Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘fake news

Destructive anti-“fake news” measures

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One of the worst parts of the whole fake-news-and-whatnot debates are attempts by e.g. Facebook, Twitter, and Google to filter what others read. I point e.g. to the recent interventions of Twitter against Trump’s twittering (cf. e.g. [1]) or repeated complaints by Ron Unz that his website(s) has been recently thrown off Facebook and severely punished in Google’s search rankings (at least [2], [3], [4]).* The move, e.g. in Germany, towards laws that would increasingly force Internet services to perform such censorship or distortion is horrifying.

*To boot, Ron Unz seems to have been hit in an entirely unfair and illogical manner, based on guilt by association, despite his site being intended for free speech from any and all direction. (But beware that I have only skimmed through the linked-to articles—they are quite long.)

In the current free-speech crisis this is a disaster—and it would be so, even if the distortions were guaranteed to be introduced fairly and competently. In reality, however, more-or-less the opposite is guaranteed. (Cf. earlier texts, notably [5].)

Such interventions will not only reduce free speech for e.g. ignorants, but will also cause both true statements to be censored and highly legitimate opinions to be drowned out, cementing existing opinion corridors. A particular danger is that services like Facebook will tend to over-censor based on complaints, e.g. that a dozen people write in and says “this text is racist” causing Facebook to delete it to avoid criticism, controversy, or legal measures, even when the text was nothing of the kind.*

*I am not aware of Facebook’s current policy and behavior, but I did repeatedly observe exactly this type of behavior for comments on Swedish online news-papers some ten to fifteen years ago, when I still read them. Someone complains about e.g. xenophobia and a comment was gone—regardless of whether the comment was xenophobic and whether there was some value to it. (Whether one of mine was ever affected, I do not remember, but I have plenty of own experiences from e.g. Feminist blogs. Cf. many texts from my early years on WordPress.)

A good example is the COVID-19 debates and how certain opinions are deemed inviolably true and others “fake news” in a situation where the actual scientific knowledge is/was* limited and even highly qualified experts often disagreed—indeed, even statements by a highly qualified expert were considered “fake news”, if they did not adhere to “the official truth”. Or consider topics like IQ, where the near scientific consensus among experts is overruled by journalist, politicians, and social scientists making claims outside their area of expertise (and very often driven by ideology to boot).

*The state of knowledge is still (2020-05-27) highly incomplete, but it is much, much better than a few months ago. Still, the “fake news” claims where present even back then …

Looking at Trump (cf. [1]), apparently:

Twitter slapped a warning label on one of President Trump’s tweets for the first time on Tuesday, cautioning readers that despite the president’s claims, “fact checkers” say there is “no evidence” that mail-in voting would increase fraud risks – and that “experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud.”

Firstly, the fear, even outright opinion, that mail-in ballots would increase the risk of fraud is perfectly legitimate and nothing that e.g. Twitter should interfere with. Should someone be of the opposite opinion, have strong counter-arguments or references to solid research, whatnot—then twitter back. To find the truth, to allow the individual to form his own opinions, etc., we need debate and not various types of censorship and imposition of “truth”.

Secondly, how do we now that the “fact checkers” are worth their salt? Competent and unbiased? Who, at all, are they? Are we talking a group of neutral leading political scientists (or whoever might have expertise on mail-in ballots) or two Democrat-voting, minimum-wage Twitter employees sitting in a basement? Similarly, what experts? What do other experts say?* Etc.

*While I have no own knowledge in the area, I note that [1] claims e.g. “[…] several experts have called mail-in balloting an invitation to widespread fraud.” and “”Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud,” read the conclusion of a bipartisan 2005 report authored by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, […]”, which makes it likely that the issue cannot be written off as e.g. a “real medicine vs. homeopathy” stand-off. (And, unlike with homeopathy, the claim is not ludicrous a priori.)

The current trend must be turned on its head: Laws must non-negotiably require various service providers to deliver all contents, not obviously illegal*, that a user publishes unaltered, unabridged, uncommented, uncensored, un-discriminated-against (in e.g. search rankings). Moreover, they must required e.g. that everyone is accepted as a user on the same terms**, irrespective of e.g. political beliefs and how many others might disapprove. Should e.g. the government, the PC crowd, the film industry want to shut-down or censor a user, they will have to target*** that user on their own. The only action allowed, barring a court order of some kind, by the service providers is to provide the complainants with enough information to proceed—and even that might, depending on the exact situation, require a court-order. (This notably when a reasonable anonymity, a pre-requisite for free speech in e.g. dictatorships, would be threatened—say that a Chinese dissident uses an anonymous U.S. service, that the Chinese government request his name and address, and that the service provider just hands it out.)

*Some types of file sharing or child-pornography, e.g., might fall in the category “obviously illegal”.

**These terms might, however, include provisions that are fair and relevant, e.g. that certain services require payment (from all users …) or exclude minors.

