investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Posts Tagged ‘spin’

When 1+1=1: Journalism and the trouble with “facts”

In Uncategorized on September 6, 2013 at 9:28 pm

By Gordon Farrer, RMIT University

A posse of fact-checkers has been riding the boundary of the federal election. Not happy with the standard of honesty in political discourse, the ABC, this website and, a localised version of a US format, staffed mostly by ex-Fairfax journalists, set up operations to check facts in statements made by politicians and others during the campaign.

Isn’t fact-checking what journalists are meant to do already?

Of course it is. And they do. Facts are the building blocks of good reportage, the substance upon which a true and full record of history is built. They are gathered, checked and double-checked before being published in print, on television and radio, and online. At least, that’s the theory.

Journalism has changed. The conversation with the media audience has changed. The competition to be first with news means there is less time to check and confirm every line of a public figure’s statements. The multitude of new avenues for politicians to deliver their unfiltered message to its audience by going around the traditional gatekeepers of the media have changed the nature of information and of the political conversation.

Politicians know this and take advantage of these changes. Facts are spun, taken out of context, cherry-picked or cunningly applied to create a false impression. The fact-checkers’ challenge is how to strip away the noise, lay bare how facts are distorted and to expose the deceit built into the rhetoric of politics.

People think they know a fact when they see one. People should think again.

The truth is that “facts” can be tricky, elusive things.

The theory is facts are gathered, checked and double-checked before being published, but that’s not always put into practice. Image from

Here are three facts most would accept on face value:


Clive Palmer is overweight

The unemployment rate is 5.7%.

The equation 1+1= 2 is self-evident; simple observation and experience tell us it is true. But some cheeky mathematicians take delight in proving that 1+1=1 is also true.

They conjure this surprise result by using a numerical sleight-of-hand known as a “mathematical fallacy”. This is, essentially, a well-camouflaged false step, and if you don’t spot the false step or know how to go through the mathematical working to pinpoint where it was introduced, you might be tempted or feel compelled to accept that 1+1=1.

A mathematical fallacy can be created on purpose, as a party trick to impress or challenge fellow numbers geeks at mathematics soirees. A mathematical fallacy can also be accidental, a simple, subtle miscalculation buried in the working that leads to an incorrect result. If not discovered, such mistakes could have potentially fatal consequences – for example, if the error is made by a designer of nuts and bolts used in bridges or space shuttles.

So, it is possible to believe that 1+1=1 is a fact if you don’t think to look for an error, don’t know how to look for an error, or if you don’t know there’s an error to be found. Everyone will know it is wrong, but only a few have the skills to know how to prove it is wrong.

Hold that thought.

Mining magnate Clive Palmer is a larger-than-life character whose physique matches his personality. Even a casual observer can see that he is overweight. But we don’t have to trust the observation of casual observers to know that the statement “Clive Palmer is overweight” is a fact because medical science gives us a definitional tool for the classification of body weight: the body mass index.

The BMI correlates height and weight to arrive at a number. A person is considered to be underweight, overweight or to have a healthy body weight depending on where that number sits on a spectrum.

Technically, St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt is overweight. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

It’s safe to say that Clive Palmer’s BMI would categorise his weight as
above the ideal for his height. He would sit in the overweight or (according to my dietitian) the obese section of the spectrum.

But consider this: at 193 centimetres and 96 kilograms, Nick Riewoldt –
captain of St Kilda AFL club, superb athlete and fine specimen of a human
being – has a BMI of 25, categorising him as overweight. “Nick Riewoldt is overweight” is as much a fact as “Clive Palmer is overweight” is a fact. Crazy, I know.

Hold that thought, too.

According to the government department responsible for measuring unemployment, the current jobless rate is 5.7%. The statisticians in
the Australian Bureau of Statistics are experts, independent of political
influence, so we have good reason to trust that they know how to measure
unemployment in Australia. The 5.7 figure should be one we can accept as

But what is being measured? There is considerable debate about the value of unemployment figures. According to a recent column in the Fairfax press the rate does not include roughly 100,000 people who have been moved from the unemployed queues into training schemes. It also does not include those who have given up looking for work, those who work for a family business, or those who do just one hour of paid work each week. Include these categories and you get an unemployment rate of 6.2%.

These three examples help us understand that no fact is an island. Facts are constructed and constrained by social, historical, cultural, scientific and economic factors and cannot exist or be understood outside the context and connections created by those factors. Change the context or the connections and you change the fact.

Fact-checking operations know this and so parse context and connecting factors to arrive at their shades-of-truth rulings, with the tested fact sitting on a spectrum from True through to False via a range of incremental stages (for example PolitiFact’s ratings Half True/False, Partly True/False and Mostly True/False).

Epistemicism is the sub-branch of philosophy that deals with the question of vagueness and inexactness, that border area in which something is going from being one thing to being another. It considers such questions as: At what point does a thin thing become a not-thin thing? Is there a tangible, identifiable definitional line that separates these states?

Image from

If there is, we might ask, is there also a line between non-physical states such as “fact” and “not-a-fact” (or between “fact” and “not the fact supposedly being presented”)? That is, is there a “truth mass index” we can turn to for help, a version of the BMI that can be applied to fact?

And if there isn’t an easily defined line between “fact” and “non-fact”, on what basis do the fact-checkers think they can make judgements about factual accuracy?

The fact-checkers operate in this zone of vagueness and, in practice, they do an effective job. As experienced journalists they know how to examine and expose the rhetorical equivalents of mathematical fallacies. They can identify how definitions and assumptions around, say, unemployment figures have been warped or constructed to achieve a desired result.

Of course, there is argument about the nuances of fact-checkers’ rulings; in the real world that is where subjectivity enters proceedings, and there is no hard and fast way to calculate the impact of personal preference or opinion.

But even without a truth mass index, the checkers could rule that Nick Riewoldt is as healthy a specimen of a human being as you will find. They could also rule that Clive Palmer should stop eating hamburgers.

Because sometimes facts speak for themselves.

Gordon Farrer was a Fairfax journalist for 13 years.
Fairfax also holds a stake in his current employer, Metro Media Publishing.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

A piece I wrote for The Conversation

‘Kindred souls’ exposing abuses of power: journalism in the information age

In Academic reflection, Interesting research, Previously published on June 19, 2013 at 9:47 am

An excellent rumination on the role academics might play in filling the widening gaps in journalism’s function as a gatekeeper for “truth”.


By Charles Lewis, American University

More then ever, we are awash in information. With the advent of the internet, search engines and now more than two billion people wired users globally, information “has become the modern era’s defining quality, the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world”, writes author James Gleick:

We are all patrons of the Library of Babel now, and we are the librarians, too.

The problem, of course, is that the quality of information varies widely. Much of it is utterly useless, woefully incomplete or worse, wilfully misleading. As a citizen and reporter watching those in power for more than 30 years, I am accustomed to being lied to. But it seems to have got noticeably worse in recent years.

In the United States, consider how Democratic and Republican presidents have repeatedly delayed and distorted the political truth. In 1964, president Lyndon Johnson was secretly girding for a major war in Vietnam while publicly promising not to send more soldiers. In 1972, president Richard Nixon secretly authorised a political “dirty tricks” operation inside the White House that, among many other things, effectively derailed the campaign of his most formidable Democratic foe, Senator Edmund Muskie. Both incumbent presidents breezed to their election victories in those years.

In the case of the Vietnam War (1962-1975), in which hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, the public learned over a period of years – with astonishing revelations still trickling out four decades later – that the rationale for direct US involvement there actually was a monstrous lie.

Instead of being attacked in a remote part of the world known as the “Gulf of Tonkin” by the North Vietnamese, as Johnson had announced, the United States government had in fact been engaged for months in various top secret intelligence gathering activities in flagrant violation of North Vietnam’s sovereign land, air space and territorial waters, including aggressive military provocations against that country.

Many of these and other lies and distortions were officially documented in the Pentagon Papers – the Department of Defense’s secret, voluminous history of the Vietnam War – which were leaked to reporters and courageously published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers in June 1971.

The publishing of the Pentagon Papers and the media’s coverage of the Nixon Watergate scandal still represent a high-water mark in the struggle between raw political power and democratic values. But even with those emblematic moments, important information about those in power took years to become known to the public.

As the then-executive editor of The Washington Post, Benjamin Bradlee, mused two decades later: “what might have happened had the truth emerged in 1963 instead of 1971?”

