The Media Very Rarely Lies

Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten: With a title like that, obviously I will be making a nitpicky technical point. I’ll start by making the point, then explain why I think it matters.

The point is: the media rarely lies explicitly and directly. Reporters rarely say specific things they know to be false. When the media misinforms people, it does so by misinterpreting things, excluding context, or signal-boosting some events while ignoring others, not by participating in some bright-line category called “misinformation”.

Let me give a few examples from both the alternative and establishment medias.

Looking on Infowars, one of their top stories as I write this is New Vaccine Data Shows Alarming Number Of Stillbirths And Miscarriages Caused By Covid Shot. It’s based on the VAERS system of vaccine adverse events, which looks like this:

They draw the predictable conclusion that COVID vaccines caused the spike in 2021 and 2022 and therefore are very dangerous. I haven’t looked into this deeply, but I’m pretty sure I can guess what happened – you’re supposed to report adverse events (like stillbirths) to VAERS if they happened within some amount of time of a patient getting a vaccine. In 2021, probably more pregnant women got vaccines than in previous years [edited in response to here], and they were much more nervous about them and more aware of the reporting system. If some constant number of pregnant women have stillbirths, but women and doctors were more willing to link it to the scary new vaccination, then the number of adverse events (eg stillbirths within X time after getting vaccinated) should go up a lot in 2021, which it looks like it did.

Or how about this article: Kari Lake Trial Bombshell: Audit Reveals 42.5% of Ballots Randomly Sampled Were ILLEGAL Ballots. This describes the results of a real audit. It looks like 42.5% of ballots audited were printed the wrong size (19 inch ballots on 20 inch paper); if there’s some regulation saying the ballots have to be the right size, I guess this might be “ILLEGAL”. The Lake campaign says this proves some kind of foul play. The government argues that maybe they messed up printing the ballots, but it was an honest mistake, and if it rendered the ballots machine-unreadable they would have counted them by hand later, so the results are still fine. Infowars does a terrible job providing balance; they mostly just quote the Lake campaign’s accusations that it was sinister, while ignoring or downplaying the more plausible government statements. Still, on the most nitpicky level, as far as I can tell the article doesn’t say a lot which is literally false. Perhaps great journalism would investigate how the printing process worked and where it went wrong, but as far as I know neither side does that – they just report the relevant officials’ claims in more vs. less accusatory tones and expect you to make a judgment call based on your priors (mine are on “honest mistake”).

Looking through Infowars, it looks like many of their articles are around this quality of these two. Others are even less misinformative; there are lots of articles about members of some group Infowars doesn’t like committing a crime or doing an offensive thing; usually other sources confirm that these crimes or offenses are real. Or articles about “EXPERT SAYS X!”, where someone who could be charitably described as an expert (an MD or PhD) really did say X, even though X is insane and all other experts disagree. If Infowars is lying here, it’s by choosing to report on these stories instead of others, in a way that suggests they’re important – not by making up completely imaginary things on the spot.

(if you disagree with this, it might be worth looking through the front page of and calculating what percent of the articles seem technically-true-but-misleading vs. completely-made-up. I tried this and had trouble finding the latter, but your experience might differ. More here.