***By notifying the police, filing a civil lawsuit, requesting a court order, or what might be appropriate in any given case.

More generally, the common attitude that “I have the right to change statements by others as I see fit” must disappear. Cf. e.g. various texts on distortions by WordPress (if comparatively minor) or the absolutely inexcusable comment manipulations by Emvie Martin—which make me hope that there is a hell so that she can burn in it. Her behavior was so far beyond the acceptable that there should be a law against it.

Excursion on “the official truth” (“den officiella sanningen”):
This phrase was already quite popular in Sweden certainly fifteen, possibly even twenty, years ago, e.g. with regard to gender-feminist pseudo-science, which was thoroughly disproved by real science, yet held sway among journalists and politicians (and, sadly, still does). Over the last few years, many other countries have caught up and the phrase is highly relevant for e.g. the current U.S.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 27, 2020 at 7:36 pm

Poor journalism and journalism as a source of fake news (The New York Times)

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A while back, I encountered a quite interesting article, in which a renowned* journalist deplores the The 2016 Election and the Demise of Journalistic Standards.

*One Michael Goodwin. While unknown to me, apparently he is “the chief political columnist for The New York Post” and “he worked for 16 years at The New York Times”, among other qualifications relevant for the current discussion.

He is, obviously correct, but too optimistic, e.g. in that he says “We were generally seen as trying to report the news in a fair and straightforward manner. Today, all that has changed. For that, we can blame the 2016 election or, more accurately, how some news organizations chose to cover it.”: The problem in lacking standards has existed for a very long time before that, although it is conceivable that the trend has been slower in the U.S. than in e.g. Germany and Sweden. If the public has acquired a greater awareness of this problem through the reporting around the 2016 election, then this is a good thing—but, make no mistake, many were aware long before that. My own first complaints in writing are likely more than ten years old by now, and I had been an unhappy camper for a long time before that.

A particularly interesting claim:

The [New York] Times’ previous reputation for having the highest standards was legitimate. Those standards were developed over decades to force reporters and editors to be fair and to gain public trust. The commitment to fairness made The New York Times the flagship of American journalism. But standards are like laws in the sense that they are designed to guide your behavior in good times and in bad. Consistent adherence to them was the source of the Times’ credibility. And eliminating them has made the paper less than ordinary. Its only standards now are double standards.

While I cannot vouch for his estimate of the past of this paper, the trend well matches the problems and trends that I have seen elsewhere. Cf. e.g. portions of the my discussion of the Relotius fraud or my suggestions for a new press ethics [1] (and a number of links from these pages). In fact, if his claims about The New York Times hold true, it can be argued that my new press ethics is on many points just a return to an older press ethics …

Earlier today, I found an article on Minding the Campus dealing with the New York Times, specifically a recent, highly problematic Pulitzer Prize awarded for its highly problematic “The 1619 Project”. As discussed in this article and several preceding on the same site, there are grave problems with historically incorrect claims that even fairly basic fact checking would have caught—and which appear to have been made out of a wish to push a certain political angle relating to slavery, exploitation of Blacks, and similar, beyond what is warranted by actual history. (The alternative is gross incompetence, which, obviously, can never be ruled out when it comes to journalists.)

This, too, plays in well with some of my past writings, including (again) [1] and a portions of a recent text on fake news and COVID-19. In particular, we have here publications that at least partially* are “fake news”, journalistic fraud, “bad science”, or whatnot, yet are not only accepted as “non-fake news”—but actually wins Pulitzers …

*I have not studied the project in detail, myself, and I do not rule out that there is considerable valuable and correct content (but neither do I rule out that there is not). The deficits repeatedly detailed by Minding the Campus are, however, sufficiently extensive and severe as to make the whole irredeemably bad journalism, the type that rightfully should get journalists fired and “you will never work in this town again”-ed. But instead, again, it wins prestigious prizes …

Written by michaeleriksson

May 11, 2020 at 8:03 pm

The fake-news problem

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When it comes to the fake-news and hate-speech* issues, there are three overlapping aspects that have disturbed me for some time and that have been repeatedly illustrated during the recent COVID-19 reporting:

*I will mostly leave out hate speech, for simplicity, but similar abuse is common, e.g. that statements with the “wrong” political opinions are often condemned as “hate speech” in a blanket manner, and often after a severe distortion, exaggeration, or unproved claim of intent. Cf. e.g. portions of [1], [2], [3].

  1. What is considered fake news is determined less by objective criteria* than by (a) who said it, (b) whether it matches the perception** of scientific consensus or some other ideal, e.g. the ideological*** message a certain journalist or politician wants to push.****

    *E.g. statistics cited and arguments raised.

