False memories and journalism

We like to think of ourselves as a collection of our memories, and of each memory as a snapshot of an event in our lives. Sure, we all know that our minds aren’t as sturdy as our computer’s hard-drive, so these snapshots decay over time, especially the boring ones — that’s why most of us can’t remember what we had for breakfast 12 years ago. We are even familiar with old snapshots rearranging their order and losing context, but we don’t expect to generate vivid and certain memories of events that didn’t occur. How could we have a snapshot of something that didn’t happen?

This view of memory is what makes Brian Williams’ recent fib about being on board a helicopter that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire in Iraq 12 years ago, so hard to believe. There was indeed a helicopter that was forced to land on that day, but the downed aircraft’s crew reports that Williams was actually on a helicopter about an hour behind the three that came under fire. Williams has apologized for his story, saying he conflated his helicopter with the downed one. To this, Erik Wemple voices the popular skepticism that “‘conflating’ the experience of taking incoming fire with the experience of not taking incoming fire seems verily impossible.”

But research into false memories suggests that such constructed memories as Williams’ do occur. In this post, I want to discuss these sort of false memories, share a particularly interesting example, and then discuss what this might mean for journalism.

Psychology of false memories

There is plenty of fiction in our sense of self; to start us off, I want to share a particularly dramatic story of this told by Daniel L. Schacter at a recent World Science Festival. You can watch Schacter discuss the error of memory with a journalist and a few other scientists, or just skip the video and read on:

Donald M. Thomson is an Australian memory researcher and lawyer specializing in eyewitness testimony. One evening in 1975, a woman was brutally raped and left unconscious in her apartment, upon awakening she called the Sydney police and named Thomson as her assailant. The next day, she confidently picked him out of a police lineup and Thomson, despite his protest, was arrested for assault and rape.

There was only one problem: the facts didn’t check out — he couldn’t have done it. At the time of the rape, he was on live television discussing the science of faulty eye-witness testimony. The woman had been watching the show when the actual criminal broke into her home and assaulted her, and in the high stakes atmosphere of the event, she had encoded the face she was seeing on the TV — Thomson’s — as the face of her rapist. She wasn’t lying. To her, this memory was vivid and convincing, but it was a constructed memory that did not accord with the facts. All charges were dropped and Thomson was released after the police were able to confirm his alibi. Of course, not everybody has as convincing a defense as Thomson’s, and many innocent people have been put away in jail on eye witness testimony based on false memories. There is even an organization in the US — the Innocence Project — that specializes in exonerating such wrongfully convicted individuals.

Thomson’s case is a particularly dramatic one, given the nature and recentness of the event. I also don’t want to compare Williams’ experience as a war reporter to the trauma of rape, but just wanted to show how strange memory can be; mistaking the fiction of television — or sometimes even our own imagination (Mazzoni & Memon, 2003) — for snapshots of real events. Sometimes, these constructed memories can be extremely traumatic (Loftus, 1996). I wonder: can they be traumatic enough to cause PTSD without other risk factors?

Most importantly, effects of this sort are not rare. They are easier to create if there is time to distance us from the original event. Experiments have shown that after seeing a doctored photo of your childhood self in a hot-air balloon, you might be able to recall the details of a hot-air balloon ride that never happened (Wade et al., 2002); or, from reading a story about people meeting Bugs Bunny at DisneyLand, you might recall meeting him yourself (Loftus, 2003) — even though Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers and not Disney character. Of course, this effect isn’t confined to childhood memories (Reyna & Lloyd, 1997; Brainerd & Reyna, 2005).

As funny as some of the tweets with the #BrianWilliamsMemories hashtag are, the question becomes: was Brian Williams deceitful on purpose, or was he suffering from a false memory that he was convinced was true? Should we cut him some slack?

Implications for journalism

Journalist like Brian Williams aspire to be objective and truthful: how can they better train themselves to avoid succumbing to psychological effects like false memories? Can journalist even be objective? This is a nuanced question, and there is nothing like the PBS Idea Channel‘s episode on the popular crime journalism podcast Serial to introduce us to this question:

To start off the episode, Mike Rugnetta discusses three aspects of objectivity in journalism:

  1. It serves as a framework for existence and reality,
  2. considers knowledge free from the journalists’ individual bias, and
  3. aspires to balance all sides of a story

How would we view false memories from these perspectives? The second point is the obvious place to start. Usually, when we think about bias in journalism, we are considering — often conscious — political or other ideological biases. But journalists are human, and thus susceptible to all the — often unconscious — cognitive biases that all of us experience. Should they try to compensate for these biases? The obvious suggestion is to promote ideas like data journalism — replace irrational humans and their false memories by the rationality of a statistical test and the reliability of a hard-drive. But I fear that this does not remove bias, but just replace human bias by machines biases that we are even less well equipped to see. As Rugnetta discusses: there is nothing that is completely objective, there is only biases that are revealed and public or hidden and private. In the case of ideological leanings it seems like revealing such biases is possible, but what happens with unconscious or unknown cognitive or algorithmic biases?

