Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

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

Wasting a reader’s interest

with 2 comments

A personal annoyance in the writing of others, is when they waste my time, interest, or concentration. This not (necessarily) because the topic is uninteresting, not because the text is poorly researched, not because there is a severe clash of style preferences,* whatnot—but because the text contains too much that is off-topic, sprinkles a minimum of information in a sea of text, is written without regard to how it will be read, … This in particular in the initial portions of the text.

*As might be the case with many of my own text vs. much of the potential readership.

A good illustration is found in the documentation of my Linux-system: When listing the options for many programs, some nitwits start the respective description with a “This option” (or a similar formulation), as with e.g. the “man page” for xwininfo:

 [...] 

-id id This option allows the user to specify […]

-name name This option allows the user to specify that […]

-root This option specifies that […]

-int This option specifies that […]

-children This option causes the root […]

-tree This option is […]

-stats This option causes the display of various attributes pertaining to the […]

-bits This option causes the display of various attributes pertaining to the […]

-events This option causes the selected window’s […]

-size This option causes the selected window’s […]

[…]

Note how not only “This option” is repeated again and again, but also how further words with little impact often follow, and how much repetition there is. Further, how unnecessary filler is sometimes present even when the author manifestly can do it more economically. (Compare the equivalent formulations “This option allows the user to specify” and “This option specifies”, which are both used in the text.)

The effect? The user starts with the option (e.g. “-stats”), finds the next few words to be pointless, and either looses his concentration or wastes his time. Trying to scan this type of documentation is outright frustrating to me, because: (a) My brain is hit with a steady stream of “This option”, “This option”, “This option”, ad nauseam. (b) It is often impossible to just keep my eyes on the options, scan downwards, and get information about the option at the same time. When I want to just move my eyes down, I instead have to move them to the right, back to the left, then down, etc.

The first sentence, in full, for the “-name” option is “This option allows the user to specify a target window id on the command line rather than using the mouse to select the target window.”. Consider instead “Specifies a target window id on the command line rather than using the mouse to select the target window.” or even “Specifies a target window id.” or possibly even “Target window id.”—all of which would work better in the context of Linux documentation. Note how the important information is pushed forward and how fewer irrelevant words are present. If more details are needed, they can be given in subsequent sentences.

Journalistic writing is particularly troublesome, including through mixing in irrelevant human interest angels. However, its paramount example is what I would consider the “anti-hook”—an introduction to a text that kills the wish to read said text.

Consider e.g. a poor “New Yorker” piece: The article is preceded by a summary that actually caught my curiosity (“My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest.”).* Alas, my interest was soon killed again…

*I do not think highly of what I have seen from this magazine in the past, I visited for the specific purpose of finding an example to use, and was surprised to actually see my interest caught, if ever so briefly. As is, I hit the jack-pot in terms of an example.

The first paragraph has nothing obvious to do with the promised topic. It starts with “The piping on the red snowsuit was yellow, and on the green snowsuit it was blue: fire-engine red, sunflower yellow, summer-grass green, deep-ocean blue, the palette of preschool, the colors in a set of finger paints.”, and continues with another 86* words of a similar style and low relevance.

*All word counts by copy-and-paste into the command wc.

The next paragraph, surely, proceeds with the topic? No, it does not. Here follows more about snow suits and teddy bears. The third paragraph? Starts with a recollection of giving birth… But, true, here the best friend and laptops are actually introduced. Paragraph four is mostly filler, detailing how the author started the lap top, using 241 words, including formulations like “I plugged in a power cord attached to an adapter the size of a poundcake, but when I pried open the laptop sharp bits of steel-gray plastic broke off like chipped teeth, and the hinges cracked, and the screen fell away from the keyboard and dangled, like a mostly decapitated head, the Anne Boleyn of Apples.”—for the love of Steve Wozniak!

802 (!!!) words precede the point where the author actually starts to read what her friend left behind. (“‘Transitions’ turned out to be notes she’d taken on a book published in 1980 called ‘Transitions: […]”) Of course, this is a point of the text that I would normally not have reached. Instead, I would likely have bowed out after the first paragraph, annoyed at having my time wasted and knowing from experience what such a first paragraph typically implies about the rest of the text. On a generous day, or with a less disastrous intro, I might have extended a second chance and read the next paragraph too, but that would be the absolute limit.

From a very superficial skimming through the rest of the text, is appears to be similarly low in information, filled with poor writing and verbal diarrhea, and dealing more with the author than with the friend… I am not a fan of the 500-word essay, as should be obvious from my own writings, but forcing this woman to write nothing except 500-word essays for a few months would do her a world of good.

This example is the more absurd as the author appears to have cared a great deal for this friend—and she still unleashes such an abomination of a text on the world in her “honor”…

Of course, such extremes are rare even within journalism; however, the attempt to use some type of hook is quite common—and it usually backfires. A hook is a legitimate means of starting a text, and is often one of the first recommendations a beginning writer gets, but it must serve its purpose—to actually hook the reader. Moreover, there is a wide variety of cases when a hook is, at best, a waste of time, because the reader already intended to read the text.* For instance, above, I was made curious by the summary, I hoped for something that matched this summary, and the first paragraph was then entirely off topic (and highly dubious in other regards too). If the first paragraph was intended as a hook, it was a complete failure, because (a) I did not need to be hooked, (b) I had an interest that it failed to meet and stimulate, (c) it turned me off from reading the rest of the text. (In contrast, the summary could have made a good hook, had it been the first paragraph.) Similarly, if I have made a search for a topic, then I visit the links found to learn about the topic. A hook will not serve to deepen my interest—only to waste time before I actually get to the information…

*It could even be argued that hooks are always ill-advised, because the hook will only ever have an effect when it is read—and it is only read when someone actually starts on the text. However, some allowances might be made for scenarios like a news-paper reader filtering which articles are worth reading and which not. (If you find something looking like a hook in my texts, it is more likely to be coincidence than design.)

Similarly, if not strictly speaking a hook or anti-hook, some texts waste a lot of the reader’s time with explanations of why it would be beneficial for him to read the text that he is already reading, or why the topic would be important. Why not assume that the reader, who is already reading the text, is sufficiently interested in the topic?!?

Another variation (that I have often seen in Germany) is an article that has a certain title, a summary that is a more verbose version of the title with some new information added, and a first paragraph that does the same to the summary, effectively being nothing but another summary. The result is a great amount of repetition and redundancy that wastes time and my interest. For a hypothetical example:

Man bites dog

Yesterday, a man in Kentucky bit a pit-bull in the leg for urinating on his bicycle.

A Kentucky sales clerk lost his temper yesterday, as Fido, a peaceful pit-bull, urinated on his bicycle. He then viciously bit poor Fido in the leg. Fido was saved as its owner bravely intervened.

[Paragraphs two and onward]

Note that the information added at each step is not necessarily that relevant. For instance, that the man was in Kentucky will rarely be of value at such an early stage of the text, and the suspicion of mere filler is warranted. (But mentioning it in the main text might be valuable.) For instance, what does it matter what the dog was named? In contrast, that Fido was a pit-bull can be interesting in the context of who-bit-whom, and the urination aspect could partially explain the unexpected behavior—and both facts are reasonable inclusions.

Consider instead either dropping the summary or removing the first paragraph and its implied second summary. The casual reader, who uses them to decide whether to read on or as a means to get an overview without reading on, will only need one of the two. The more intent reader sees his time wasted. For a short enough main text, removing both might be the best solution.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 10, 2019 at 10:37 am

Some thoughts around a personal anecdote / suppression of information

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Looking over some old posts, I found a footnote dealing with suppression of information from a discussion:

As aside, there might be some PC-extremists that actually deliberately use such formulations, because they see every sign of sex (race, nationality, religion, …) as not only irrelevant in any context, but as outright harmful, because “it could strengthen stereotypes”, or similar. Not only would this be a fanaticism that goes beyond anything defensible, it also severely damages communications: Such information is important in very many contexts, because these characteristics do have an effect in these contexts. (And it is certainly not for one party do selectively decide which of these contexts are relevant and which not.) For instance, if someone cries, the typical implications for a male and a female (or a child and an adult) are very different. Ditto, if a catholic and a protestant marriage is terminated. Etc.

This brought to my mind an incident with a colleague* some years ago, which well illustrates the problems of such information suppression—and does so even in the face of the most stubborn PC objections**.

*And, yes, he was fairly strongly PC. In another incident, he tried to defend the throwing of eggs at immigration critics when we discussed free speech—he did not seem to see the contradiction with his alleged support of free speech…

**E.g. “that the implications of a male crying are different is just a result of societal brain-washing; ergo, it is even more important that we leave such information out, in order to reduce the brain-washing”.

Our discussion (paraphrased from memory and into English):

He: Huh! It says in the paper that a German killed his daughter over pre-marital sex.*

*Or something similar of the “honor” variety, e.g. having the “wrong” boy-friend.

I: Really?!? Was it a “German German” or a Turk* or something?

*Contextually taken to be someone of Turkish ethnicity living in Germany.

He: Yeah, well, um, yeah, I mean, it waaas a Turk, but I did not want to, um, say it like that…

Firstly, such attempts at censorship waste time, can cause unnecessary confusion, and can make something seem more “newsworthy” than it actually is. (Note the idea that “man bites dog” is news, while “dog bites man” is not. In this case: while honor killings are rare even among Turks, they are virtual unheard of among “German Germans”.)

Secondly, and more importantly: by not providing such information, limits on (in this case) the group of perpetrators are removed and a greater number of innocents are potentially implicated. It is true that those uninformed or weak in critical thinking might build an image of the typical Turk as an “honor murderer”, and I can at least understand the PC case for wanting to avoid this.* However, by not keeping the limiting information, aspersions are now cast on the group of men or the group of fathers: if there was a danger before, it remains and it is extended to a larger group—and the proportion of the innocent in this group is higher yet. This is particularly unfortunate in this specific case, because of the great amount of Feminist propaganda directed at painting a faulty** picture of men as abusers of women—to the point that “mäns våld mot kvinnor” (“men’s violence against women”) is one of the most common phrases in Swedish politics, bordering on being a slogan. To boot, this abuse is often implied to serve the deliberate purpose of oppressing women, for which the above killing would have been a splendid example.

*But I stress that I do not agree with it: Presuming to be a filter of information or an arbiter of what others are allowed to know is inherently dangerous. (If in doubt, because it rests on an assumption of knowledge and understanding on behalf of the presumptive arbiter that could be faulty—and, indeed, virtually always is faulty with the PC crowd.) Moreover, I very strongly disagree with denying knowledge (or e.g. self-determination) to those with a brain in order to protect those without one. (And if we try to separate people into groups by e.g. the ability to think, how can we be certain that the arbiter and the criteria are sufficiently good?) Then there is the issue of filtering out information that does apply to a very significant portion of the group. (E.g. through denying that crime rates in a certain group are far higher than in the rest of the population.)

**In reality, women are violent towards men slightly more often than vice versa, and men are far more likely to be victims of violence overall.

From another perspective, if he had been right in censoring the ethnicity of the father, why was he not obliged to leave out “father” (and the implied “man”)? Why not say “parent”? What makes the one piece of information acceptable/relevant/whatnot and the other not?

In some cases, information is sufficiently prima facie relevant or irrelevant that a decision is easy. For instance, that is was a parent (or other close relative) has an impact on the type of crime, and that it happened in (or in relation to) Germany made the incident more personally relevant* than had it happened in some random place in the world. On the other hand, the hair-color of the involved persons would almost** always be irrelevant, except in as far as it revealed*** something more significant. More generally, it can be tricky—especially, when different people have different priorities, interests, and “open questions”.

*At least for some people and/or for some types of news.

**I point to The Red-Headed League for a fictional counter-example, and note that there might, in real-life, e.g. be situations where violence involving people of rarer hair-colors might be more likely for personal reasons.

***For instance, if the hair-color is locally rare, it might point to a tourist or an immigrant, either of which has a considerably higher degree of prima facie relevance. (While this is unlikely to apply to Germany, it might very well apply to e.g. Nigeria and Japan.)

While I can see the case against providing too much information, I see a stronger case against providing too little and would prefer if e.g. journalists erred on the side of too much. Say that a man has beaten a woman: What is the effect of just saying “man” and what of saying “an uneducated, unemployed male alcoholic with a prior criminal record”?* Whether that much information will always be relevant, I leave unstated, but more information would help to build a more nuanced world-view and to foil attempted distortions of said world-view, e.g. by countering propaganda claims like** “all men are rapists” and attempts to hide negative information about certain groups***.

*When e.g. “college professor” applies, it is no less worthy of mention.