    **An important word: politicians and journalist often have the science incredible wrong, as with e.g. I.Q.—especially, when the ideas or consequences are not compatible with their ideological positions. Sadly, the same applies to many social scientists. In the Wikipedia consensus debates, it is often not a matter of establishing the true scientific consensus, but the consensus among the editors what the scientific consensus would be—or, even, just the consensus among the editors.

    ***While I have seen much more of such problems on the Left, especially in Sweden and Germany, the problem is by no means limited to the Left, especially in the U.S..

    ****Here and elsewhere: Note that there are many blatant cases of actually incorrect claims being described as “fake news” (e.g. “COVID-19 was created by Donald Trump to defeat China”). Here I concern myself with the more subtle, e.g. “COVID-19 numbers over-/understate the problem because X”. However, note that much of the same argumentation extends to more extreme cases due to the problems of (a) where to draw the border, (b) who decides. In particular, while COVID-19 is almost certainly not created by any government, it is not inconceivable that someone at some point in the future does try to direct an artificial virus against an enemy—and what if a rightful warning is shouted down with “Fake news! Fake news!” until it is too late?

    Was a particular text written (claim made, whatnot) by a journalist for a news-paper? Then it will almost always be considered “news”, no matter how poorly researched or reasoned it was. (And journalistic texts are poorly researched and poorly reasoned disturbingly often, and quite often incorrect too. Most of the exposure to actual “fake news” that the average person has is likely to come from journalists and politicians—exactly those complaining of “fake news” the loudest.)

    By a blogger? Might well be condemned as “fake news” even when the text is well-researched and well-reasoned. (The more so, all other factors equal, when poorly researched, but for non-journalists there is no guarantee even for a quality piece. Even actual scientists specializing in the area at hand might be condemned as spreading “fake news”.)

    Does the text match the perception of scientific consensus (the doctrine of the dominating ideology, whatnot)? If so, it will almost always be “news”.

    Does it go counter to the perception? If so, it is very likely to be “fake news”, even when it matches the real scientific consensus or when at least some reputable experts believe the same.

  2. There is no awareness of the risks involved in approaching a question with the attitude “this is the truth and no-one has a right to say the opposite” (instead of “I am almost certain that this is the truth, but let us look impartially at the arguments for and against each side”).

    While many perceived truths have been truths or very good approximations* of the truth, they have also often been wrong—and there is often a long period during which we cannot say for certain whether a perceived truth actually is the truth. When no-one is allowed to question these perceived truths, this might or might not be beneficial when they are truths, but it is highly damaging when they are not and they are allowed to hang on long past their expiration date. Indeed, those who have raised new and unconventional ideas that were correct have often been disbelieved, ridiculed, or even per- or prosecuted, as with criticism of many issues relating to religion or kooky ideas like evolution and continental drift. Today, sadly, even well established actual truths can lead to condemnation when they do not fit the ideologically imposed new “truth”, as with e.g. the influence of inborn factors on behavior or success in life.**

    *Even in science, it is par for the course that well established, strongly-supported-by-evidence theories are refined over time. Even something that, in some sense, actually is true is not necessarily the last word on the issue.

    **Indeed, here it is not uncommon that the mere mention of the possibility is met with a storm of outrage, e.g. that someone is condemned as a disgusting sexist for even contemplating the possibility of men and women (viewed as groups) having different inborn preferences for math and nursing.

    For my part, I have always found that my insight grows the most when I listen* to different positions and opposing arguments. This sometimes even for the patently absurd**; very often, when there is some room for doubt. This type of campaign does not just imply that the campaigner is denying himself the benefit of such growth, but that he is actively trying to prevent others from gaining it. Worse, any serious attempt at debate risks drowning in name calling, where whoever has the most or loudest supporters wins—not whoever has the best arguments. It certainly relieves the one party of the duty of providing own arguments.

    *A partial explanation for the problems discussed here could be that some are unable to understand the difference between “listens to” and “sympathizes with” or even “will be converted to”. (Possibly, because they are themselves so weak critical thinkers that they might be convinced in the same situation …)

    **For instance, consider the deeply flawed anti-evolution argument that evolution is like having monkeys type randomly in order to reproduce Shakespeare. It is almost entirely without merit and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what it attempts to disprove—but understanding why it is without merit, etc., can help someone develop his own understanding. Notably, most people who “believe” in evolution do so just because they have been told that it is true—not because they have any own insight into the matter.

  3. It is a massive threat to freedom of speech, especially when entities like Facebook are more-or-less forced to track down and delete what is considered “fake news”, “hate speech”, whatnot. (Note recent political trends to enforce just such obligations, as well as the voluntary or “voluntary” efforts by such entities on their own.)

    For free speech to be worth anything, it is not enough that someone has the legal* right to speak his mind. It is also necessary that he is protected from attempts at sabotage, intimidation, ad hominem** attacks, whatnot. This includes the wide range of “fake news” accusations. If a certain claim or set of claims is false beyond a reasonable doubt, it is better for all parties (possibly, excepting the accuser) if this falsity is demonstrated, than if it is just met with outraged screams of “Fake news!”. If it is not false beyond a reasonable doubt, on the other hand, then the outraged screams are entirely and utterly inappropriate.

    *But note that even this right is increasingly under challenge.

    **Excepting those very rare cases when the man is actually relevant to the issue. Either the arguments for and against are sufficiently clear, and there is no reason to attack the man; or they are not, and then it is the more important that we focus on the issue, not the man.

(And, yes, there is some overlap between these items and opinions that I have expressed in more generic contexts, including free speech, intellectual honesty, and “scientific mindedness”. And, yes, like with COVID-19, we might well have a situation where the attempted counter-measures do more damage than the original problem.)

Indeed, many appear so sure of the truth of a matter, the benefits/dangers of a certain behavior, whatnot, that they are willing to exaggerate or outright lie, slander and libel, use intellectually dishonest arguments, etc., just to ensure that others land at the “right” opinion. (Cf. e.g. portions of [4], as with the attempts to trick children into believing that “snus” comes from chamber pots, to ensure that they stay away from it.)

This is, obviously, quite incompatible with the ideals of a good journalist—someone who realizes that it is his job to report so that others can form their own opinions, not to just shove his opinion down their throats. (Cf. [5], which also covers some of the same ground as the current text.) If anything, a journalist should expose and criticize common misperceptions and -conceptions—not perpetuate them.

Worse, I cannot suppress the suspicion that at least some journalists abuse the “fake news” formula to discredit non-journalists, so that they can save their own industry—at a time when the quality of journalism, news-papers, etc., is at a disastrous low. I do note that the term “fake news” first became wide-spread in Germany (but not internationally) in the wake of the reverse accusation of “Lügenpresse” (see [5] for an explanation).

As an aside, the sheer quantity of accusation along these lines (“fake news”, “hate speech”, “racism”, …) has grown so long and contained so many unjustified cases, that I consider the current press and a great portion of the current politicians/parties as “the boy who cried wolf” (and I am hardly alone in this, something which should give the accusers reason to reconsider their approach):

By now, I tend to view any and all accusations from certain groups with extreme skepticism, sometimes to the point of having a subconscious reaction* in the other direction, and I expect them to support their own claims and opinions with the more evidence before I believe them (but they hardly ever do). Moreover, in some cases, I must suspect that the reason for this type of accusation is the lack of own evidence, which then is a rational indication that the accuser is in the wrong.** Indeed, these constant cries of wolf have strongly contributed to my changed take on man-made global warming, from “definitely real” to “I do not know”—my previous belief was based on claims made by journalists and politicians, experience shows that I cannot trust their claims, and I have (to date) never done the leg work to actually form an independent opinion on the matter.

*E.g. in that claims like “X is Y!” subconsciously cause me to view “X is not Y” as more likely without looking at the evidence, or in that I have some degree of automatic sympathies for X.

**Not to be confused with the more automatic reaction of the previous footnote. A good example is “The Bell Curve”, where the vast majority of the criticism seems to be some variation of “It is racist!”, while very few bother to explain why it would be racist and many of the accusers simply have never read it or engaged with its content in any other non-trivial manner—they are merely repeating what they have been told to believe. Moreover, the ‘It is racist!” typically serves as a blanket condemnation, without any attempt to analyze any individual points of the book, some of which might have been true and/or thought-worthy, even had the book been racist. As an extreme example, the first German animal-rights laws were instituted by the (indisputably racist, genocidal, and otherwise problematic) Nazis. Should we, then, automatically conclude that animal rights is something negative? Should these laws have been automatically repealed after the fall of Nazi-Germany?

Written by michaeleriksson

April 8, 2020 at 10:23 pm

Journalistic fraud II

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Yesterday, I published a text on gross journalistic fraud; today, I am met with news sources claiming that RTL* has discovered at least seven cases of deliberate manipulation by one of its employees**… According to e.g. [1] (in German), the proofs are sufficiently clear that the employee has been summarily fired. Further checks of work stretching back twelve years is under way.

*One of the largest German TV senders.

**Original sources use “Mitarbeiter”, which is vaguer than “employee” and might well refer to a non-employed collaborator. Depending on (unknown) context, another translation might be better.

While these individual cases do not necessarily say anything about the typical reporting,* they are a very bad sign—and they do make clear that we must not “believe everything written in the paper”, be it literally or metaphorically. Moreover, they point to a considerable need for media to improve its fact-checking.

*There are thousands of journalists, TV reporters, and whatnots active on a daily basis in Germany alone. Even a small percentage of fraudsters will lead to a non-trivial number of cases.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 14, 2019 at 5:47 pm

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Journalistic fraud

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As a frequent* critic of journalism and journalists, I surprisingly managed to miss one of the biggest journalistic disasters in decades—the outright, large scale fraud perpetrated by Der Spiegel reporter and repeated award-winner Claas Relotius. (See e.g. an extensive Der Spiegel text [1] and other texts linked from there, as well as English Wikipedia [2] and German Wikipedia [3].)