This takes us to the first point. Most of us have no experience with the places and events of news stories except through the words of journalists. Modern Iraq, for instance, exists for me only as a series of news stories, and maybe the occasional extra bit I read on Wikipedia. The medium doesn’t convey reality to me, as much as construct it. What does it mean when this construction is swayed by cognitive biases that both the reported and I am not aware of? What if a reporter is sure that he is reporting what he saw, but in fact he is sharing a (partially) constructed memory?

Finally, we come to balance. If we are considering data journalism then we obviously won’t be just dumping unstructured databases on the audience. Partially, because most people will not have the necessary skills to examine this data, but — more importantly — even those with the required skills will seldom have the interest or motivation to just look at ‘raw’ data. A story will always be a balance between the personal aspects of the reported, the sources of data, and the techniques of analysis. Is there a perfect balance? Can (or should) we tell both the human and machine story?


Brainerd, C.J., & Reyna, V.F. (2005). The science of false memory. Oxford University Press.

Loftus, E.F. (1996). The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse. Macmillan.

Loftus, E.F. (2003). Make-believe memories. The American Psychologist, 58 (11), 867-73 PMID: 14609374

Mazzoni, G., & Memon, A. (2003). Imagination can create false autobiographical memories. Psychological Science, 14(2): 186-188.

Reyna, V.F., & Lloyd, F. (1997). Theories of false memory in children and adults. Learning and Individual Differences, 9(2): 95-123.

Wade, K. A., Garry, M., Read, J. D., & Lindsay, D. S. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand lies: Using false photographs to create false childhood memories. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9(3): 597-603.

About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

8 Responses to False memories and journalism

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    I think anyone who studies the issue long enough would tend to be surprised that we have any true memories at all.

  2. Brittany says:

    I believe that false memories happen to people very often, and its crazy to think that someone could be wrongly convicted for a crime because of that. I think false memories can sort of relate to classical conditioning. Sometimes I will have the same dream multiple nights in a row and when I wake up I sometimes think that what happened in my dream actually happened in real life. Or say a friend of yours talks about a guy she likes all the time and shows you pictures of him, and when you finally meet him in person you may think you have already met him since you have the memories of his pictures and your friend always talking about him.

  3. Steve says:

    False memory is a real problem — and a fascinating topic. But I don’t believe the issue with Brian Williams has anything to do with it. He just embellished the truth to make himself look better. We know that because of the frequency of the cases: chopper in Iraq; being in Berlin for the fall of the wall; meeting the pope; seeing a dead body floating in New Orleans; being rescued in a hotel overrun by gangs; etc. None of them is an outright lie: just a truth stretcher.

    That said, I find it galling that he should punished for deviating from the truth about Iraq by the same mainstream media that served us endless lies during the runup to the war.

  4. vznvzn says:

    strongly agreed with last comment. its helpful to learn about false memories but this post also lacks a basic understanding of narcissistic personality traits and basic research that williams is now questioned in several other cases. yes there is a cyber lynch mob mentality going on, but williams plays at the stratospheric level where these kinds of “mistakes” can have catastrophic consequencies. he was trusted for exactly the attribute that is now seen to be under question. credibility/ reliability. also a lot of implications of brand/ image/ marketing here. he seemed to have a habit of stretching the truth & the stories grew over time. it seemed to be a testing of limits of what he could get away with. apparently executives were aware of this. he was playing with fire and got shot down & crashed and burned in one of the most spectacular viral events of recent years.

  5. Fadra says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. Brian Williams is my favorite reporter, and by reading this it gave me great relief knowing others can see that there is a plausible explanation as to why he may have reported the story wrong. False memory can lead an individual to believe that an event that didn’t happen, actually happened. Im sure in Brian Williams situation there was a lot going on oversees in the area he was in, making it possible to live a nightmare that really wasn’t his. It was true that he was in the area and flew over the exact spot. Maybe being told what happened, along with being in the same area meshed together I guess we can say. Making this story completely real for him.

  6. Angela Forcheimer says:

    It is a terrible injustice to be convicted of a crime based on false memories. Unfortunately this happens. Journalists are not getting paid to always research the facts. They are getting paid to write stories. It is more important to be the first one out with the story not the most accurate. I imagine that everyone living has a memory tat the describe in full detail and not every detail actually happens.

  7. Pingback: An update | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

  8. Pingback: Cataloging a year of blogging | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: