Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006


by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.

Printable version of this story

DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Remember the good old days of "I am not a crook"? That was a much simpler time, when a big whopper wasn't a hamburger and Richard Nixon was a crook and so much more.

Back then, I felt betrayed when people lied to me - my boyfriends, my parents, the president of the United States. But now that I'm a journalist, I expect it.

People lie to reporters all the time, or at least they try. And those of us who stay in the business for any length of time tend to develop good internal lie detectors.

When it comes to lying, politicians are the worst offenders, but bureaucrats and corporate CEOs are close behind them.

Don't even ask about stock brokers. I just finished a story about the financial services industry and how it is surviving the burst dot.com bubble, the fall of the NASDAQ, Sept. 11, the threat of more terrorist attacks, a war or two, the corporate malfeasance of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia et. al. and the decline of the dollar abroad, and every person I talked to told me business was fine, just fine. I would call that story "The Bears and Some Bull," but then I'd be editorializing.

Musicians lie too. Kurt Cobain used to tell interviewers that he was homeless as a child. It wasn't true. Eddie Vedder clawed his way to the top of the rock heap with Pearl Jam and then pretended he wasn't interested in fame. It's all about image. I've interviewed many well-known musicians, and even when their wives have temporary restraining orders on them and they have just left rehab for the twelfth time, everything is going great, just great, and hey, have you heard the new record, man?

Over the years I've begun to take some pride in my ability to spot a lie. Recently, a Web site for journalists (poynter.org) carried an excellent list of the top eight ways to tell if someone is lying to you, and I was pleased to see that they listed most of my techniques, plus some that were new to me. Since the list was recently removed from the site, I thought I'd share their wisdom, along with some editorial comments of my own.

  • Change in voice pitch. This is the big one. Once you know what to listen for, it becomes obvious.

    Most reporters try to get their interview subjects talking - it doesn't have to be about the safety of the local nuclear plant or why the pharmaceutical companies deserve enormous profits. It can be about the hamburger they ate for lunch. Once they have established a normal voice pitch, rhythm and energy level, you can hear abrupt changes following a difficult question.

    This is especially true on the telephone. With no distracting visual clues, a lie coming directly into your ear has bells all over it.

  • Change in rate of speech. This can go two ways, because a slow-down is as interesting as a speed-up.
  • Sudden increase in the number of umms and ahhs. They're buying time. Wonder why.
  • Change in eye contact. Normally, one makes eye contact one-quarter to one half of the time. If that suddenly changes when you ask an uncomfortable question, then beware.
  • They turn their body away from you.
  • Suddenly, you're able to see the whites on the top and bottom of a person's eyes, not just on the sides. This is comparable to the race horse that rears up in fear at the starting gate.
  • They reach their hand up, even momentarily, to cover part of the face, especially the mouth.
  • Nervous movement of feet or legs.

It must be said that some people are so good at lying - so practiced, really - that they can't be easily spotted.

"When someone's telling the truth, her words, her face and her body language are all congruent," said the Poynter site. "For example, if a person is honestly saying that she likes you, her face is usually relaxed, offering a gentle smile and warm eyes. Her body is calm and open. But when she's lying, something is usually inconsistent. In the most obvious case, she may be saying she likes you but she's not smiling. She may even have a clenched fist. Better liars can muster a smile, but it doesn't look natural. Even better liars can put on a convincing smile, but their eyes aren't smiling. Still better liars can control their entire face, but their bodies seem closed or cold. Look for mismatches between words and body language. When you've gotten a signal, ask for more information on the same topic. Are the same lying signs apparent? That can confirm your suspicions."

Learn to trust your own internal lie detector.

When you hear, "I never had sex with Chandra Levy," or "Priests are celibate and would never molest young children," or "Britney Spears is a virgin and her boobs are real," or "We're not destroying your civil liberties or the Constitution of the United States," or "It's only a slight correction that will make the market stronger in the end," or "Saddam Hussein is our enemy, but the Saudi royal family is our friend," or "I'm a compassionate conservative," or the biggest whopper of them all, "George W. Bush has grown into his job," you may not be able to do anything about it, but at least you'll know you haven't been had.

Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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