At a public lecture at Harvard University in 1991, Bradlee said:

It seems to me that lying has reached such epidemic proportions in our culture and among our institutions in recent years that we’ve all become immunised to it. What the hell ever happened to righteous indignation, anyway?

In March 2003, almost four decades after the Johnson administration escalated the war in Vietnam under false pretences, the Bush administration led the US and several of its allies to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the basis of erroneous information about “weapons of mass destruction”.

In the two years following September 11, 2001, president George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq, as my researchers and I reported in 2008. The number of these statements spiked upwards at politically strategic moments – specifically before the October 2002 congressional vote on the war, and between January and March 2003, from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations to the invasion itself.

The New York Times newspaper has brought to light many hidden truths – such as the Pentagon Papers in its history. cliff1066

The carefully orchestrated campaign about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction led the nation to war under decidedly false pretences. The cumulative effect of these incorrect, bellicose statements – amplified by thousands of uncritical news stories and broadcasts – was massive. Worse, much of the saturation media coverage provided additional, “independent” validation of the Bush administration’s misstatements about Iraq.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, reporter David Barstow of the New York Times exposed how the Pentagon had quietly recruited 75 retired military officers to be “independent”, paid consultant, radio and television analysts. In numerous meetings and thousands of emails, they were secretly coached about precisely how to make the public case for war in Iraq on the air. Many of these military experts also had significant, undisclosed financial ties to defence companies that were benefiting from the policies they were “analysing”.

The broadcast news media essentially ignored these stunning revelations, neither acknowledging their own dubious use of such compromised “talking heads” nor apologising to the public for their irresponsible propagation of the government’s propaganda.

Unfortunately, most national reporters and their news organisations were figuratively embedded in the almost impenetrable din of official disinformation. But to paraphrase Bradlee’s excellent question about Vietnam, what might have happened if the public had discovered the truth about the actual threat posed by Iraq in 2002 instead of years later? Two distant quagmires, 20 years of massive bloodshed in wars in Vietnam and Iraq, might have been avoided, and trillions of taxpayer dollars saved, if the American people had been better informed with real-time truth about the specious official statements.

But the largest cumulative loss of life resulting from propaganda and deception in the last century was actually not from Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich or any other genocidal despot. It was from monstrously duplicitous industries that manufacture deadly products. And no industry has been more deceitful or caused more human carnage than the tobacco companies.

In the 20th century, 100 million people around the world died from smoking-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization. And that number is expected to soar to an estimated one billion smoking-related deaths in this century.

In 2006, a US federal judge ruled that they had violated the federal racketeering laws, and while:

selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year…for at least 50 years or more…they have consistently, repeatedly, and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, to the government, and to the public health community.

But, of course, deliberately blowing smoke about their deadly products has hardly been limited to the cigarette manufacturers. The asbestos, coal, chemical, lead paint, pharmaceutical and many other industries have profited from the same modus operandi. Sometimes the specific subterfuge has been independently exposed by tenacious journalists, but too often years after the fact and, tragically, sometimes decades so.

This disturbing phenomenon unfortunately continues today, but now our professional ranks are fewer. Now we have a vastly reduced number of traditional truth-tellers and a growing number of well-paid poseurs who advise their clients on how to circumvent or “spin” those asking critical, independent questions, including journalists.

In the United States today, we have one-third fewer newspaper/print reporters today than we had 20 years ago. And meanwhile, according to authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney, the ratio of public relations people to working journalists has gone from nearly one to one in 1960 to now four “flacks” for every one working journalist. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, a disturbing proportion of daily newspaper stories today are based upon press releases.

British journalist Nick Davies labelled this lamentable practice “churnalism” in his 2008 book, Flat Earth News. In 2011, the non-profit organisation Media Standards Trust in the United Kingdom launched the website, that “lets people compare press releases with published news articles”.

The work of journalists has made a significant impact on contemporary US history. They have fearlessly exposed abuses of power, from the “red scare” demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s to atrocities during the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the various heinous excesses of corporate power over many decades. More recently, reporters have revealed the various improper uses of US power in post-9/11 America.

