Journalism’s confirmation bias in the Powerball Jane Doe saga: their narratives never consider alternative explanations.

The Toronto Star has a silly column on the Delaware woman who won over a half billion dollars just doing the slacker thing of buying a lottery ticket and now she is suing to remain anonymous.

The Star’s take is very instructive: they are taking an anonymous say-so that she is afraid for her safety — and then the reporter lists some cases where there was trouble after a lottery win.

The article has a severe case of a confirmation bias: only looking at evidence (or in this case, unrelated anecdotes) that seems to confirm the theory, not the ones refuting it.

Why is the Star taking an anonymous woman’s word as the gospel truth? The press in Canada has been in a tizzy for anonymous women making #MeToo claims — but then turn around and not question an anonymous claim on another matter?

Journalists use anonymous sources all the time (I never did use anonymous as a reporter until I was asked to write the book OutFoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s was on journalism. I was given two thick binders of interview transcripts from the movie in their entirety, but while the vast majority were on the record, three former Fox News employees were anonymous — and no one bothered to tell me who they were. Well, I am not an old school journalist for nothing — just based on the content of the interviews, I managed to find out the identities of all three within ten minutes. Usually, people would think having already completed interview transcripts would make things easier, but I had to verify everything independently, and that was a nightmare, especially given the tight timeframe I was given. Since I could be confident with what I had, I could use all three anonymous interviews for the book; otherwise, I would have had to skip any one that I could not pin down either the identity or the content of the interview. I literally slept one hour a day in the five months I had to complete the project); so the waffling stance on such sources is interesting.

But in this case, the reporter chooses to gloss over any other theory why someone who just won a massive amount of money would be behaving in such an obstinate manner.

First of all, if you do not want to have your name and face plastered all over the place after winning that much money, don’t play the lottery offering that kind of money. You knew what you signed up for, and no one owes you a dime. If you cannot even smile for the camera and let people know who you are because that is too much for you — don’t play. No one put a gun to your head.

Second, and more importantly, there are at least three very important reasons why gaming institutions insist on transparency:

  1. The “winner” may have stolen the ticket. In Canada, we have had convenience store workers steal tickets from customers and then claim them as their own, but it can just as easily be a personal support worker, maid, or anyone else who could swipe a ticket, and then pretend it was theirs.
  2. We have had spouses try to take the entire jackpot and leave out their partner who would be legally entitled to half. We have even had people steal a group ticket of which they were a member, and then try to have a child or spouse claim the entire jackpot. I would be very suspicious of someone wanting anonymity for that reason.
  3. Unless we have a name and a face, for all we know, the winner is bogus and the lottery is a scam. We have has insider rigging; it would not be a stretch to have phantom winners. Lottery money doesn’t come from thin air — it is the pooling of all the buyers who have a right to know where and to whom their money is going.

So there was no shortage of other scenarios the columnist could have used. Why would someone go to the trouble of a legal suit to keep her identity hidden? That is the central question here. I do not buy the innocent explanation, for example. Your life is going to radically change when you are suddenly given that kind of money, but you knew that when you bought your ticket.

I believe there are a myriad of reasons why you would go to those extreme measures to keep people from knowing you won the lottery, and this is a story ripe for local journalists to investigate. She may be hiding from someone because she is afraid of them — or afraid of being forced to hand over some of those winnings to them. Bringing up volunteerism and community is often a deflection from stating the real reason for wanting to be anonymous.

As a journalist, every time someone gave me the church and apple pie sob story, a little digging showed me something far more realistic, and almost always held the key to what the real story was. I am not saying she stole a ticket, but if I were a reporter covering this story, I would be hitting the pavement to confirm or refute my instincts with facts.

I wouldn’t be writing a column giving an unverified yarn credence. I would want to know the why of this story, and then dig from there.

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