investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Archive for March, 2014|Monthly archive page

Should opinions be based on facts?

In Academic reflection, Facts and opinion, Interesting research, Misinformation, Neuroscience on March 30, 2014 at 7:00 am

“I think people should be able to express political opinion even if they get their facts wrong. This is a country in which people have a pretty robust sense of their right to their own opinion … Are we going to say that if you get your facts wrong that should be a prohibition on your right to express your political opinion?”

– Australian Attorney-General George Brandis speaking to Rafael Epstein on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne’s Drive show, March 27, 2014 (Listen here. Starts at about 8:07)

GEORGE BRANDIS MADE THIS COMMENT during a discussion about his government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Critics of the proposed changes say the amendments are not really designed to protect free speech – which the government argues has been hobbled by certain sections of the laws as they have stood for nearly 20 years – but are in fact designed to allow (even encourage) bigoted attitudes to flourish.

This, the critics say, is typical of political conservatives’ view that curbing “offensive” discussions about minority groups is a form of political correctness, which in their eyes is an inherently evil practice.
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I, robot reporter

In Facts and opinion, Journalism practice on March 29, 2014 at 2:22 pm


The BBC reported recently that the LA Times became the first newspaper to use a robot to write an article.

The piece, about an earthquake in California, was a report generated by an automated algorithm that collated data from the US Geological Survey and inserted it into a template.

This is a good development for journalism. Algorithms might be able to pull together information from trusted sources and spit out simple reports. But until it can  understand the context and background of an issue, identify and interview the key voices in a debate, weigh competing claims and tell the difference between fact-based claims and opinion, robo reporting won’t replace journalists. If anything, automated reporting will free journalists to concentrate on producing more long-form quality journalism with deeper, more valuable insights.

In a world awash with information and attitude masquerading as fact, that has to be a good thing.


Robo journalism is not as new as the BBC report suggests. For more on this subject:

The Media Report (ABC Radio National podcast plus transcript)

The Washington Post (opens to video)

Wired  (article)

The Guardian (article plus video)

Slate (article)

Knight Lab (article) (article)


We care whether it’s true

In Facts and opinion, Journalism practice, Misinformation on March 24, 2014 at 9:53 am

The “old media” mantra of “if in doubt, leave it out” has been replaced in the online journalism age by “if it’s wrong, it won’t be for long”.

But despite the promise that the internet delivers a kind of self-correcting crowd-sourced “truth” that can match the efforts of traditional media, even some pop culture newsrooms such as BuzzFeed are finding that it makes business sense to get your facts right.

This piece, from the Columbia Journalism Review, suggests that authority, credibility and the trustworthiness of information still have currency. The question “Who cares if it’s true?” has been answered. We all care.

Journalists still decide what matters

In Facts and opinion, Journalism practice, Misinformation on March 18, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Social media and citizen journalism might mean that the public gets there first with “the news” but trained journalists are increasingly crucial as gatekeepers of what is worth knowing and what is accurate, and to highlight issues that might otherwise evade scrutiny. Time, judgement and the skills to report accurately will never go out of fashion.

Vincent Hendricks from the University of Copenhagen put it well in a recent piece for The Conversation:

True information and false information travel at the same speed online. That means there is still a vital role to be played by the more traditional press and media even if they stand to lose the race for breaking and short-lived spectacular news tsunamis and #infostorms, like when a giraffe named #marius is killed at a Danish zoo.

Read the original article by Vincent F Hendricks at The Conversation.


Social media – the Johnny-on-the-spot of news reporting

In Journalism practice on March 11, 2014 at 4:27 pm

More and more, social media is reporting from the frontline of news events, taking us faster and closer to what’s happening around us, often before traditional media has realised there’s something going on. How trustworthy is such a scattergun approach to reporting?

The Guardian‘s Ellie Mae O’Hagan has some thoughts on the matter, here.

Facts: dead and buried?

In Facts and opinion, Interesting research, Journalism practice, Misinformation on March 10, 2014 at 5:01 pm

In April 2012, Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune wrote an obituary for Facts prompted by a US Republican’s claim that 81 of his fellow members of the House of Representatives were Communists. The piece was a novel way to air the thoughts of Mary Poovey (A History of the Modern Fact) about how, in the internet age, opinion is given the same – if not greater – weight as fact:

“Opinion has become the new truth,” Poovey told Huppke. “And many people who already have opinions see in the ‘news’ an affirmation of the opinion they already had, and that confirms their opinion as fact.”

Huppke’s piece is worth revisiting.

For more of Poovey expounding on the same issues, see the transcript of (or listen to) this episode of Radio National’s Future Tense program: Fact and Fiction. (Fact aficionados Brendan Nyhan, Bill Adair and Ullrich Ecker also get a look-in.)

Bad grammar? Sorry, don’t believe you.

In Journalism practice on March 10, 2014 at 9:16 am

For some people the misuse of apostrophes by a business affects how they think about that business. (See here.)
Maybe I’m old school, but badly edited content – poorly written copy, copy with obvious mistakes in it – affects how much I trust a news source.
The screen grab below comes from the iPad edition of The Age‘s report on the series-deciding Third Test between Australia and South Africa. The game ended just before 3am Australian Eastern Standard Time (and what a thrilling finish it was), so the paper did well to get the report out to local readers in time for breakfast. Unfortunately, the need for speed overran attention to detail.
This is an extreme example, but errors like these have become common even in reputable news outlets. Addiction to speed, cost-cutting production processes and a lack of care factor mean readers see mistakes made every day by organisations that want us to believe that their content can be trusted.
Do readers care? I do.

Speed of news should not come at the cost of accuracy or clarity.
Speed of news should not come at the cost of accuracy or clarity.

“He-said, she said” journalism vs “Why-he said, why-she-said” journalism

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2014 at 9:14 am

“He-said, she-said” journalism vs “Why-he-said, why-she-said” journalism

In an increasingly crowded world of instant information the need for journalism that explains – not just reports – what is going on is crucial. It’s crucial to an informed population, to democratic process, to holding those in power to account for their actions. Being first with the news <is> important but depth and accuracy must always trump speed. Mathew Ingram at GigaOm recently took a look at some US media start-ups that focus on explanatory journalism. Check out his piece here.

Malcolm Turnbull on the news media

In Uncategorized on March 8, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Malcolm Turnbull on the news media

The federal Minister for Communication reckons there’s still value in printed news. This is an extract from the speech he gave at the launch of The Saturday Paper