Blog 1: On Context & Crap

Identifying context and crap are critical to what I do every day as a journalist, just as they are critical to my kids as they do their schoolwork or us as we do research to buy a house or a washing machine. As a newswriter, I’ve come to realize that while getting rid of the crap is obviously crucial to keeping my job, ensuring that I keep facts in context is important to remaining fair as I try to report the news. I know that the article from Scott Rosenberg is more about choosing the right website, but to me it also points out the need for understanding the whole story, not just a sliver of it. As a journalist, I can be the gatekeeper for that. For example, if I know that Hillary Clinton has drawn over 2 million people to her Iowa events and Bernie Sanders has drawn just 1 million, I can report it as such and it looks like Clinton has the greater support. But if I also know that her events were spread out over two years and his were just over eight months, that changes things. In an era in which less is more (particularly in news), it can be tough to make sure you include all the necessary context while excluding all the unnecessary facts. It is an ongoing practice and something I struggle with daily. Usually, the best way to look at it is to ask whether I change the story by leaving some facts out. I 100% agree with Scott Rosenberg’s assertion that the internet can provide the context we seek when it comes to getting our news, but I think the key line in there is when he said that he would get story tips and ideas and wonder, “Can this be for real?”. Of course, the problem comes when people decide to take information at face value and don’t investigate. I’ve seen so-called journalists in my building take an article written as pure satire and run a “news” story based on it. No lie. For me, there’s a few things that tend to raise red flags. The lack of attribution is always a big issue. As Rosenberg points out, links can help you track information backwards to find the source and I appreciate every time an article references an old political race or an old poll and actually links back to the original statistics from the Secretary of State. Makes my job a heck of a lot easier. But when there’s no attribution, I have to go searching. Now, sometimes you can find the same thing reported multiple places – a quote from someone for example. So I’ll try to determine whether that’s from a single interview that was simply reprinted a bunch of places or if there was an interview that was done for several different media outlets. If different outlets have some additional quotes, that may tell me that several outlets were privy to the conversation, thereby making it more credible. If one outlet has a more extensive form of the conversation, I may assume that outlet was the one that conducted the original interview. Then, if I can verify the credibility of that particular outlet, then I’m in business. The issue of being able to detect crap goes to this issue as well. For some, it may be as simple as the old quote about defining pornography (“I’ll know it when I see it”, said Supreme Court Justice Stewart in 1964). But for a journalist, that simply doesn’t cut it. Neither does it necessarily ease the nerves of someone using the information found online to make some sort of critical decision – where to take a sick loved one or where to buy a home, for example. One interesting aspect of my job that is getting a lot of attention now is how to deal with user-generated content – particularly pictures and video that are so good/compelling that we are tempted to take them straight to air.  Trying to determine whether they are legit or not is difficult though. Sometimes, we have to simply do the best we can by checking the source and the video itself for any signs that it’s not what it claims to be, and then roll the dice with our best judgment. Sorry to say, but sometimes the race to get the news on the air takes precedence.

I just went through the crap detection exercise with my son recently while he was writing a report on ancient Egypt and we were trying to determine what was credible and what wasn’t. Some of it was easy. Kids are being taught in middle school that they can’t trust wikipedia or answers.com. (Although I recognize that Betsy Aoki from Bing says wikipedia can be a good jumping off point, I fear that kids will simply stop there, instead of investigating further.) At the same time, established journalistic and educational (.edu) publications are considered solid sources as well as any government website or site with .gov at the end is automatically deemed credible (the skeptical adult in me shrugs slightly but keeps quiet on this point). But beyond that, it’s tricky. Smart people who’ve studied a lot take a lot of time and energy to build websites to share what they’ve discovered. Based on my upbringing and admittedly old school training, credibility can be established if I can track that website back to a published book or magazine. But is that a fair test in this day and age? You can argue that a scholar could easily get more attention with a well-placed blog than with a book on a dusty library shelf. To me, it once again comes down to the old journalistic method of cross-checking. If more than one source has the same fact, then it strengthens its factual bonafides. However, that brings me to another concern.

As the web becomes larger and larger, I wonder if the simple ubiquitousness of internet sources will start to level the playing field in such a way that “credible” sources will be harder and harder to establish, either by universal or popular acclaim. In other words, as things stand now, I can argue that the Associated Press and Reuters are typically reliable. They are not 100% (nothing ever is), but they’ve established a pretty high standard for their own fact-checking and, by and large, you can rest assured that once they’ve established facts about a certain situation, they are suitably established. In the same way, I believe major publications like the New York Times, USA Today or the Washington Post can be trusted to get facts correct (keep in mind, I’m arguing facts, not the value or validity of opinions). But in the same way that the “mainstream media” is now questioned about so-called bias, I wonder if we get to a point where people argue that no site or source is deemed credible unless the reader or viewer does his or her own fact-checking. As “Net Smart” points out, credentials reduce the burden of investigating the credibility of information online but don’t remove it. Perhaps that it is what the book is arguing for when it says to make “skepticism your default”. But with so many people trashing the mainstream media and so many BS ads dressed up to look like real sites, I wonder how it will change society to have no single place that people can turn to as a benchmark for truth. Or in this case are we substituting trust for truth? (I think this is in line with the principle laid out by Gillmor in “Principles for Media Consumption”, when he argues that we must exercise judgment and not automatically revert to cynicism all the time. I see it all the time in the cable news wars where people establish who they trust and then assume that that network or site or source has a monopoly on truth when in point of actual fact, establishing truth or fact may simply be a question of who has the right person in the right place to validate something. I believe I am digressing now, drawing out the issues that I have with what can be a shifting set of parameters in pursuit of factual truth. However, when you can’t agree on the rules for establishing truth, opinions and accusations start to get tossed out in lieu of facts and even the “facts” themselves can be colored in different ways to suit different needs. Unfortunately, I believe that our culture and technology has made it so that there are no simple answers to what is true or not, only a heightened awareness of our own responsibility in establishing it.

As for what we teach our kids, I believe that the tools laid out to try and identify credibility and trustworthiness will become more and more vital as we move forward and those that would knowingly try to fool people will become harder and harder to detect. As a society with the choice of either limited access to information or (more or less) unlimited access, the latter is always the preferable choice. My hope is that growing up in a world where skepticism is a built tool for internet use, my children will become more responsible consumers who think first and act later. I started the conversation at the dinner table the other night and, to my surprise, they are already more aware of what’s real and what’s fake on the internet that I had assumed. But it’s really only what’s been taught to them (such as what sites are good and which are bad). The more difficult-to-acquire sense of figuring out what feels like good info and what sets off alarm bells is one they will have to learn over time. With my help I hope….

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