Starting over in a Post-Journalism World, Part Six.

Some people have no instinct or feel for research. They dig without purpose, slop together information, and then get out a thesaurus, use big words, and hope you don't notice the big holes in their work.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has such a piece in The Big Lie: the story of a professor who forged a fake letter as a ruse to his current university to lead them to falsely believe he was getting a job offer at another university so that they would give in to his demands and give him tenure.

The article is a perfect example of sophistry disguised as an investigative piece.

The number of unanswered questions in this article is distressing, but we are supposed to be impressed because you can click and read the letters and police reports gathered for the article.

That is not a big deal. I did that sort of thing with Chaser News a decade ago, but also gathering memos, transcripts, and the like is standard for the job.

But the kinds of information gathered -- and not gathered are very telling.

There is a narrative to the article, but surprisingly, very little actual facts to see what has actually transpired.

The first problem comes with the university not following up with the supposed job offer by verifying whether or not the letter was a gambit. They should have called or email, and followed up, but they didn't.

And considering a university is a place where research is their reason for being, the first oversight was serious enough to ask if there are bigger problems, and the fibbing professor is ma mere tip of the iceberg.

But we don't have any documentation on the university's human resources policy on verifying employees documentation.

There are many other holes in tis article. There is mention of the private investigator the professor's estranged wife hired who interjected himself in her husband's academic affairs, but the narrative presented is dodgy at best. From the accounts, the wife is portrayed as someone who knew the deceptions, but kept quiet and was complicit until she found out the husband she was supporting financially was fooling around.

The article has no focus, and the reason is it has too few facts going for it.

We also have no idea how legitimate the disgraced professor's previous grievances were, or whether his previous work was legitimate or also suspect.

Yet the article purports to interview him without actually using direct quotes, something quite out of place when we have documents in the margins:

When the subject of his fake letter comes up, McNaughton appears exhausted and frustrated. He doesn’t want to talk about why he did what he did. He keeps repeating that there’s no justification for what was clearly a major breach of ethics. He fidgets with a paper coffee cup until he has practically shredded its rim. He tugs at his dark beard. 

But over the course of seven hours of conversation, a few glasses of cabernet and a Yuengling, McNaughton unspools a larger story that is endemic to his profession. Hardly any scientist will ever win a major prize or successfully develop a cancer drug. The odds of that are even more daunting for one who toils away at a midtier public research university. So the focus shifts to smaller wins: a congratulatory email from the dean, a steady stream of pipette tips, a few extra square feet of lab space. Maybe, if everything goes just right, there’s a new interdisciplinary program or an article in a major journal.

These tiny battles for resources and validation can consume a professor, but they do little to answer what became for McNaughton an essential question: What am I worth? He’s still asking that question, the one that got him into this mess in the first place.

This is the way of journalism: throwing a few nuggets here or there, but with no anchor, just colour, sophistry, and narrative.

Meaning we either read to be misinformed -- or not and stay uninformed.

It is a serious problem that must be addressed by the alternative.

We have the tools to be informed, and yet, we are becoming increasingly ignorant -- and there are consequences to it...