*See e.g. [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9].

Notwithstanding that I am half a year late to the party, there is plenty here that I wish to discuss, especially in the light of the “Lügenpresse”* and “fake news” controversies.

*A derogatory German word for the press, often used by populists. A reasonable literal translation is “press of lies”; a more idiomatically plausible, “liar press”.

Until now, I have considered “Lügenpresse” to be mostly a misattribution of intention, where the true issue is not deliberate lies but a mixture of differences of opinion, the indisputable ideological slant of too many journalists, and the ever-manifesting absurd incompetence of journalists—a failure to apply Hanlon’s razor by those critical of journalism. Events like these make me wonder. Is this a single, regrettable instance*, or is it just the top of the ice-berg?

*A cliched, almost knee-jerk claim by German organizations, when exposed to criticism, is that a particular problem is a “bedauerlicher Einzelfall”—this even when there is good reason to believe that the problem is either occurring often or a sign of a more pervasive underlying problem.

Journalistic fraud does exist, two of the more well-known instances being Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night and the scandal around Stern* and Hitler’s diaries, and I see at least two causes why it might be relatively common today: Firstly, the move towards more free-lancing journalists and the need to be published to earn money, including that some online sources (e.g. Slant) pay writers based on clicks on their articles. If fiddling with the facts, or even outright invention, brings a better chance of being paid and/or more payment, then it can safely be assumed that some** will cheat. Secondly, many journalists are strongly Left-leaning, engaged in the PC movement, and/or see themselves as world-improvers. Looking at such people elsewhere, notably in the blogosphere and in general politics, they often have a “the end justifies the means” attitude and are very prejudiced about what their opponents and perceived enemies actually believe, say, do, whatnot. As with them, it would be unsurprising if some journalists fell for the temptation to fiddle with the facts to show the “truth”—e.g. that a “known” xenophobe who denies being one is “revealed” through some fake statements or untrue allegations.*** In addition, there is great reason to believe that “artistic liberties” are common, e.g. through exaggeration, presenting speculation as fact, oversimplification, paraphrasing while claiming to quote (also see an excursion), misleading translation,**** quoting out of context, use of unattributed and unverified material from others to flesh out own researches, … While these are typically less harmful, they often still leave readers with a faulty impression and are highly disputable from an ethical point of view.

*Another German magazine and one of Der Spiegel’s main competitors.

**How many is a very different question, and only speculation is possible without actual investigation. I do note, however, that some press reactions mentioned in [3] could point to a fairly large problem, including that Georg Altrogge claims that Der Spiegel could have provided fertile ground (“Nährboden”) for cheats through its story-telling attitude, that Michael Hopp admits to having cheated extensively (“immer viel”) himself, that Dirk Gieselmann (another award-winner) has been fired from several magazines, …

***This not to be confused with blanket claims that e.g. “X is a xenophobe”, “X is extreme Right”, etc., which do abound but might be explainable through prejudice or ignorance even when actually incorrect. These too are a problem, but they are not necessarily fraudulent. To boot, many U.S. claims about e.g. “racist” are rooted in a lack of understanding what “racist” means, including confusing it with “racial”. (A good example is a reference to the German AfD as “far Right” that I saw while reading up for this text. The claim is at best an exaggeration, even the uselessness of the term “Right” aside, but might well be explainable by the foreign source being ignorant of German politics and/or simply having uncritically listened to one of AfDs many, mostly Leftist, detractors.)

****During the invasion of Iraq (when I still occasionally watched TV), the German news senders often distorted English originals. My memories are understandably vague, but consider e.g. a scenario where a U.S. spokesman says “we do not know” one day, which is rendered as “the U.S. denies”, and the spokesman says “now we know—and it is true” a few days later, which is then rendered as “the U.S. has been forced to admit”. This is not to be confused with mistranslations out of ignorance or carelessness, which are quite common too.

Fact checking is a critical issue in journalism: Apparently, Der Spiegel has one of the largest fact-checking departments around and prides it self on its attention to detail. That it did not do its job well enough is quite clear, and this has been a source of criticism. However, I might be willing to overlook this instance—the main purpose of “internal”* fact-checking is to discover errors made by honest authors, e.g. through sloppy work, memory errors, or similar. Indeed, some amount of fact-checking is needed even by the author, himself. Detecting whole-sale invention or large-scale deliberate manipulation is a secondary purpose, potentially a lot harder to do, and there were no obvious signs that a greater-than-usual diligence was needed here**. When we look at the overall situation, however, it is quite dire: The lack of fact-checking, insight, and critical thinking displayed again and again, in article after article, is horrifying. A reasonable famous example is the 1990s reports of women overtaking men in distance running, which I dealt with in parts of an older text on simplistic reasoning. Or consider the time when I encountered an FAZ*** article speaking of the age (!) of the universe in light(!)years. Or consider the many, many variations of the long debunked 77 cents on the dollar fraud, which simply does not hold up to critical thinking. Or how about my discussion in [9]? This is a massive problem in the world of journalism.

