Skip navigation.

Fables

Aesop’s fables are fiction, but that doesn’t mean they’re false. No one takes those animal stories literally, but they are intended to convey truths about human foibles.

Another kind of fable turns Aesop on his head – the fictional or partly fictional story of injustice disguised as fact by advocates willing to lie to advance some social or political cause. With an Aesop fable, the moral is obvious. With these ideological fables, the gullible must discover that they have been fooled in order to realize the moral: Be skeptical of emotionally powerful stories that cannot be readily verified.

On a certain level, the story is often true. That is, it often involves descriptions of incidents that did happen to someone - just not to the person telling the story, or not in the detail that it is told. The stories often point out injustices and atrocities that have occurred, that still occur, or that occur in some form that resembles the tale.

Several tactics can be used to carry out the lie. One of the most common is fabricating a crime, such as an attack based on a person's race or sexual preference. Another is putting on a public display, such as legislative testimony, a published story or a press conference. The fables commonly involve someone doing something cruel to someone else.

Key Factors

Great Story: These stories can be riveting. And because they illustrate injustices or cruelties that reporters know do occur - such and racism and war atrocities - they conveniently help reporters tell about the larger issue at hand.

Credibility: In a number of cases, the source is a prominent person, such as a local professor. In others, the hoaxer is backed by a prominent person, such as a public official (even the first lady). The forum used for telling the story - such as a public speech, legislative testimony or a police report - gives the stories an sense of authenticity.

The stories are often told in public venues, such as rallies and legislative hearings, where people are not apt to make up stories because the consequences of being exposed are significant.

Verification Obstacles: The most common obstacle is that the only known or living witness is the person telling the story. Other impediments include time (the described incident happened along ago), distance (the incident occurred in another state) and lack of access to documentation (the story was part of an unreported crime or involves a perosn's medical records).

Deadlines: When the story is told as part of a daily news event, reporters are often too busy to probe for veracity unless someone questions the tale. Reporters are especially unlikely to make that investment when the tale is being summarized as just one aspect of the coverage of that event, and when no one is questioning the story.

No Doubting Thomases: Because these stories often involve incidents that happened to the story-teller, there may be no other sources to raise questions - or none willing to come forward.

Public Bandwagon: The story sparks a sympathetic public reaction, especially when it involves an alleged crime, that gives the story a bogus, emotional credibility, and that compels reporters to cover the reaction rather than keep checking on the facts of the story itself.

We Believe What We Read in the Papers: Every news organization is playing the story straight. You're going to tell your editors to wait a few days until you can verify the story, even though no one claims it's a lie?

Red Flags

Unconfirmablility: The verification obstacles make it impossible to verify even the most fundamental information, such as that a lynching occurred in a certain town in a certain year. The story-teller seems to be the only person who knows what happened.

Profit: While the story might not make the source any money, it is used to push a social or political cause.

Mysterious Assailants: There are no names or real good descriptions.

Hate Crimes: Because most hate crime reports appear to be true, reporters are inclined to believe such allegations.

Go to Case Studies >>