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Too often, we talk about fact-checking as an elite activity. First, it was a job for the magazine’s in-house fact-checker (back when there were such things). Then it was a job for non-partisan fact-checking organizations or dedicated journalistic operations like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.

As important as those organizations are, fact-checking is also something we all need to practice each day as news consumers. It’s really akin to media literacy: a critical reflex, backed up with a few modern tools, that we must bring to bear when we consume modern media in all its forms (but especially social media).

With that in mind, I put together this round-up of fact-checking tools that we all can use. It started as a talk for the Skeptic’s Toolbox, a workshop held two weeks ago in Eugene, Ore., and grew with feedback from participants. I hope you’ll find some useful suggestions in these lists. Please let me know anything you think I’ve missed!

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One of the first companies to try and automate fact-checking now says “there is no market for fact-checking” — at least, not as you and I know it.

Paris-based Trooclick launched its plug-in last June, promising to check the facts in IPO stories against Securities and Exchange Commission filings, and against other articles. The original business plan was to make traders the prime audience, and eventually transform the plug-in into an add-on for Bloomberg or Dow Jones terminals. Trooclick was one of just a handful of efforts to automate the fact-checking process, some of which I highlighted for the Columbia Journalism Review.

The plug-in worked well, CEO Stanislas Motte says — so well that, in a way, it killed itself off. “The algorithm worked and didn’t find any errors,” Motte says. The reason, he says with hindsight, is that companies know their words are being scrutinized by regulators, and don’t dare to make misstatements.

As a result, Motte now concludes, “There is no market for fact-checking, especially on financial and business news.” That savvy business audience already knows to trust a limited number of sources — and they can usually spot the important errors themselves, Motte says.

From errors to omissions

After the success-cum-failure of the plug-in, Trooclick began thinking where the problem really lies. Its conclusion: “The real problem is not on errors but on omission… Big speakers prefer to use omission rather than errors,” Motte says. The way you combat that problem is by presenting different points of view and facilitating debate, Motte says.

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So in December, Trooclick announced a new product, with quite a different tack. The Opinion-Driven Search Engine uses the same natural language processing as its predecessor — technology due to receive a US patent on March 27— to scour news articles, blog posts and tweets. But instead of comparing facts against a reference, the new site categorizes quotes and paraphrases attributed to executives, analysts and journalists. (Trooclick describes all these statements as “quotes,” but in reality they do include paraphrasing too.) These “quotes” are designated either positive, negative or neutral, and the site displays lists of the positive and negative statements, side by side. Soon Trooclick hopes to move beyond “positive” and “negative” to perhaps three or five points of view on a given topic.

A sample Trooclick story page.

A sample Trooclick story page.

A viewpoint summary will be another key ingredient in Trooclick’s new recipe. With a huge chunk of readers never making it past the headline, Trooclick sees it as important to quickly summarize the major viewpoints on an issue in the first couple lines of each entry.

“Everything will be focused to give you the synthesis very quickly,” Motte says. “Today… on our website you can find 20, 30, 40 quotes [on an issue]. This is boring and maybe no one reads it. But this is only the beginning.”

The company, which has about $2 million in funding from its founders and France’s Banque Publique d’Investissement (Bpifrance), is considering two business models for the product. One is a white-label offering to social media or search giants, such as LinkedIn or Yahoo. The second is a b-to-b-to-b approach, in which a customer could use Trooclick technology to provide its own client companies with easily digestible media monitoring.

Moving fast

The company is aiming for some major advances in a very short time frame. In about three weeks the website will add the ability to filter stories by the person being quoted — a key move, Motte says, because he wants to start emphasizing speakers over news outlets. By June, Motte says he’s “80% confident” that Trooclick will have developed a capability to reliably detect and categorize three to five families of opinion for each topic, along with the functionality to summarize those opinions in a couple sentences.

And then it’s on to politics: by the end of this year, Motte wants Trooclick gearing up to tackle the 2016 US presidential election. By early 2016, Trooclick aims to analyze 50,000 news articles a day, on business, politics and other topics.

That seems a big leap for a product that still stumbles at times with classifying “positive” and “negative.” For example, here are some of the quotes Trooclick catalogued for the story, “Ryanair plans to offer low-cost flights between Europe and the U.S.”:

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The circled comment is not exactly positive…. just sort of informational.

