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On Lying: My School of Life secular sermon


It has been a thrill to put together a secular Sermon for the first School of Life series here in Melbourne. Under the rubric of lying, I had permission to pull together a lot of interests that I don’t usually get to explore in one piece: apes, evolution, the worldwide flood of information, bad journalism, good journalism and the idea of the witness. To make it more perfect, the Sermon took place at the Melbourne Zoo.

For anyone interested in exploring these ideas further:

If you want some more examples about the exponential rise of information in the world, start here.

I spoke about apes and deception. Here’s a description of the experiment I mentioned, plus some pages about other amazing ape behavior, like complex tool use, puzzle-solving and cooperation. Click tab 7 for deception.

Here’s a link to a Monthly article I wrote about real estate. As part of my reporting for the article I called to confirm that the young first time home buyer mentioned in the piece did in fact work for the real estate firm also mentioned in the piece—she did. Neither she nor her boss were happy to talk to me. This blog post is about another first home buyer who also happens to be a real estate agent—even though his profession was not mentioned in the original article. Two of the "lies of omission" mentioned in the Sermon were, to the best of my knowledge, first reported at this blog.

This article from Canada's The Globe and Mail details an investigation into realtors posing as buyers. It includes links to the Canadian blogs that first uncovered the lie.

I came across many other examples of this phenomenon in a variety of blogs and traditional media. Check out macrobusiness.com for some trenchant, non-traditional analysis of real estate, as well as many other aspects of our financial lives. Bubblepedia has an occasionaly lively forum. Note that because much of their content is commentary, some blogs have wild language and awful manners, including distasteful sexism of a kind you'd be hard-pressed to find in the traditional media. These blogs link to similar sites in other countries.

Not sure where to look for guidance about the biggest financial decision in your life? Why not consult the movement of the planets. Luckily Jupiter is in Cancer in 2013 making "the property market boom again." Click the byline of this piece in The Australian. It will take you to "The world's leading luxury astrology company," and in case you missed it, same thing again at news.com.au

Here’s a few surveys which show how much journalists are not trusted. Here in Australia, journalists are only slightly more trustworthy than real estate agents. In the US, a Gallup Poll found that journalists are thought to be more honest than Members of Congress and stockbrokers but less honest than dentists and psychiatrists. In the UK, journalists rank lower than bankers--that hurts, guys.

This is a great article from the Columbia Journalism Review about shrinking word counts.

The Los Angeles Times, for instance, published 256 stories longer than 2,000 words last year, compared to 1,776 in 2003—a drop of 86 percent, according to searches of the Factiva database. 

When it comes to stories longer than 3,000 words, the three papers showed even sharper declines. The WSJ’s total is down 70 percent to 25 stories, from 87 a decade ago, and theLA Times down fully 90 percent to 34 from 368.

The Wall Street Journal, which pioneered the longform narrative in American newspapers, published 35 percent fewer stories over 2,000 words last year from a decade ago, 468 from 721. 

I couldn't find similar surveys for Australian journalism, but my experience working in Australia has been very similar to my US experience—word length is being cut across the board, and on the reader side, there’s a lot of anger connected to the perception that the media doesn’t care to get its facts right.

You can read longform by purchasing pieces from The Atavist for a small sum. Also look at Byliner.com. Australia's The Monthly is one of a handful of magazines in the world that run true, longform journalism. Also read long at The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine in the US, and Granta, based in the UK.