Thursday, January 16, 2014

Beware: opinion pages can be loose with the facts

In the Information Age, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself from misinformation and find reliable sources. This week, some tips on reading editorial pages.
National and local newspapers present both news and opinion. In the ideal journalistic model, these functions are separated. Today, however, there are some disturbing crossovers, and unaware readers may find their information isn’t as solid as they might like.
Traditionally the news sections reported facts, while the editorial pages presented interpretations and opinions about those facts. News reporting even uses “fact-checkers”, in major papers at least, to confirm facts, figures, quotes and statements before publication. I don’t think local papers go to quite the same lengths, but at least if you notify them of an error, they will print a correction or retraction, sometimes even years later.
Once, an intern writing an election night story for the Examiner reported erroneously that I was “between jobs”, which I wasn’t. (It was an understandable mistake, as the two main campaign managers were actually between jobs). By the time I noticed it and called the paper, the intern had already moved on, so I didn’t make a big fuss about it (although someone else did, years later). But if I had insisted, I’m sure they would have corrected this error.
But editorial pages don’t have fact-checkers. Opinions are subjective, so they needn’t be verified, merely stated. Which would be fine, except a lot of “opinion” columnists seem to state as fact things that simply aren’t true, to back up opinions they are expressing. But the papers refuse to police this, so columnists are free to keep on misrepresenting the truth to suit their bias, without check, correction, or retraction. (A similar situation appears at some TV news networks.) This is a serious failing; as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not his own facts.”
So how are you, the reader, to determine if a columnist is presenting reality or spin? Here are some clues. If a column is based entirely on a single report, study, or article, then you should at least find and read the original to see if the columnist is reporting fairly, or if it comes from a credible source. Often, you will find they are misrepresenting what they are attacking, or praising something that was biased in the first place.
A column’s factual basis rests on stronger footing if the writer cites multiple, independent and identifiable sources. Again, it doesn’t hurt to look them up, using basic internet skills. But the best columnists, the ones who base their writing on objective facts, go one step further. They either provide hyperlinks in the online version of their articles, as I do, or include footnotes giving title & author of each supporting document, like respected British columnist George Monbiot. That way you need not guess what reports they are citing, you can go straight to the source. A sincere columnist will also respond to online comments pointing out an error or omission by posting a correction or more supporting information.
On the other hand, a big red flag is when a writer avoids identifiable sources, then attributes contrary opinions or patently erroneous statements to private comments from “friends” who remain conveniently unnamed (and probably non-existent). After all, who can ridicule someone in print and still call them a friend? With friends like that…
In part 2 of this series, I’ll show how to spot deeper bias by noticing the variation in how the same editorial staff report on different governments, depending on where they fall on the political spectrum.

Published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Trying to find the truth behind all those opinions", "Weighing all those opinions" and "Finding truth among the opinions"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

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