Question about the Weekly World News

Every couple of years, I buy a copy of the tabloid “Weekly World News”, to have a good laugh. However, there’s something I saw there this week (besides the discovery of an “Actual Photograph of Jesus!”) that really has me scratching my head.

They have a “psychic” column from “Serena Sabak”, in which she gives absolutely unequivocal answers to questions from readers. For example, somebody was asking where a long-lost relative lived, and she said “He lives in Medford, Oregon. You can find him listed in the phone book.”

In another instance, she tells a woman who is grieving over her dead husband that he’d had been “deeply in debt from his gambling” and as a result drove over a cliff to commit suicide. What!?

About half the letters are accompanied by photographs of the person who sent in the question (e.g. “Danielle from California”).

Of course, I realize that the answers are just made up. But the combination of the photographs and the specificity of the answers has me wondering if the WWN can possibly hide behind the usual “It’s only entertainment” defense. (Indeed, no such disclaimer appears on the page.)

I’m not sure if this post is about a legal question or a moral question, though I’m more motivated by the latter. I am thinking of poor “Danielle from California”, who may now be convinced that her husband killed himself because of gambling.

This leads me to see two possibilities: (1) These people are pure evil, or (2) The letters themselves are fake.

If (2) is the case, then where do they get the photographs? They must use up a lot of them: there are four in the current column, so they’d need about 200 a year.

I have to wonder if “Danielle from California” (if she exists) could sue WWN for “pain and suffering” if she can prove in a civil court case that her husband did not have a gambling problem. (Proving a negative is hard, but in a civil case you only have to prove your case by the preponderance of the evidence.)

Normally, tabloids like the WWN protect themselves from law-suits very cleverly – I’m sure most of you are aware of the techniques they use to do this. However, in this instance they appear to be leaving themselves open to litigation.

Are they reasoning that most of their readers are just too stupid to have money for lawyers, or what?

Having never read the Weekly World News I have a question, does it state in the paper to send your picture in with your question?

If not then the letters are clearly faked, otherwise why would people be sending in their pictures?

If it does require them to send in a picture, it suggests that the letters are fake because why the heck would they require a picture.

All in all, my guess is that the letters are fake or based on real letters that come in. You could try sending in a letter or two that seem too good to pass up for them to answer and see if they show up.

Now, why bother with pictures fake or not? Because it adds a sense of authenticity.

(2) is definitely the case. Where do they find the pictures? Could be staff members, paid actors, or pictures from a commercial CDRom that allows you to use the contents in a for-profit publication.

Plus the pictures might repeat. Maybe the use the same ones (or the same people in different poses) year after year.

J’ai assez vécu pour voir que différence engendre haine.

It’s a WAG, but I’d guess that this psychic is just an amateur Cecil Adams and checks things out. If she find something she makes a logical extension and gives a specific answer. For example ‘Danielle from California’ probably had an obituary in the paper for her husband the psychic looked up, and maybe he also appeared in a story at one point about gambling. Hence, taking the information his death was a suicide from driving off a cliff (from the obituary) with the gambling story, you establish a b.s. cause-and-effect deal.

And of course, if the psychic can’t find anything, well then she conveniently never answers your question because she’s “too busy” (I wonder if Cecil is guilty of that)

Regarding the lawsuit thing. I’m guessing the typical idiot who reads WWN can’t afford a lawyer, or wouldn’t know how to get a good one. Plus, you probably sign something that says you forfeit the right to sue if the psychic answers your question, and it gets published.

Then again, the stories could just be made up, or, if not, you can be sure the 1-900-DUMB-ASS number is coming soon to try to swindle money out of other readers once they establish a market for this crap.


That particular letters column does not explicitly request a photo, but their other letters columns do, so it’s not surprising that people send in pictures.

Because it adds a human dimension and breaks up huge blocks of text. There may be other reasons, but you can’t argue with the one I just mentioned.


What you say is rational, but somehow I have the feeling that what you proposed would require far too much actual work.


I don’t know of any such CD-ROM, and I have my doubts that such a thing exists. How many copies of such a thing could you sell? How many people need a library of head shots?

