etc).
2. The Headline Is About a "Lawmaker" Saying Something Stupid
1. The headline contains the phrase "blow to."
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It's the second item that really sings out to me. I've spent some time at a liberal start-up, at a libertarian magazine constantly striving to stay buzzy and current, and at the hated "MSM." And Wong nails this trend to the wall.

[I]f you see a headline citing something a "lawmaker" said, the first thing you should know is if it's someone with actual power with implications on policy (i.e., a senator stating how he or she is going to vote on upcoming legislation) or if it's simply a nobody who's being held up as the Crazy Shithead of the Week (CSotW). [In a headline about] the CSotW comparing rape to a flat tire, the crazy shithead was a member of the Kansas state legislature -- one of 165 members of the body that makes laws in Kansas. This guy is so hugely important that it took a whopping five thousand votes to elect him. You could fit every one of his supporters in a high school gym. Which is to say, he has just slightly more power to enact law than you do. And none outside of Kansas.

This is an iron law, based (in part) on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). If a politician is famous, his name appears in the headline. (IE: "Allen West Accuses Democrats of Illegal Water Flouridation"). If the politician is obscure, he's a "lawmaker." See this HuffPost headline telling us about the ruminations of "Wes Campbell, Alaska GOP lawmaker." It's not as if the only politics stories you need to read will involve famous pols. Of course they won't! But there's a genre of story written to generate clicks and Facebook shares from bored online readers who want to laugh at their political enemies. And, yes, you can avoid this stuff with no consequence. (You could argue that the antics of random pundits and morons are distractions from the larger issues of corporate political influence, but let's save this argument until Noam Chomsky guest-hosts the blog.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.