Sunday, March 25, 2007

Fact Checking

I really don't know how many people are reading this blog who don't
know me personally, but those who do know me personally probably know
that I don't have a high opinion of journalism. In this essay I
describe one of the many reasons for this.

Journalism has a method called "fact-checking." It works like this. A
article says this or that, and some fact-checkers working for the
paper or magazine or TV station or whatever make sure that what is
being said in the article is in fact true. That is, they go over all
the "facts" that the article states and makes sure they are
supported. Overall this is a great idea.

As made clear by the film "Shattered Glass," the reliance of
fact-checkers on the field notes of journalists is
problematic. However, I'd like to talk about a different problem.

I often see statements about society or individuals in magazines that
I often flat-out think are false. At any rate, I think these things
cannot be verified by a fact-checker. In fact, I doubt the
fact-checkers bother to check them at all.

For example, a few years ago I read an interesting article in The
New Yorker
about SUVs.
http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_01_12_a_suv.html
The jist of the article was that while SUVs
were safer for you if you got into an accident, you were more likely
to get into an accident if you drove one, because they were less
maneuverable. Fact is, statistically, a Jetta is much safer, because
you can steer around problems and avoid accidents. So far so good.

The problem was that the article said: "The S.U.V. boom represents, then, a shift in how we conceive of safety—from active to passive. It's what happens when a larger number of drivers conclude, consciously or otherwise, that the extra thirty feet that the TrailBlazer takes to come to a stop don't really matter, that the tractor-trailer will hit them anyway, and that they are better off treating accidents as inevitable rather than avoidable."

I don't believe this is true at all. I've talked to several people
about this, and though I have not done a controlled study, most people
seem to have never even considered that being in an SUV could
increase your chance of getting into an accident. Now, the author, Gladwell, admits that the conclusion might be unconscious, but this is far from obvious to me. It could be that the trade-off was never considered, consciously or unconsciously. They are acting as though they have concluded this, but that's something different. He's speculating about their internal mental state.

Saying that people place a higher priority of one value over
another is a psychological claim (and a sociological one) that could
indeed be tested. That is, it's a fact that needs to be checked. And
if it's not checked, then the journalist has no business stating it as
a fact.

The Economist is an interesting magazine because every article
is an editorial. That is, almost every article in the magazine
includes the opinions of The Economist (they have no bylines,
which one of my peevs about the magazine). On the one hand, I like
this about the magazine because it makes the articles so much more
interesting. On the other hand, if it's an editorial, which statements
get checked as facts and which do not? It might be the opinion of the
author(s), whoever they might be, that people are this way or that
way, and in an editorial, you can go ahead and state it. But as a
reader, you don't know if it's just an opinion, or a fact that has
been studied and checked.

People have a hard time imagining that psychologists can actually
empirically show psychological facts. But they can. Journalists should
not be printing statements about psychological states that are not
backed up by research, unless the article is clearly an editorial. And
even in editorials, they should try to be specific about what "facts"
are true and which are the author's speculations.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Source reliability is probably the biggest problem with fact checking. Propaganda and the centralization of the media in a few corporate hands who have corporate and political interests in a variety of fields are two examples which affect the reliability of journalistic research. On the one hand, if a journalist is trying to check facts about the crisis in Darfur, the War in Iraq, or murders in Russia and Chechnya and the government is twisting, concealing or contradicting the facts to maintain the status quo, fact checking is very difficult and can be dangerous. It is also near to impossible to distinguish between truth and fiction. Government-owned media in Russia, for example, chooses which facts to publish and presents them in a favourable light. One can dismiss the government propaganda as fallacious or misleading, but there are few alternatives to accessing information - even now, the government is cracking down on internet publications and enforcing censorship laws. In such a case, fact checking is not necessarily a reflection on the journalist, but may be indicative of a much larger problem, such as human rights abuses and the lack of transparency or democratic freedoms.
The second problem, the widespread corporatization of media whereby mass communications are centralized in the hands of a few, means that the facts are largely generated by similar sources or sources with similar interests. Self-censorship and editorial discipline are characterizing the industry in Western democracies. Not only is it difficult to verify facts with checks and balances with other media (the Internet provides an alternative and a solution thus far, though questioning reliability is still important), the facts are rarely questioned out of self-preservation or the pursuit of some sort of profit (material or symbolic, such as social capital or political gain). We must, therefore, continue to promote and encourage professional ethics as well as create sound competition policies that will ensure transparency, accountability, right conduct while fostering an accessible and independent free press.

Anonymous said...

Source reliability is probably the biggest problem with fact checking. Propaganda and the centralization of the media in a few corporate hands who have corporate and political interests in a variety of fields are two examples which affect the reliability of journalistic research. On the one hand, if a journalist is trying to check facts about the crisis in Darfur, the War in Iraq, or murders in Russia and Chechnya and the government is twisting, concealing or contradicting the facts to maintain the status quo, fact checking is very difficult and can be dangerous. It is also near to impossible to distinguish between truth and fiction. Government-owned media in Russia, for example, chooses which facts to publish and presents them in a favourable light. One can dismiss the government propaganda as fallacious or misleading, but there are few alternatives to accessing information - even now, the government is cracking down on internet publications and enforcing censorship laws. In such a case, fact checking is not necessarily a reflection on the journalist, but may be indicative of a much larger problem, such as human rights abuses and the lack of transparency or democratic freedoms.
The second problem, the widespread corporatization of media whereby mass communications are centralized in the hands of a few, means that the facts are largely generated by similar sources or sources with similar interests. Self-censorship and editorial discipline are characterizing the industry in Western democracies. Not only is it difficult to verify facts with checks and balances with other media (the Internet provides an alternative and a solution thus far, though questioning reliability is still important), the facts are rarely questioned out of self-preservation or the pursuit of some sort of profit (material or symbolic, such as social capital or political gain).

We must, therefore, continue to promote and encourage professional ethics as well as create sound competition policies that will ensure transparency, accountability, right conduct while fostering an accessible and independent free press.