The truth, the whole truth, and the occasional fiction

“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:

  1. A casual news reader with no interest in journalism can immediately provide a recent example.
  2. My first reaction being ‘Oh, that’s just one of those silly Internet death hoaxes.”
  3. 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:

  1. Reliable of information
  2. Reliability of wording
  3. Reliability of sourcing
  4. 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

“The Best Holiday Shopping Partner: A Capuchin Monkey”

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.

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7 thoughts on “The truth, the whole truth, and the occasional fiction

  1. Why I find this layout is quite clear today? For the computer reading, there is always something magic happens even change a little white space, isn’t it?
    For me, I do like and agree with your examples in this blog, especially you addressed your sister to convince us. I do think what we do for verification is an effective approach to decrease the possibility to fraud, but there is no absolute way to avoid the errors, just like there is no ground truth in the world. The more you know, the confused you are.
    Share with you one protocol I believe: to seek for the truth, human learn history, then mathematics, finally theology.

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  2. The subjects from the lecture last week were quite broad, but you managed to explain them all well in one blog. Good job.

    The steps that are taken to verify information determine what kind of medium a medium is going to be. If an organization chooses publish ‘prematurely’, eventually it will be known as an organization with poor quality. Not every organization’s goal is to have the highest quality of journalism, and not everyone wants to read high quality articles. It does become a problem if an organization that claims high quality starts doing things like these.

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  3. Congratulations on the last blog! Whoop whoop!:)
    Very catchy title – nice!

    I do agree that the points you named at the beginning of your blog are quite scary. It also made me thinking. Personally, I question mostly everything I read, not only in newspapers or websites but also books. So many incorrect and misleading examples I can think of (for every type of unreliable news: info, wording, source and visualization). Probably that’s way it’s so hard to trust something your read from the first sight. On the same topic, I agree that most of us are used to reading false news, we kinda perceive it as “normal” -oh, another joke. Of course, it shouldn’t be this way. It also depends on the medium (if you read DailyMail, you don’t really expect something true and revealing as it is more for fun and gossiping).

    I agree that verification plays a crucial part here. Good question at the end – what matters more to the public? I guess it depends on the type of medium and audience they are targeting at. Journalist have to be more careful with information they are receiving and shaping as there is also a way for misinterpretation and incorrect information.

    Good job! Cheers!

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    • Thanks. 🙂

      And yes, there’s always been more entertaining news organizations around and imho that’s fine. Both journalists and public take the news they produce with a grain of salt. But if you work for an organization that strives for objective journalism, you need to keep setting your standards as high as possible because no doubt, your audience will do so as well.

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