Here’s one from the story, “Lufthansa pilots to go on strikes on Wednesday”:

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That might be positive if you side with the pilots and want to see their strike having an effect. For a lot of parties, I’d call this a negative.

I have no way of knowing how widespread the errors are, and I do see a lot of quotes that Trooclick has catalogued correctly. But seeing these errors does make me wonder if the company’s timetable is a little optimistic.

Motte acknowledges, “One of the biggest challenges for us is error rate,” though he won’t say what the site’s rate is. “If you are at 80% it’s great. The objective is to be more than 80%.”

Is Trooclick right for politics?

The move into politics is also surprising, given Motte’s views about fact-checking. “Speakers, companies, even politicians prefer omission [to making misstatements],” he says.

A map of fact-checking operations around the world, by Duke Reporters’ Lab.

A map of fact-checking operations around the world, by Duke Reporters’ Lab.

I just can’t buy that, given the 64 active fact-checking operations around the world, 22 of them in North America, and the frequency with which they find politicians making statements worthy of “Pants on Fire” or “Four Pinocchio” ratings. (Full disclosure: I’m a consultant for the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Project, so I arguably have a stake in seeing political fact-checking succeed.)

Where does this leave automated fact-checking?

Trooclick sales and marketing assistant Darcee Meilbeck says she does still think of the company’s work as fact-checking:

“In the last seven to eight months, yes, we have gone through a pivot… We realized that fact-checking is more than just true and false. That’s the story I’ve told people — we realize fact-checking isn’t just black and white. There is bias elimination that comes into it as well. That’s, I think, where we fit in at the moment.”

I’d say Trooclick’s new direction is an intriguing play at helping people to graze on news more intelligently — I’d hesitate to use the phrase “fact-checking” when no actual facts are being checked.

I must admit I was disappointed to see the company’s shift away from an automated tool that compared news reports to official reference sources. That disappointment that could be well driven by my own over-optimism rather than any realistic sense of what such a tool could today achieve, technologically or financially, and it’s not meant as criticism of the interesting work that Trooclick has turned to.

But while I may have been slightly dewy-eyed about what automated fact-checking can achieve now, I still think that for the long term, this target is both achievable and necessary. The battle against misinformation is going to require a combination of automation, leveraging of big data and some kind of social media or browser add-on, for the simple reason that most of us don’t go looking for verification, and even those of us who are verification junkies can’t possible verify everything we read. So the media ecosystem needs fact-checks that seek their readers out, rather than the other way round; and even better, seek out the lies that human journalists don’t have the bandwidth to.

In my CJR piece I very briefly highlighted a few tools and research projects that might fill that role. I didn’t know which would pan out and I’m not sure anyone does yet. But in the demise of Trooclick’s fact-checking plug-in, there’s an opportunity to formulate a couple hypotheses:

  • Business journalism isn’t crying out for fact-checking, in the way that political or science journalism is. Reasons include the less contentious nature of the content and lower personal and ideological investment by readers.
  • Automated fact-checking — especially the natural language processing component — is really, really hard. Maybe too hard, given the current state of the art, for a small start-up to handle. It’s possible such technology just isn’t ready for commercial roll-out yet — and the volume of research required to fine-tune it would be easier to carry out in academia or at huge companies like Google.

I welcome my readers’ thoughts on these theories, as well as their own prognoses for the future of automated fact-checking.

Post-script:

Stepping away from automated fact-checking for a moment, it’s also worth considering the role of crowdsourced verification — if only because of two high-profile launches in recent weeks. They are Fiskkit, a platform for commenting on the news, which won the Social Impact award at the 2015 Launch Festival startup conference; and Grasswire, a platform that invites the public to fact-check breaking news stories.

I wouldn’t close off crowdsourcing as an avenue to explore. If nothing else, I think Fiskkit’s combination of in-line annotation, logical fallacy tags, “respect” button (an outcome of the University of Texas’s Engaging News Project) and comments makes a good bid to be the forum for civil discourse that Facebook never was, and probably never could be. What I’m not sure it adds up to is good fact-checking. Wikipedia has shown us how far crowd-sourcing fact can take you, which is pretty far indeed — up to a point. I’ll be very surprised to see any crowd-sourced effort beat that track record.