*E.g. by a magazine with regard to its authors, as opposed to by a magazine with regard to politicians.

**In contrast, with Hitler’s diaries such diligence was quite obviously needed, and there we have a true fact-checking scandal.

***The most prestigious daily paper in Germany.

Indeed, the disputable attitude towards fact checking, critical thinking, etc. is displayed by two quotes from [1]:

The fact-checking and research department at DER SPIEGEL is the journalist’s natural enemy

A sound attitude would be the exact opposite: It is the (competent and professional) journalist’s best friend.

You [the editor] are more interested in evaluating the story based on criteria such as craftsmanship, dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images than on whether it’s actually true.

WTF!!! I am at loss for words to express how idiotic, how mindlessly unprofessional, how fraudulent this attitude is. To boot, claims like “dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images” bring us to another problem with journalism:

The focus on entertainment over information. The purpose of journalism is to bring information to the people—not entertainment and certainly not fake news. If I want to be entertained by something not true, there is always “Harry Potter”. A journalist (ditto, m.m., a news-paper or magazine) who forgets this is not worthy of his job.

Worse, this attitude usually leads to horrendously poor writing, as exemplified by several of the quotes of Claas Relotius articles that I encountered: this is supposed to be award-winning journalism?!? This cheesy, uninformative, emotionally manipulative nonsense!?!?

To get a better impression, I tried to read one of his works, specifically the infamous El Paso text/“Jaegers Grenze”* (co-authored by Moreno) that brought on the revelations. I started skimming after about a quarter and stopped reading entirely about half-way through: as far as journalism goes, it is horrible, even the fraud aspect aside. It is uninformative, speculative, jumps randomly from sub-topic to sub-topic, lacks a clear purpose, is filled with uninteresting trivia, and has a style of writing more suitable for a pure work of fiction—but it fails to reach the level of good fiction. This is the type of writing that makes me loathe reading the works of journalists—even were every word true, it would be a poor read. Still, Relotius won award after award… These awards might show an even greater problem than Relotius cheating: an anti-journalistic, pro-entertainment, and reader-despising attitude obviously present in journalism in general.

*In German. Beware that a warning note by Der Spiegel states that the text remains published until an internal commission has finished its investigation, with the implication that it might be removed afterwards.

Indeed, many of the articles on the scandal are themselves proof of poor journalism and writing, e.g. an apology piece on Fergus Falls, where there is an undue* amount of first-person perspective, irrelevant detail, and misguided and amateurish “human interest” angles, as e.g. with** “He laughs when I ask him if he’s angry. We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor. “I first thought the article was a piece of satire,” says Becker. “I don’t feel offended at all.” He says he thought the writer was friendly – and he still does today. A nice guy. Becker says he’s worried about him.”—further proof that the typical journalist is best kept away from journalism.

*Not all first-person perspective is undue, e.g. because a certain text deals with or draws on personal experiences, attempts to differ between fact and own opinion, tries to give the author’s take of an issue, … This is the case with many of my own texts (and this sentence is it self an example of a valid use) and the quotes of what Becker said above are examples of legitimate uses, because his side of the story is the topic. However, this is only rarely relevant to journalism, which should strive to be as disconnected from the author as possible (for instance, if the journalist had made Becker’s statements, they would have been out of place). Moreover, very many journalist uses miss the point entirely, amounting to irrelevant nonsense—as e.g. with the above “We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor.”, which is pointless “human interest” blurb for the dumbest of the readers.

**The quoted text in original used “type writer” quotes around the statements by Becker. If they appear as “fancy” quotes, WordPress has distorted them.

If we look at the tendency of the fakery by Relotius, there are some that could be seen as potentially distortive Leftist propaganda including “Touchdown” (a piece on Kaepernick), “Jaegers Grenze” (bigoted White men vs. a Honduran woman), and “In einer kleinen Stadt” (people in Fergus Falls dislike Mexicans). Looking at the overall list from [3], I am inclined give the benefit of a doubt and assume that he is mostly looking for sob stories, “human interest” stories, and similar; however, it is noteworthy that journalists (in at least Germany and Sweden) tend to be Left-leaning and often slant their reporting accordingly. This includes Der Spiegel and, to a very high degree, its “Spiegel Online” (“SPON”) sister, where the mixture of low quality and ever-recurring Leftist thought eventually drove me away.*

*The last straw was an opinion piece calling for journalists to be activists, to throw away objectivity, and to fulfill their “democratic role” (“demokratische Aufgabe”) by telling people what to think—and it does so while painting an incorrect picture of the scope and (partially) character of immigration resistance, alleging Right-wing hatred while ignoring the larger problem on the Left, over-looking the already strong Leftist media-bias, etc. This is exactly what a good journalist must not do, and the fact that too many journalists have already gone down this path is a major reason why current journalism is so useless. Indeed, that piece was strongly on my mind when I wrote my suggestions for a new press ethics (cf. [6]).

