“What event in the news did you read last week that turned out to be incorrect?”
In an ideal world, answering this question would require significant thought, research, and fact checking. In reality, I asked this question over diner and my sister-in-law provided me with an immediate answer: ““I’d read Cesar Milan, the dog whisperer, had died but that wasn’t true.”
I’m not sure which of the following points scares me most:
- A casual news reader with no interest in journalism can immediately provide a recent example.
- My first reaction being ‘Oh, that’s just one of those silly Internet death hoaxes.”
- Even articles about the dangers of misleading data journalism can themselves be misleading.
The answer is that it probably depends on which cap I’m wearing, so I’ll address them all below.
Articles about the dangers of misleading journalism can themselves be misleading.
In it’s article ‘The Power of Data Journalism‘, the Harvard Political Review writes the following:
“Many prominent media outlets such as the New York Times unintentionally misreport data predictions when they report to the general public. For example, this article falsely asserts that Nate Silver has “already decided the election.”
The referred CNN opinion piece however actually poses a question:
“On Election Day in 1980, when news outlets reported early that it looked like Reagan was going to beat Carter, voter turnout in California dropped 2%. Now we’re reporting the results weeks, even months, before voters show up at the polls. Why get excited about voting? Nate Silver has already decided the election, right?”
As a student of journalistic data analysis, this point concerns me the most. However, it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed this course since right from the start we were told that “the principles of verification are timeless and can be applied to any situation” (Steve Buttry). Evidently, this is also true for articles about data journalism itself.
Internet Death Hoaxes are common place
Exactly when did it become normal to consider fake death reports common place? They have been around for decades. In 1969 rumors started to surface about the death of Paul McCartney, but in the last few years they have become so common that they’re now an Internet meme. This troubles me as a human being. Death should not be treated as a joke. During the last year, my mom suffered from cancer and every time a death came in the news it reminded us of our impending loss. Journalists in my opinion should therefore be careful before publishing this type of news, not only for the fans but those who’re struggling with loss themselves.
Readers are used to reading incorrect news all the time
It is said that non frequently occurring events tend to be remembered better than everyday events. Unfortunately, both my sister-in-law and guest lecturer Carel van Wyk presented us with recent examples. This suggests that this happens far too often. Carel van Wyck gave us four types of unreliable news:
- Reliable of information
- Reliability of wording
- Reliability of sourcing
- Reliability of visualizations
And it wasn’t so hard to find examples of all of them.
Reliability of information
The Harvard Political Review article is a good example of this. By presenting a question in an opinion piece as an assertion, it misrepresented not only CNN’s point, but their own as well. It also didn’t help that they used CNN as an example straight after name-dropping the New York Times.
Reliability of wording
When reading this headline at Fivethirtyeight.com I couldn’t resist clicking on the link, but I was disappointed. Instead of an organization which rented out monkeys for the holidays, it reported recent research which showed that capuchin monkeys cared less about the prize of things than humans did. An interesting article for sure, but in my opinion this headline didn’t live up to its expectations.
Reliability of Sources
One of the news sites that broke the false news of Cear Milan’s death was Distrita, which calls itself an independent “new and fresh magazine portal for electronics, travel, media and lifestyle.” In their apology, they offered the following explanation:
“Its a trend to post news about people die on social networks and my source Noticiasunam made me think its true.”
Noticiasunam is a satire site, and very open about this. It showed that the people behind Distrita were so eager to publish this news, that they did not think to check their source. This is unlikely to happen again in the future, but for now a good example of how sources can prove to be very unreliable, particularly when they set out to present false information.
Reliability of Visualizations
For this example, look no further than the one given in my second blog, which mentions how fivethirtyeight.com created a very misleading visual map by not verifying their data.
Verification and reliability go hand in hand
All four examples given here could have been solved simply by properly verifying the information that was given or presented. Journalists aren’t perfect and media struggle with deadlines, but in the end… what matters more to the public? A reliable medium that allows you to check the news without wondering whether it is all correct? Or one that posts all the exciting rumors straight away and gives you lots of gossip, but not enough facts? The divide used to be clear, but with the onset of the Internet, journalists need to become more aware that if they want to belong in the former category, they should take the time to verify everything. Or be honest when they can;t.