Since 2005, in preparation for a book, I have been conducting video/audio oral history interviews with 25 important national journalists – from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee to Seymour Hersh, Dana Priest and Daniel Schorr – who through their work effectively have stood up to power.

This multimedia online presentation at includes career and iconic “moments of truth” timelines and related reference material. It is an ongoing companion to The Future of Truth, which will be released next year, and also fodder for a multi-hour television documentary series.

I wanted to learn more about these important truth-tellers and the legions of other hearty souls like them, in part to educate future generations about the importance of this kind of reporting. In the 21st century, our finite, non-sustainable, inter-connected world is at a critical crossroads. How will our elected leaders address the most pressing issues of our time, such as climate change, the shortage of water, the growing rich-poor inequalities and related human migrations?

In the US and other democracies, any attempt at honest, effective governance, of course, is predicated upon the widespread availability of timely, accurate information. Given the profound international dimensions of what we are all facing, investigative news-gathering must necessarily widen and become more global. But even in the 21st century, most news coverage is still overwhelmingly local or national.

As there is a diminishing number of working journalists in newsrooms, the industry must find new ways to expose corruption in high places. EPA/Stefan Zaklin

We must think anew about who we are, what we do, why we do it, technologically how we do it and for whom. We must identify kindred souls who also investigate the uses and abuses of power, who also have exacting professional standards and approach their subjects with an independent scepticism and distance. They should meticulously peruse secondary and primary written sources, and then interview the relevant secondary and then primary human sources.

The fact is, thousands of academics today function as de facto in-depth journalists – from the forensic accountants to the political scientists tracking political corruption, from economists to investigative historians, from public anthropologists to those who work in data-mining, statistics, and human rights, environmental and other law-related specialties.

I have formally proposed at American University a new interdisciplinary field of study that can help to broaden and redefine the practice of journalism. I am calling it “accountability studies”.

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, many intelligent, talented young people who would like to become professional journalists but can’t find a job will increasingly join the ranks of another public-minded, “knowledge worker” profession. They may instead become researchers, writers and editors at non-government organisations (there are 1.5 million NGOs in the US alone), including policy-related, specialised subject think tanks.

This is certainly not a panacea for the drop in the number of journalists – these organisations have points of view that they advocate softly or not so softly. But, for example, who covers human rights more thoroughly: Human Rights Watch, with 280 full-time employees and offices in 16 cities around the world, or the premier newspaper in the US, UK or Australia? I’m afraid there is no comparison. Virtually all of these folks are highly educated and write careful, well-documented, scholarly and more popular articles, op-ed essays, blogs and books, all accessible and published online.

Imagine if more of these silo walls came down and social scientists and journalists in individual countries and across national borders began to communicate and collaborate more about the most important issues of our time. And there are vast resources available that are not commercial advertising, but instead philanthropic foundations and individual concerned citizens who spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the United States alone to enable the publication of high quality, well-written information.

In the spirit of such confluences, I note the innovation in Australia of The Conversation website, now operating also in the UK and beginning to develop in the US, which melds the grey matter and research and writing talents of energetic academics who find the op-ed gatekeepers of traditional newspapers to be too exclusionary and limited.

And it is also in that spirit of collaboration that American University and my Investigative Reporting Workshop have jointly hired a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Washington Post. This is unprecedented and may be, I believe, the beginning of a new way forward for both truth-telling and new future economic strategies and models.

My modus operandi is that it is better to try and fail, than not to have tried at all.

Why? Because given the present circumstances, there is too little time and there are too many subjects and frankly just too many bastards to investigate in this intricate, imperilled world we live in. We must broaden our views about who is “worthy” to gather and publish information outside our profession; we can and we must adapt and play in the sandbox with others.

What drives me is a pressing sense of urgency, for the abuses of power in the world today far, far exceed our collective capacities to investigate and expose them. We – along with the other inquisitive, investigative professions – are society’s proverbial canaries in the mineshaft.

We must all work together to attempt to enlarge the public space for watchdog or accountability journalism, in the US and around the world.

This article was prepared for the July-August edition of the The Walkley Magazine: Inside the Media in Australia and New Zealand. Charles Lewis will be a guest of The Walkley Foundation at the Storyology: Ideas Write Now! event in Surry Hills, Sydney, August 6 to 9 – tickets at

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.