Juan Moreno, who first* saw through the fraud and pushed for investigations, is an interesting contrast, giving me some hope that the profession of journalism is not entirely beyond redemption. To boot, I can sympathize strongly with his adversities through my own experiences as someone with the ability to spot potential problems, and who often has been met with disbelief worthy of a Cassandra or even the accusation of having a hidden agenda. (Later events have usually proved me right.)

*Or was he? Possibly, others preceded him, but lacked the integrity, courage, and/or persistence to achieve his results… [3] points to some known suspicions as early as 2017…

Excursion on my own experiences with the press:
I can give two pertinent examples relating to myself in the press (both from my youth in Sweden; both relating to “Bergslagsposten”, the small local paper):

Firstly, and fairly harmlessly, I was one of several library visitors polled by a journalist concerning our reading preferences. My answers to several questions were pieced together and presented as a much more fluent version—appearing to be a direct quote. (An interesting, but off-topic, parallel is found in a recent text on the German police.)

Secondly, I wrote several “letters to the editor”—that all invariably were mangled in various ways, e.g. through introducing spelling errors not present in the original or leaving out words. Some excuse might have been found in my poor hand-writing, but this continued even when I switched to typing.* I remember particularly well how repeated uses of “ideologi” (“ideology”) or one of its variations were changed to (likely) “idologi” through-out one text. The frequency of such problems was so large that I am not willing to apply Hanlon’s Razor. Instead, I must conclude that deliberate manipulations to my disadvantage took place. (While I cannot say for certain by whom, I strongly suspected a junior-staff member of the paper who was also a member of the semi-rabid youth organization of the Communist Party—seeing that my letters were often critical of the strongly Left-leaning Swedish society and that I was a known member of a libertarian and neo-liberal youth organization.)

*Note that this was at a time when computers and printers were much rarer than today.

Disclaimer: I wrote most of the above a few weeks ago. I have not verified that the various links contain the same contents at the time of publication as they did at the time of writing.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 13, 2019 at 8:22 pm

Suggestions for a new press ethics / the indirect effects of fake news

with 7 comments

It is no secret that I am deeply troubled by the incompetence, irrationality, and partiality of journalists*. For some years, the short-comings of journalism have seen a partial cure through independent, Internet-based, sources of news and opinions. True, the average blogger is worse than the average journalist, but there are very many bloggers who make journalists look clueless.** True, many of the independent news sites are even more partial than traditional news papers, but they are partial in different directions and help to give readers a different perspective and to overcome the censorship*** and partisan angling that is common in journalism.

*For the sake of simplicity, I will mostly speak of “journalist”, “news paper”, and similar. This should not be taken to exclude e.g. TV news, TV reporters, and the like. The problem is a general one with traditional news media.

**And, frankly, when I hear journalists speak derisively about bloggers, or complain about bloggers not treating “real journalists” with sufficient respect, I marvel at their conceit and lack of self-insight.

***Usually driven by a fear that the readers will come to the “wrong” conclusion (i.e. another conclusion than journalist has) if exposed to the uninterpreted and unfiltered facts.

The new phenomenon of “fake news” threatens to end this cure: Firstly, the presence of “fake news” makes alternative sources of news less likely to be trusted to begin with. Secondly, traditional media and their allies are campaigning massively for more censorship against “fake news”. If that happens, even those alternative sources that engage in honest reporting could end up suffering severely, (E.g. because platforms like Facebook could choose to censor on the mere suspicion or because of uninformed or malicious complaints directed at actual news. This problem is worsened by the simultaneous increase in complaints against “hate-speech”—which, sadly and real occurrences of hate-speech notwithstanding, quite often amounts to nothing more than disagreeing with the politically correct “truth”) Considering how these things tend to run, it would also not be unsurprising if the bars were pushed higher and higher over time, giving traditional news sources their monopoly back. The meaning of “fake news” could very soon turn from actual fakes (“Trump is an alien”) to that which violates the world-view of the journalists or the politically correct (in Sweden, possibly, a study indicating differences between men and women that are in-born and not caused by societal brain-washing).

