Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Read Carefully: The Importance of Understanding Your Sources

One of the requirements of good journalism is getting information from reliable sources. Normally, when you see that a writer has picked sources she trusts, you are more likely to trust what she reports.

But there's an important element of having good sources that sometimes gets neglected or overlooked: You have to understand what your sources mean. It isn't enough to find great sources of information — from scientific research to political analysis — if you misunderstand, and therefore misrepresent, the information.

Science reporting seems particularly prone to this type of misrepresentation. (Peruse the posts in Language Log's Language and the media category for some real zingers.) I'm not going to write about science reporting here, but, needless to say, you should be wary of any reporting that begins with the phrase "a recent study shows.…"

Your jargon is too much for me
Photo credit: duncan
Granted, in-depth scientific research can involve a sordid stew of convoluted jargon served with a healthy helping of mathematical gobbledy-gook, which could throw off anyone who, like me, doesn't know his heterogeneity from his homoskedasticity. As a result, many journalists focus on a scientific article's abstract, which summarizes what the research was and what its findings were. But even there, we're faced with margins of error and confidence levels and sample sizes, with only experience and common sense to guide us through to real comprehension.

So I can sympathize a little when someone, out of ignorance, accidentally misrepresents a scientific study. But what about a simple announcement? Here's an example:

In Monday, publisher John Wiley & Sons* and Google announced that Google would be buying up Wiley's travel assets, including the ever-popular Frommer's travel guides. A much-linked post at Publishers Lunch stated this plainly in the first sentence:
Wiley announced Monday morning it has "entered into a definitive agreement to sell all of its travel assets, including all of its interests in the Frommer's brand," to Google.
That was the word. Wiley was selling Frommer's (and other assets) to Google. But if, like most people, you haven't been following the changes going on at John Wiley & Sons, this might have left you wondering what was up. Did Google just ask for Frommer's and so Wiley named a price?

To answer these possible questions, the post continues into a second paragraph:
The publisher had said in March it intended investigate the sale of "a number of consumer print and digital publishing assets in its professional/trade business that no longer align with the company’s long-term strategies." Those properties included Frommer's, as well as CliffsNotes, and Webster's New World.
Unfortunately, a number of not-so-careful readers have latched on to that last sentence instead of the first and, for the last two days, have been broadcasting on Twitter that Google is buying Frommer's, CliffsNotes, and Webster's New World. Which is false. CliffsNotes and WNW are both up for sale, but they haven't been sold yet.

So what happened here? I can only guess, but my guess is that skimming was involved — people scanning through the post too quickly to really understand what it says and then turning to social media and running with it. It has happened before and it will happen again.

Speaking of which, Margaret Thatcher died Tuesday at the age of 86. Not really, but that's what the fake Twitter account @OfficialSkyNews tweeted 10 times, and you know what happened? People ran with it. This is the dangerous part of Twitter.

But that brings me to another type of journalistic misrepresentation, one that would end up in the comments to this post anyway, so why not write about it now? In many cases of journalistic failures, it isn't difficult to see how a mistake was made — a misplaced decimal, a percentage point turned into a percentage, a cupertino. But then there are the errors and misrepresentations that look too flagrant and too self-serving to be legitimate mistakes. Fake accounts like @OfficialSkyNews are the obvious ones, but then you also find information presented like this:

This chart purports to show how the top tax rate will change if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire. Hard to believe that it will almost quintuple how much people in the upper tax bracket will pay!

Hard to believe, indeed. Here's the same chart with the data unblurred:

Thanks to Flowing Data for posting this
The y-axis starts at 34 instead of 0, which is a no-no in bar charts. A no-no that most of us learned to avoid back in elementary school.

(Notice also the misspelling of acquires in the ticker.)

I can think of no better example to illustrate how important it is to understand what your sources are telling you. So slow down when you read and make sure it sinks in. As they say, haste makes waste, and in this case, misinformation.

Stay classy, FOX NEWS!

* John Wiley & Sons, Inc., is my employer, which is the only reason I would have even noticed the Wiley/Google news.
Enhanced by Zemanta