Skip navigation.

Journalists as Hoaxers

Historically, the most common perpetrators of journalism hoaxes have been journalists. Many aspiring poets and fiction writers have made their livings at newspapers and magazines, and some practiced their avocation on the job. These include Edgar Allan Poe, who explained that he wrote fake stories about a man crossing the ocean in a balloon simply because he needed the money.

The same motive still prompts some freelancers to make up quotes or even entire stories, as some of the examples below show. Staff writers, on the other hand, usually have different reasons for fabrication. When Janet Cooke pulled off the most successful modern hoax by a journalist, the Pulitzer-winning "Jimmy's World" in The Washington Post in the 1980s, she already had a paycheck. She was motivated largely by ambition to excel. When an Associated Press reporter made up sources and quotes in dozens of stories in the 2000s, he appeared to have done it for convenience of making deadlines with solid stories.

At daily and most weekly news operations, it's impossible to completely stop in-house hoaxing. There's far too much information being processed in a tight timeframe to fact-check most of the material. Many publications and programs with longer production schedules, such as monthly magazines, do independently fact-check stories, at least those from freelancers.

But newsrooms can instill processes and foster atmospheres that make hoaxing less likely and increase the chances that an internal hoaxer will be quickly caught. Studies of the Jimmy's World hoax at The Washington Post and of Jayson Blair's fabrications at The New York Times in the 2000s revealed how methods of operations within the newsroom allowed the hoaxers to succeed even though some reporters and editors were suspicious.

Finally, there is one type of story in which journalists fool readers without malice. These are usually April Fool's stories, which a surprising number of readers and viewers take seriously.

Key Factors

Credibility: Editors believe their reporters, with few exceptions.

Deadlines: There's no time at most news organizations to verify reporters' facts and quotes, although spot-checking is certainly possible.

Great Story: In these cases, it's the editors who want the stories to be true.

Red Flags

Surprising Success: A reporter consistently gets surprising access to information or sources - surprising considering the reporter's experience or lack of previous contacts for the story in question. This is tricky, however, because getting this access is also the mark of many good reporters.

Unconfirmablity: When the reporter is asked to provide identification or contact information for sources in a story, so that an editor or someone else can verify information, some of the sources are impossible to find. The reporter gives various explanations, such as that the person moves a lot.

Go to Case Studies >>