Depending on developments, “fake news” per se could prove to be a smaller problem than these side-effects…

Given this situation I have to call for another cure through a new type of press ethics based on strict adherence to principles like:

  1. To always report the facts in a manner that allows the readers to form their own opinions—even if they happen to deviate from the journalist’s. This includes not selectively filtering facts that that are unpleasant or incongruent with the journalist’s world view, and not presuming to be an arbiter of what is relevant and what not. (Except to the degree that space constraints prevent a listing of all details that e.g. Sherlock Holmes might have liked to hear.)
  2. Never to assume that journalists are more clever, better informed, better at critical thinking, …, than their readers. Quite often, the assumption is faulty even for the average reader—and it will virtually never be true for a significant part of the readership.
  3. Never to mix news and opinion. Opinion belongs in opinion pieces. If a journalist wants to express a certain opinion, he should keep the news clean and write a separate opinion piece, clearly marked as such. More often than not opinion pieces will be irrelevant; when they are relevant contrasting opinions should be allowed a say.

    As a notable special case, issues of ethics, “right and wrong”, …, are always (?) a matter of opinion, and, if ever, such opinions should only be applied when they are supported by a virtual consensus of the population. In many cases, a better solution is to contrast something against a specific set of rules. (E.g. by preferring “X’s article violates several rules of press ethics suggested by Michael Eriksson” rather than “X’s article is unethical”.)

  4. Ditto news and analysis, with the addendum that analysis is usually better left to an independent expert on the matter at hand than to a journalist (and that analysis might be relevant far more often than opinion). A good analysis, of course, will give all sides of the issue a fair hearing and will not be limited to using one particular approach. (Unless using the approach is uncontroversial: Solving a mathematical equation usually leads to the same result irrespective of which (sound) approach is used; however, a fiscal measure can lead to very different expected results when analyzed with different models.)

    I point especially to the many, many instances of journalists encountering a scientific study and jumping to a conclusion that is premature, only one of several possible, or simply nonsensical. Even something so trivial is often not understood as that “the study failed to show X” does not automatically imply “the study showed not-X”.

  5. To understand that the “common wisdom” among journalists, politicians, and the average citizen is often very far from what science actually says and to give preference to scientific opinion over personal opinion when reporting.
  6. To, as a counter-point, understand that not everyone who claims to be an expert actually is, that scientists often differ in opinion, and that the softer sciences are often fraught with ideological concerns.

    Experts tied to political or ideological movements are particularly likely (deliberately or through a biased world-view) to make flawed claims. To boot, the risk of encountering “experts” who simple lack the intelligence, tools, and/or depth and breadth of knowledge is considerably higher when talking with a member of a movement than with, say, a university professor.

  7. To always respect and convey any uncertainty present, especially in a legal context. For instance, someone suspected or accused of murder should always be referred to as “murder suspect” (and so on). In fact, considering how many miscarriages of justice take place, it is better to speak in terms of “convict”, “convicted”, and similar, even after a suspect has been found guilty—and to speak in terms “found guilty” rather than “guilty”. (In the U.S. system of bartering confessions for less punishment, not even a confession can be seen as conclusive proof of guilt.)
  8. To always give both parties in a controversy an equal say (or at least the opportunity for it) and to never side with either one in a news item. (That a journalist will side with one or the other in private is often unavoidable.) Siding within an opinion piece or analysis might or might not be justifiable depending on the circumstances, but it is clear that the siding should be based in reason and not emotions or prejudices about the parties involved.
  9. To never distort or exaggerate someones opinions or statements, including making assumptions about intent, motivation, inner state, unstated opinions, etc. A particular problematic case (that I have often complained about) is distortions like someone protesting against (militant) Islamism but being categorized as anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. Another is the common assumption or claim that someone is racist or sexist based even on a factual, scientifically uncontroversial claim that does not fit the own world-view.

I stress that this list is by no means complete. There are likely many items of a similar type that can be added, with an even greater number coming from other areas, at least some of which are present in many current attempts at similar lists*. I could probably write several blog entries alone on journalists’ use of language… Admittedly, these several blog entries would be on the wrong abstraction level for a discussion of press ethics, but the point is that there other problem areas.

*While much of the above goes contrary to what many journalists appear to consider their role and would imply a major change of course.

I further stress that this list is intended for journalists and their like. Some of it can be taken to apply to e.g. bloggers or commenters too, especially where issues like representation of others’ opinions and other matters of “intellectual honesty” are concerned; however, much of it is simply irrelevant, redundant, or impractical when we move away from traditional journalism. (Starting with something as simple readers’ expectations: Blog–personal opinion. News paper–facts.)

As an aside: It is almost funny that the “fake news” debate has started in the wake of increased criticism of the press (at least in Germany). Even the phrase it self is close to the “Lügenpresse” (“lie press”, “liar press”) used by some German groups to belittle the press. While “Lügenpresse” has caused an outrage among journalists, I can only see it as unfair on two counts: Being too much of a blanket claim, seeing that some areas are worse than others, and ascribing a deliberate intent to the reality distortion that is often going on. More often than not, I suspect, it is just incompetence, in particular lack of critical thinking, that causes the distortion.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 25, 2017 at 12:07 am