As for your other suggestion (staff and so on), that occured to me, but my intuition tells me that the people who work around the WWN live in a culture of denial. Let me explain that…

In the excellent book “The Psychic Mafia” (available from, the author (a reformed “psychic”) says that there are two kinds of psychics, which he calls “clear” and (uhhh) something else. (I read the book 15 years ago.) The “clear” psychics know they are charlatans, and just don’t care.

I wonder, though, if everybody who works at WWN knows that it’s a bunch of hogwash. If so, why has there never been an exposé written which unmasks the whole industry? Such a book would, I think, be a best seller. Heck, I would buy it!

Yarster, are you interested in buying this bridge, it’s in Brooklyn, you can get it real cheap…

Actually you can buy CDs full of all sorts of pictures for reproduction in your own publications. My mother gets catalogs from companies that sell these CDs.

Timothy Campbell says:

I’ve seen ads for CD-ROMs of stock photography that include people. Not too hard for anyone with a computer to crop the head. Here’s an example of one I found doing a simple web page search:


I once read an interview with one of the “head honchos” from the Workly World News (I forgot the person’s name/exact title.) When the interviewer asked “Do you really believe what you publish?” his answer was “No one believes this stuff.” or words to that effect. He implied that his publication was intended for “entertainment”.

J’ai assez vécu pour voir que différence engendre haine.

A quick follow-up:

In response to Timothy Campbell who suggests that doing this kind of reseach is hard. It’s not. I do stuff like this for a living via Lexis-Nexis and I can usually dig up all the dirt I need on someone (including information on lawsuits they’ve been named in, arrest records, property ownership) in a matter of seconds. Most newspapers (even shlock ones) probably have the same service I use and can whip out the ‘straight dope’ on a given person pretty quick. I sure as hell know if I was a psychic, I’d be using it while I talked to someone to show them how much I could ‘sense’ about their life.

I don’t recall if this was the WWN or another tabloid, but there was a lawsuit involving the use of stock photos. The paper had written a story about a hundred year old woman they claimed had given birth. They found a photo of an elderly woman that was a couple of decades old and figured “hey, she must be dead by now, so who’s going to care if we use her picture?” But it turned out the woman was not dead and did care. She successfully sued the paper for falsely creating the impression that she was the subject of the story.

I would just like to point out, with pride, that my family was once featured in the Weekly World News!

I have always enjoyed their headlines, but the rest of the paper is a little too far out even for a tabloid. I always assumed most of the “news” was fake, but my wife and I happened to buy a copy one day and there was the actual true story!

My mother’s had two kids from her first marriage. Shortly before he died, in the early 1950s, her husband had a car stolen in Spokane. Forty years later the thief got an attack of remorse and sent $1000 to the Spokane Police Department with a note saying to give the money to the first husband, or his heirs, if they could find them. They found my half-brother (through his last name) and he told them where to find my mom.

The headline was “Car Thief Repents 40 Years Too Late”, or something like that.

Two weird things about this:

  1. I have only bought maybe five copies of The Weekly World News in my life. What are the chances that one of the few times I buy it would be the one with this article in it. (It was several months after the fact.)

  2. At first, the Spokane Police wouldn’t give my brother the money. He had to threaten to take their refusal public (he used to be an investigative reporter of sorts) to get them to cough it up. They were going to “donate it to charity”!

If man was meant to fly faster than the speed of sound
he would have been born with 50,000 pounds of thrust.

I’ve never seen an obituary that listed a specific casue of death.

You can’t tell how much information a person supplies in the letter that is cited in the WWN. I’m sure that all letters are heavily edited.

On reflection, I do think the Lexis/Nexis research idea and related approaches are feasible in the context of the WWN. I’m still not convinced that they actually do it that way (it seems like too much effort), but I’ll admit that it is possible.

So maybe that’s what the WWN “psychic” does. In live readings, of course, even the most gullible person is going to get suspicious if, after the lights are dimmed, you can hear the sound of typing. :wink:

I lived in Medford, OR for 6 years. If anyone needs to find me, just email.