Cross-posted to Medium.

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There is so much to love in Craig Silverman and the Tow Center’s new report, “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content” — from the very first sentence.

“News organizations are meant to play a critical role in the dissemination of quality, accurate information in society.”

Indeed! I feel a bit like that dorky kid who plays Dungeons & Dragons on his own for years, until he finds out that there’s actually a small D&D group that meets in someone’s basement. There’s been millions of words written about the news media’s struggle for viable business models in an online world, but I feel there’s very few people saying that,

  1. There’s a lot of misinformation out there,
  2. That matters because the news media’s job is to inform, so
  3. Even if social media content didn’t itself make its way into newspapers (which it does), papers have a responsibility to correct the public record and improve the state of public knowledge.

More data, more emotion

surprised

Silverman and his team have done great research here, driven by the data captured through their rumor-tracking tool, Emergent. There’s some eye-opening stuff on news outlets’ love of misleading headlines, and a handy list of recommendations for newsrooms.

Other insights about debunking needs that really grabbed me:

  • “Debunking efforts in the press are not guided by data and learning drawn from work in the fields of psychology, sociology, and political science… An evidence-based, interdisciplinary approach is needed.” Hear, hear.
  • There’s problems inherent in debunking the person, rather than the idea. I wonder, where does this leave the major political fact-checking sites (i.e. PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Washington Post Fact Checker)?
  • Viral hoaxes appeal to emotion, but so can debunking stories. For example, most stories about a rumored pumpkin-spice condom made it clear that Durex was planning no such product — but the stories still managed to be eye-catching and funny.
  • Hoaxes with geographic focus can inspire action — this indicates that we would be wise to foster ever more local fact checking.
  • Silverman’s report is the first major work on journalistic fact-checking that I’ve seen bring in major voices from the skeptic movement (such asDoubtful News and Tim Farley of What’s the Harm). As a participant in both communities I often link these efforts in my mind, but have seen few others do so — and I think there is so much useful engagement that could happen between fact-checking journalists and skeptics.

Update, archive and correction fails

But what I want to focus on is the problem of updates and corrections, the persistence of web content and the double-edged sword that is the online news archive.

Silverman — who is, after all, an authority on corrections — notes severalmajor problems in news outlets’ updates to rumor-based stories:

A particularly egregious example of the news media’s failure to update rumor articles. From Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content, by Craig Silverman of Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
  1. The updates don’t happen very often. Silverman and his team analyzed six of the claims that they tracked on Emergent, comparing the number of news organizations that originally covered the claim to those that followed up with a resolved truth-status — and percentage that followed up varied tremendously, but on average only hit slightly more than 50%.
  2. Such stories are often updated badly. Most notably, many news outlets will update the body text and then simply slap the word “Updated” on the headline — which results in headlines that make a rumor sound true, even when the body text makes clear that the rumor’s been debunked.
  3. Readers probably won’t see the update. “Obviously, there is no guarantee readers will come back to an article to see if it has been updated,” Silverman says — indeed, there’s very little guarantee, and very little chance.
  4. Mistaken articles persist — forever. “…Online articles exist permanently and can be accessed at any time. Search, social, and hyperlinks may be driving people to stories that are out of date or demonstrably incorrect,” Silverman writes. Even though news organizations followed up on a rumor with a debunking story roughtly half the time, they did so by writing a new story. “This means the original, often incorrect story still exists on their websites and may show up in search results,” Silverman points out. Rarely were follow-up links added to the initial article.

Why are we in this mess?

and

How can we innovate out of it?

I think these concerns all tap into some major ways in which newspapers have failed to adapt to and take advantage of their new digital homes — and ways they can push forward:

Fish wrappers no more

Fish_n_chips

The best use for error-filled stories. “Fish n chips” by Canadian Girl Scout. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

 

First, news outlets forget that old stories don’t disappear from the public consciousness like, well, yesterday’s newspaper. If only last week’s and last month’s articles could still be wrapped around take-out fish and chips, the oily residue rubbing out hastily written paragraphs and unwarranted presumptions. Those days are gone. Not only do the archives linger on newspaper’s websites, but they’re linked to by other pages that will probably never die, and they’ll also get brought up by the right combination of words in a Google search.

Of course, I’m being a bit facetious claiming that archives are simply a liability. They also represent an enormous opportunity (more on that below). But right now, archives are a double loss for newspapers: their liability is unmitigated and their potential is untapped.

The news encyclopedia

Which brings us to: most newspapers lack a smart strategy for leveraging and commoditizing their archives.

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Putting aside for a moment our acknowledgment that archive stories could have been wrong to begin with, or could now simply be outdated, they still contain vast amounts of useful information that is not being used and will hardly be seen. If properly checked, coded and collated, a newspaper’s archives on a particular event would form a powerful living encyclopedia entry that would rival Wikipedia for accuracy and completeness.

If thinking about coding and collating the New York Times’ 13 million articles back to 1851 is too overwhelming, think about this: every story we write today is part of tomorrow’s archive. The best way to build that future archive into something useful and informative is to follow Silverman’s advice, that “asking reporters and producers to own a particular claim and maintain a page is a reasonable request.” Making substantial updates means an opportunity to reshare — and as Silverman points out, that drives traffic.

Silverman doesn’t spell out the shape of this claim page, but I’m thinking of two options. One, each article on the given topic is linked into (and receives links out from) a “hub page” that shows the development of the reporters’ investigation. There’s a prominent hyperlinked box on the top of every news story saying something like:

Or in a more streamlined fashion, maybe there aren’t new articles on the topic — maybe there’s one evolving article. To my mind, this goes way beyond just rumor-checking stories. It means moving from the outmoded and now relatively useless idea of a static article, in which we pretend that every story gets set in hot metal and therefore will never, ever be altered, to a system of constantly updated pages — whose changes, by ethical necessity, must also be completely transparent and easily comprehended. (And to prevent link rot and reference rot, you would need an easy way for people to link to a particular version of the page, pinned to a particular date.)

 

We’re no longer hemmed in by this. Photo credit: The Original Movable Type via photopin.

We’re no longer hemmed in by this. Photo credit: The Original Movable Type via photopin.

 

There are many ways to do this (perhaps most naively, dare I suggest we bring back the idea of atime axis for HTTP?). Some experimentation on this began ages ago and is already feeling old hat — I’m thinking in particular of the Guardian’s Live pages, which are great for conveying the latest on quickly developing news, but aren’t the best format for giving people a quick overview of the most pertinent facts. Anyway, news organizations have got complacent in this arena, and there is much more that can be done.

Corrections suck… but don’t have to

ALERT! ALERT! Corrections should be inescapable.

Corrections were never a particularly effective vehicle, and their minuscule power has arguably diminished still further as the demand for them has increased. In the past, corrections hid in a little box around page A2 or so of your paper. Maybe you stumbled over that box, maybe you didn’t. Now, it’s still more flawed. Without a physical paper in hand, there’s little chance of anyone just accidentaly casting their eye over the equivalent of page A2.

Yet our potential to get corrections to readers is so much greater nowthan 20 years ago. We have the technological tools to alert readers who’ve read the articles in question. Why don’t we harness this? There are so many ways it could work. A couple that spring to mind:

  • When you register for a site like the New York Times, you agree that the site will keep a log of what pages you visit so that, when something is corrected, it can ping you to let you know (you could select an email or a social media alert — or the news outlet could experiment to see what works best). Or maybe just by using the site (without registration) you have to accept these pings, as we accept cookies today.
  • Major news organizations could collaborate to launch a one-stop corrections notification shop. (Or a third party could develop with news org buy-in.) This app or plug in would be voluntarily downloaded by the user and track her news consumption, and compare this to a growing online corrections bank populated by the participating news orgs.

Let’s talk

Those are just a few of the ideas wheels I’ve got spinning in the wake of this very important (and may I add, eminently readable) report. Systematic research and creative innovation are both, sadly, such rare beasts in journalism today — but they don’t have to be. Share your thoughts, and let’s move this conversation forward!

Cross-posted to Medium.

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Note: I have joined the “virtual class” component of Dan Kahan‘s Science of Science Communication course at Yale University. As part of this I am endeavoring to write a response paper in reaction to each week’s set of readings. I will post these responses here on my blog – the first such response is below. I will also be participating in the discussion on Kahan’s own blog. (The discussion on session 1 is here.) Comments are welcome are either site.


 

I wish to focus on the question of whether the media had some role in actually manufacturing the controversy around the Gardasil HPV vaccine, and specifically the debate about whether states should mandate the vaccine for school admission. In his class notes on Session 1, Dan Kahan raises some interesting points about the media’s behavior in the early days of the vaccine’s approval and introduction:

At this point, there is no meaningful dispute over Gardasil. Indeed, only a minute fraction of the U.S. population has ever heard of the vaccine or even HPV for that matter. Nevertheless, the prospect of controversy has already been anticipated in the national media. A government-mandated STD shot for adolescent girls, these sources predict, is certain to provoke confrontation between women’s rights groups and religious and social conservatives.

By referring to the “prospect of controversy,” and “prediction” of “confrontation,” does Kahan mean to imply that news outlets were engaged more in speculation then in reporting of actual disagreement? I’m not sure if this was his intention, but nonetheless I think it raises some interesting questions about reporting choices.

False balance

Certainly one of the most frequent and cogent criticisms of science reporting in recent years has focused on the problem of false balance – the notion that every story must provide “two sides.” This journalistic principle has shown itself to be most inappropriate when applied to matters of scientific fact (or theories supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence). Researchers such as Max Boykoff have shown how media outlets report the “question” of climate change in a “he said, she said” style, pitting one supporter against one opponent and creating the impression of a genuine scientific disagreement. The media has continued this harmful approach even as studies showed that a heavy majority of climate papers – most recently estimated at 97 percent – support the idea of anthropogenic climate change. (Some media outlets appear to be doing better at this – the BBC last year forswore the application of the balance principle to climate reporting – but sins are still committed regularly, as John Oliver pointed out in this entertaining segment.)

In the early HPV reporting, we may perceive another example of false equivalence, though not as egregious as in the climate case. While false balance in climate reporting tends to create the impression of disagreement over the science, HPV stories instead presented divergent views on policy, risk management and values. It’s still entirely possible, however, that the media’s presentation of these views distorted the true balance of opinion or even injected controversy where little existed. How can we evaluate whether this was the case?

Vaccine mandates: “the norm”

A full reckoning would require a much broader content analysis, but let me offer a few thoughts from the course readings. First, an important piece of background. I think one of the most important items in the reading was Kahan’s “Note on universal childhood vaccination schedules and mandates.” What I found extremely revealing was his assertion that:

The conventional practice is for state public health agencies simply to add vaccines to their state’s mandatory-immunization schedule consistent with CDC guidelines. See, e.g., Conn. Gen. Stat. § 9a-7f… Adoption is not instantaneous or automatic, but it is the norm for a CDC-issued guideline to be administrative incorporated into nearly every state’s immunization-mandates within several years…. This was the route that the hepatitis-b or HBV vaccine followed in being added to state mandatory- vaccination schedules after its approval by the FDA and the designation of it as a universal childhood vaccination by the CDC.

So if I understand correctly, prior to the HPV vaccine approval, there never was a controversy or debate over whether a state should mandate that children entering school have a certain vaccine. Whatever vaccines the CDC recommended physicians administer, the state mandated that children have before they could attend school. Now let’s look at some reporting on the HPV vaccine and see what justification the author had for painting a picture of controversy.

Washington Post article

Here’s Rob Stein’s Washington Post article of October 31, 2005. I’ve gone through the article and highlighted the key phrases I saw as conveying controversy/debate (higlighted in yellow) as well as language that had potential to polarize readers’ viewpoints by attaching positions to actors with particular ideological positions (orange). The most salient examples are excerpted below:

Stein HPV highlights 1 Stein HPV highlights 2

Reviewing this, I think we can agree that Stein certainly didn’t invent controversy out of whole cloth. There was indeed evidence that a public debate was brewing. Most notably, see points a) and b) above. Note, however, there isn’t much evidence in this article that conservative and religious groups were actually planning to oppose mandates. Statements such as those above could be read that way, but they don’t spell out an organized effort to prevent mandates. Nor do generalizations such as “activists on both sides have begun maneuvering to influence how widely the immunizations will be employed.”

Interestingly and worryingly, the passages that most strongly seem to demonstrate controversy come, I believe, from those who would least desire it: health advocates and the vaccine manufacturer. For example, the article says cancer experts and women’s health advocates are “pushing the view” espoused by Merck, that school mandates “have been one of the most effective ways to increase immunization rates.” (Point c above.) This statement may sound innoccuous on the surface, but suggesting that it is a “view” and that school mandates are one of several ways we might seek to increase immunization – rather than just an automatic step taken for all vaccines recommended for children – implies there is a debate to be had.

This is followed up by a quote from Juan Carlos Felix of the University of Southern California and the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, who says, “I would like to see it that if you don’t have your HPV vaccine, you can’t start high school” – a reasonable statement to be sure, and probably one that Felix though nothing of uttering to a reporter. But again, in context, it suggests this is just one reasonable point of view of several.

Given research on the role of cultural cognition in risk perception (see for example Kahan, et al., Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn’t, and Why?), it’s highly likely that the views expressed in this piece caused readers to take stances on the vaccine where they didn’t previously have any. They likely then made health decisions that were not as rational as they could have been.

What should change?

For that reason, should or could Stein have written his story any differently? In retrospect, I would like to have seen more evidence that ideologues really were gearing up to fight mandates, rather than just mumbling idly about misgivings. But I think the most important thing the author could have done would have been to situate those concerns in the proper regulatory context: that is to say, fairly high up in the story, “here is the path that vaccines usually take, from FDA approval to CDC recommendation to school mandate; and here is why Gardasil may not have such an easy ride.”

There are many other questions reporters should ask themselves when approaching these kinds of stories – and that we should be asking about the reporting process. Some to consider (perhaps in a future reaction piece, or class discussion?):

  • News stories often create the idea of a “balanced” debate, with perhaps 2 or 3 voices pro, 2 or 3 voices con. Is that appropriate if one side is a minority view?
  • How can journalists even figure out what the majority view is?
  • If certain political groups are taking a stand on an issue, but the reporter can establish that their view is definitely in the minority, should he still report that stand?
  • Whose views “count more” in these types of stories – doctors? Politicians? Regulators? Advocates? Patients?
  • In this type of story, do questions of values even matter? Does health trump all? Or are values inescapable?

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Je Suis CharlieToday there is only one thing a journalist could want to write about. The Charlie Hebdo massacre has shaken a profession that certainly never saw itself as immune from violence or intimidation, but perhaps saw those threats as, in the main, residing abroad. In a way it is our 9/11 – far-off terrorism, once something visited just on the brave few who parachuted themselves into combat zones, now brought home to a Western institution and its individuals, with deadly force.

But for all those similarities, and as shocking as the attack was, it couldn’t possibly provoke as severe a mentality shift as 9/11 did for the US public. For Americans, before 2001, terrorism was something that affected soldiers (the USS Cole) or embassies (the Kenya and Tanzania bombings), with civilians only targeted in random lone-wolf outbursts (such as Oklahoma City). On 9/11 we all learned to be on our guard for more attacks in the heartland.

Today’s events feel, in retrospect, like the inevitable culmination of recent horrors. European journalists have been attacked for their depictions of Mohammed before, and indeed the Charlie Hebdo offices were bombed in 2011. Last year militants in the Middle East made journalists a prime target, the beheadings themselves a gruesome and manipulative media message. But if we’ve had clues we might be headed this way, those bread crumbs haven’t softened the brutal shock of today’s events, or the dread over what might happen next. The fear among many journalists, I suspect, is that this is the new normal – that journalism, long a dangerous profession, will be more so and its dangers will be less predictable.

As one of this profession it’s also hard to shake off the cumulative, censorial weight that now seems to press down on us: not just this murderous attempt to silence free speech, but also the apparent attempts by North Korean hacks to prevent release of Sony’s film The Interview. And just days ago, PEN International released findings that 34 percent of writers in “free countries” have avoided – or have considered avoiding – writing or speaking on particular topics due to fear of government surveillance. For partly free countries, the figure was 44 percent; for “not free” countries, 61 percent.

“Censorship” used to be something your own government attempted, or perhaps powerful corporations. Now it’s other countries. Now it’s stateless militants (whose methods include not just violence but hacking, as the Albuquerque Journal and Maryland CBS affiliate WBOC discovered yesterday). Now it’s organizations that look like private companies or NGOs, but are actually organized by governments, as Philip Bennett and Moises Naim describe in a timely Columbia Journalism Review article.

