When Worlds Collide in Journalism

The need for fact checking in journalism only grows as we become more aware of the world around us.

We live in the middle world, at least according to Richard Dawkins. Our brains have evolved to make sense of our direct environment and cannot fathom the rules of the cosmos or the microscopic. That’s what makes big data so fascinating, because it reveals patterns that challenge our intuition. We may be able to explain parts of it, but the entire picture? That is far too complex for us to understand, let alone explain.

That was the message I took home with me last Tuesday after attending the SAP big data college tour in Eindhoven. I’m fairly sure that wasn’t their main point – the benefits of working for SAP were mentioned a couple of times – but it nevertheless made the biggest impression. And it got me thinking as to how this applies to journalism.

We live in the middle world, but ours is not the same as that of our ancestors. In her critic of Miller’s article Kindness, Fidelity and other Sexually Selected Virtues Catherine Driscoll states that she finds it difficult to believe that a sense of ethics could evolve as a sexual signal because we all know how suitors may lie in order to present a false picture of themselves. Miller replied that our distant ancestors lived in small, isolated tribes, which made hiding your true self quite challenging. The critic thus was judging what happened in the past with her own mindset and was completely unaware of this.

Our own parents grew up in a world recovering from a world war, a world without home computers, but also a world in which news played an important role in everybody’s lives. Journalism became a force to be reckoned with in the 20th century and reliable news agencies and journalists were greatly respected. Nevertheless, if you visit you parents this weekend and ask for newspaper clippings from their childhood, you’ll likely be disappointed by the ‘mundane’ reporting. Journalists, and parents, are a product of their world and what they considered important and appropriate news may not be what journalists and young adults in our world believe it to be.

This does not make our parents small-minded, nor does it make us broad-minded, much as we’d like to think so. Generally speaking, we have become more aware of the world beyond our borders and how international developments may influence our own lives and vice versa. But we grew up in a world where globalisation has become the norm.

Note how I keep using the term ‘world’ here, not ‘time’. Different though they might be, our world is much more similar to our parents’ than to that of a poor farmer in Niger who risked his life trying to get to Europe last year. His story is told in the German periodical der Spiegel (the article is in English), and I highly recommend you check it out. It is a beautifully written description of a world completely different from our own, but which nevertheless interacts with ours in ways that we are mostly unaware of.

According to the Columbia journalism review, der Spiegel is “home to what is most likely the world’s largest fact checking operation.” Back in 2010, it had 80 fulltime positions for fact-checkers, most of which were consulted during or even before writers started on their articles. And when you see the type of articles that are presented here, you can understand why. The story blends vivid witness accounts with dry facts in a way that both moves and educates the reader. Without facts, a sceptic would write it off as a sob story, and without the witness accounts, particularly the last line, it wouldn’t have the same punch.

In Chapter 2 of the Verification Handbook, Verification Fundamentals: Rules to Live By, Steve Buttry states that journalists need to ask two questions when verifying stories:

  • How do they know that?
  • How else do they know that?

These days, people will often point to sources on the Internet to answer these questions. Which is why a good journalist tries to locate the original source, as detailed by Claire Wardle in her chapter Verifying User-Generated Content, also in the Verification Handbook. According to her, there are four elements to check and confirm content:

  • Provenance: Is this the original piece of content?
  • Source: Who uploaded the content?
  • Date: When was the content created?
  • Location: Where was the content created?

Personally, I believe another element needs to be examined as well:

  • Why do people check out this content?

Journalists are paid to take the time to examine the four elements, but ordinary people will often quote, link, or share a site because of the trust they (or their peers) put in it. And the reason for their trust is likely due to their world view, even if they themselves are unaware of this. Journalists however do need to be more aware of this, and try and explain this to their own audience.

The world has become more complex, for journalists as well as their audience. Before journalists ‘just’ needed to be experts in fact checking, interviews, and investigations. Now they are faced not only with much more data than in earlier decades, but they need to be aware of the meta-data as well and share this with their audience. An audience that is frequently too unwilling to accept that the big world they now live in, is in fact made up of a network of small, interconnected worlds.

 

Sources:

  • Buttry, Steve (2014). “Verification Fundamentals: Rules to Live By”. Verification Handbook.
  • Driscoll, Catherine (2007). “Why Moral Virtues are Probably not Sexual Adaptations”. Moral Psychology volume 1 The evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness.
  • Hage, Willem van (November 4 2014). Big Data College Tour at Eindhoven.
  • Miller, Geoffrey (2007). “Kindness, Fidelity and other Sexually Selected Virtues”. Moral Psychology volume 1 The evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness.
  • Goos, Hauke; Riedmann Bernhard (October 21, 2014). “Death in the Sahara: An Ill-Fated Attempt to Reach Fortress Europe”. Der Spiegel.
  • Silverman, Craig (April 9, 2010). “Inside the World’s Largest Fact Checking Operation”. Columbia Journalism Review.
  • Wardle, Claire (2014). “Verifying User-Generated Content”. Verification Handbook.
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