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Journalism and Fakery Don’t Mix

Last week, on a segment of “World News Tonight,” ABC News displayed two grainy photographs that it said depicted American diplomat Felix S. Bloch handing a briefcase to “a known Soviet agent on the streets of a European capital.” It was all very dramatic stuff. In fact, though, it never happened. The man ABC identified as Bloch, who is the subject of an official espionage investigation, was not Bloch at all, nor was the man identified as a KGB agent. What ABC showed viewers was what it calls a simulation, meaning a staged re-enactment using actors. In other words, the scene was a fake. That it was not labeled as such was subsequently acknowledged by ABC to have been a “terrible mistake.” Note, though, that ABC’s sense of regret extends only to its failure to inform viewers that what they were shown wasn’t real. The network continues to insist that it sees nothing improper in dramatizing news.

Others, among them some ABC news correspondents, disagree. Their concern is that it is wrong and even dangerous to mix factual news reporting with alleged re-creations of contemporary events, and of course they are right. Simulations do have a place in TV reporting. Those that have been used in connection with space flights and exploration, for example, are of obvious value in explaining something that couldn’t otherwise be seen. But dramatizing something like a moon landing is a harmless bit of fakery that isn’t intended to fool anyone. Showing posed pictures that have been artfully arranged to look like the real thing can fool people, even if that isn’t the immediate intention. Showing staged pictures of alleged crimes taking place is particularly dangerous.

The earlier era of yellow journalism, with its doctored photos and sometimes-fictionalized stories, remains the infamous model of how not to present the news. Most of the American press has evolved beyond such shameful practices. “Simulation” in television news represents a regressive step. It crosses the vital line between showing what is real and what is fake, and it will leave many viewers vividly “remembering” that they saw something as it happened long after they have forgotten the disclaimer that what they saw was a dramatization. Simulation is a further disturbing erosion of the line between news presentation and show business. Worst of all, it is inherently dishonest.


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