This essay, on how we often interpret the news through the lens of what we want to see, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 9 June 2019, under the headline ‘Fake news will thrive as long we are happy to see only what we want to see’.
If a gorilla walked right in front of your eyes, you wouldn’t miss it, would you? Actually, half the country probably would.
In a classic 1999 experiment, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons showed people a video of basketball players, some wearing white shirts, some wearing black, and asked them to count how many times the players in white passed the ball. Halfway through the film, a woman in a gorilla suit saunters into the scene, faces the audience, thumps her chest and walks away. Extraordinarily, more than half of Chabris’s and Simons’s subjects were so intent on watching the ball being thrown that they failed to see the gorilla.
The experiment poses important questions about the reliance of eyewitness accounts. It also has a bearing on the way we access information, including news. Two stories last week illustrate how we often see what we expect, or want, to see.
The first is the tragic story of Dutch teenager Noa Pothoven. Sexually assaulted and raped as a young girl, Pothoven’s pain led to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anorexia.
So consumed was she by her mental distress that in 2017 she contacted an ‘end of life’ clinic to request euthanasia. It refused, because of her age. For a time, she was in hospital so she could be fed intravenously, having become dangerously underweight. Earlier this year, however, she decided that she wanted no further treatment and refused all food and fluids. Her parents and doctors agreed not to force-feed her. Last Sunday, she died at home, aged 17.
It’s a heartbreaking and unsettling story. What it wasn’t was an account of a teenager being ‘legally euthanised’ by the state. But that was how much of the world’s press reported it. It became a shocking tale, not just of the tragedy of Pothoven’s life but also of the immorality of the state in helping a vulnerable teenager to end it. Only through the efforts of journalists such as Naomi O’Leary, correspondent with Politico Europe, who took the trouble of reading the original Dutch reports of the case, did the truth emerge.
The misreporting can be seen as another instance of ‘fake news’. Certainly, there was shoddy journalism in the failure to check sources or even to read the Dutch press.
But the wider context of the distortions is important, too. There is a fraught debate in many countries about euthanasia and assisted suicide. The tragedy of Pothoven’s life and death revealed, for many, the ugly reality of such policies. ‘Euthanasia and assisted suicide are a defeat for all’, tweeted the Pope on Wednesday. Many journalists and readers may have refrained from asking deeper questions about the initial account because the misreporting allowed them to see what they wanted to see. Much of what we call fake news may be like this – the result not of a desire to lie, but to reduce complex problems to simple truths.
Pothoven’s case poses many questions about her suffering and treatment. It is untrue, as many claim, that she was not force-fed only because of Holland’s euthanasia laws. In many countries, including Britain, euthanasia is illegal, but doctors and the courts often accept that competent adults have ‘the right to choose whether to eat or not‘ even if ‘the refusal is tantamount to suicide’.
Nevertheless, while the ethical debates about euthanasia and force-feeding are distinct, both raise profound questions about the relationship between an individual’s autonomy and what society deems morally acceptable. This is especially so in Pothoven’s case, as she was a minor. And while her death was not a case of euthanasia, it is legitimate to ask whether the legalisation of euthanasia made it easier for a deeply pained individual to imagine death as a way out.
These are complicated issues to which there are no straightforward answers. The desire for simple moral truths, and to see only what we want to see, makes it more difficult to navigate our way through such challenging dilemmas.
‘Seeing what you want to see’ is also at the heart of the second story – that of the ‘Central Park Five’. The original story is 30 years old. It has returned to the news because of a new Netflix drama, When They See Us, broadcast last week.
On 19 April 1989, a 28-year-old white woman, Trisha Meili, was beaten and raped while jogging in New York’s Central Park. She was in a coma for 12 days and still has no recollection of the events.
That same night, five young men – four African American and one Hispanic – were arrested and charged with rape, assault and attempted murder, as well robbery and riot. There was no forensic evidence – DNA, fingerprints, blood, or semen – linking any of the suspects to the crime. Under coercion, they confessed to being accomplices to the rape, confessions they later retracted. All were convicted and received sentences of between five to 15 years.
In 2002, murderer and rapist Matias Reyes confessed to raping Meili. DNA and other evidence confirmed his guilt. The Central Park Five, having spent up to 13 years behind bars, were cleared and their convictions vacated.
The original case generated a moral panic about black youth. The term ‘wilding’ entered the vocabulary, describing ‘packs of bloodthirsty teens’ that descend ‘downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance… to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rap’. It was a racialised term – the mobs were black, ‘their enemies were white’.
Such reporting may have aided the conviction of the Central Park Five. It pushed many US states to introduce new laws that allowed children as young as 13 to be tried as adults and led to the mass incarceration of black youth.
When They See Us tells the story of powerless black and Hispanic families, trapped by a justice system that is corrupt, vengeful and racist. It shows fake news as the work not of cranks and trolls but of a justice system that sets out to demonise young black men and of a media willing to concoct the evidence.
The misreporting of Pothoven’s death and the manipulation of the stories about the Central Park Five are very different cases. Both, however, shed light on how mistruths become accepted and on the dangers of seeing what we want to see. Too often, we don’t see the gorilla in front of our eyes. And too often we insist on seeing a gorilla when none is there.
The images are of Noa Pothoven with her 2018 autobiography ‘Winnen of Leren’, a published version of her diaries (photographer unknown); Netflix ad for ”When they See Us’.