Of course journalists have always been a defiant bunch. They have to be. Half of us seem to have got into the profession because we like to thumb our noses at authority – and no less so when that authority’s got a Kalishnikov and a pseudo-religious zeal. Just last night I was chuckling to myself thinking about the editors of the Frederick (Md.) News-Post, who laughed off a self-righteous and delusional diktat from local council member Kirby Delauter, who had ordered the paper to seek permission before publishing his name. Naturally, the paper’s response was an editorial that used his name dozens of times – even as an acrostic.

The piece reflected so much that I love about journalism: tireless commitment to freedom of speech. Irreverence. Good humor. Even – imagine it – commitment to principle. (Yes, most journalists still have it, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.) “They’ve risen to the occasion,” I thought. I couldn’t imagine, the next morning, how those principles would be tested again. But I don’t doubt that the world’s courageous journalists will continue to rise to the challenge.

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Rainbow brain frogsI’ve just returned from The Amazing Meeting, a gathering for people who want to promote critical thinking and science literacy. The event, organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation, was a great place to make connections and gain a fresh perspective as I seek to brainstorm ways to reduce misinformation in the media.

This year’s theme was Skepticism and the Brain, so a lot of talks brought up psychological processes that perpetuate misinformation – things like confirmation bias and the backfire effect. But the intersections between critical thinking, science communication and journalism go well beyond that. Some highlights and reflections:

  • Chris Guest, in a short paper, discussed some of the pitfalls of Bayesian analysis, and suggested that this kind of misunderstanding of probability may have fuelled the fire of AIDS denialism. This area seems ripe for more exploration, and there is much work to be done on improving journalists’ understanding of probability – especially as story choices are so often based on ideas of the “unusual” (eg “man bites dog”).
  • Donald Prothero, speaking on the back of his recent book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future, rejected the idea that “there’s woo on the left and woo on the right – they’re just the same.” Only the GOP, he contended, adopts rejection of science as its official policy. He also offered some hope for climate change communicators, saying recent polls have shown that 60-80% of Americans have come to accept that climate change is real. Hard-core climate deniers, he said, are at most 10-20% of the population – but they are the loudest, and they control politics.
  • Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina took us through a history of notable articles in the publication – including a 1959 piece about the connection between carbon dioxide and climate. One member of the audience asked about an amateur scientist column that SciAm used to run, and interestingly DiChristina seemed to share his regret at its cancellation: “Boy did we blow it, because look at the maker movement today.” She said the SciAm website is exploring more ways to get the public engaged in science. Currently, the main methods are through its Citizen Science channel which links to crowdsourced research projects such as Galaxy Zoo and FoldIt; and Bring Science Home activities, which parents can use with their children. But it sounds like before too long, we might see new initiatives.
  • Sharon Hill, the creator of Doubtful News and the Media Guide to Skepticism as well as the Sounds Sciencey column for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, said that she tries to make her brand positive, not positioning herself as a “debunker” or “skeptic.” She has found traction for her science-based news by following article trends and playing to SEO. For example, Hill says she was the only person who wrote skeptically about an article drawing a link between MSG and autism. This is a great example of where news’ obsession with “balance,” so often an editorial pressure that leads readers away from the truth, can actually work in favor of the truth. Reporters are looking for someone to take a counter-position, and skeptics can help to fill that gap, thereby helping to bring scientific points of view to the public.
  • Karl Kruszelnicki (Dr. Karl), a scientific polymath often described as the “Australian Bill Nye,” described journalists as being so overloaded with information that they can’t concentrate. It certainly did comfort me to feel I’m not alone in this regard – and to know I’m not as badly affected as some reporters, whom Karl said couldn’t even sit down and read a novel anymore!
  • Finally, I was gratified to hear that many people are interested in my idea for a Misinformation Science wiki: a website that will summarize the major psychological and industry factors helping to perpetuate the spread of misinformation in the media, and various efforts to combat this problem. I hope to have the beta version ready in a few weeks. Feel free to message me if you’d like to be notified when this goes live.

It was a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking conference, and I encourage any and all of my fellow attendees to get in touch with me to continue the conversation. See you at TAM 2015!

photo credit: “lapolab” via photopin cc

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