**Note that this works in the context of Turks too. For instance, the (hypothetical) knowledge that this was a first-generation immigrant would have lessened the risk of unfair suspicions against those with a longer familial history in Germany. An (equally hypothetical) knowledge of alcoholism would have lessened the risk even for many first generation Turks. Etc.

***For instance, hiding the ethnicity of criminals does not just protect the innocent members of that ethnicity from unfair suspicions—it also creates a too positive view of the group as a whole. Such a view can lead to poorer decision making, especially in politics. To boot, it can lead to unnecessary personal or group conflicts, e.g. when person A has access to information that person B lacks and B incorrectly assumes that A bases his opinion in the overall issue on bigotry/racism/sexism/xenophobia/… or lack of information. (Ditto, m.m., for groups A and B.) I note that both the Swedish and the German press appear to systematically suppress the ethnicity of perpetrators and suspects.

From yet another perspective, these tactics need not be very helpful. For instance, above, I immediately considered it more-likely-than-not that a non-Western immigrant was involved—even in the face of an explicit mention of “German”*. I asked; many others would have jumped to the conclusion and kept it to themselves. Moreover, even I might have asked the wrong question… Was ethnicity the core issue or might it have been religion (or yet some other factor)? Here I saw another case of a Turkish honor killing, where it might (or might not) have been better viewed as a Muslim or a Turkish Muslim honor killing. Having more information, e.g. not just whether the father was a Turk but also whether he was a Muslim, would, again, have given me a more nuanced world-view. This applies the more to those who jump to the conclusion, because even when their conclusions are correct (e.g. “was a Turk”), they need not hit what was actually important.

*While the use of “German” (or “Swede”) to refer to ethnicity is increasingly (and irrationally) frowned upon, the context made ethnicity more likely than nationality, because the clear majority of all people in Germany are German citizens, leaving ethnicity as the natural intention with cases within Germany. Similarly, I suspect, an “Italian-American” is more likely to spontaneously mention that he is Italian (even when not a citizen) than that he is a U.S. citizen (unless he is abroad).

As to what to do instead, if the PC fears are valid? Focus on developing critical-thinking skills, raise awareness of fallacies (e.g. “confirmation bias”), and further the understanding of some very basic ideas like “what applies to some group members do not necessarily apply to all group members”, “that most members of group A are also members of group B does not imply that most members of group B are also members of group A”, “individual variation very often trumps group membership”, “correlation does not imply causation”, and variations. A greater ability to discriminate would also be positive, notably in knowing what criteria are important and what unimportant—but also including ensuring that everyone knows some basic differentiations, e.g. that “Arab” and “Muslim” are not synonymous, that neither (ethnic) Turks nor (ethnic) Iranians/Persians are Arabs, and similar.

Excursion on information and identification:
One concern with being liberal with information is the increased risk of someone intended to be anonymous becoming identifiable. This is a legitimate reason why e.g. journalists should show some restraint, but they should do so on a case-by-case basis. (And I cannot recall ever having heard either the PC crowd or a journalist raise this concern as a reason to censor ethnicity.) For instance, the number of Swedes living in Wuppertal is unlikely to be very large, and just combining “Swede” with “Wuppertal” would limit the candidates correspondingly. Throw in just one or two additional facts and that might be enough to pin-point me—and if it does not, the number of candidates will be small enough that each of them could be considered the match by third parties. I point to the case of a physically assaulted innocent man as just one example of why this can be dangerous.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 6, 2019 at 1:23 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

Older discussion of DN / Follow-up: The problem of too shallow knowledge / experiences in Sweden

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In a recent text, I discussed the decline of the Swedish news-paper DN (among other things).

In a much earlier text, dated 2009-11-03, I had already brought up some points relating to its decline, notably a severe attitude problem. This in form on comments on an online-chat* with the then editor-in-chief, who made a number of statements that are interesting both in general and in retrospect. It truly is no wonder that DN has failed as a news source.

*Except that it was no true chat at all, but just her answering pre-filtered questions in one sitting, as discussed in the linked-to text.

One question was “Where will DN be in ten years?”*, which is almost the time passed. The answer began “DN will still be Sweden’s most important paper.”*, which has not panned out at all in my eyes. (Discounting the question whether DN was the most important paper back then, which is dubious.) On the contrary, DN has made it self so useless that its importance in a weightier sense is very low. If it is important, the importance is increasingly more akin to that of the Kardashians than that of Benjamin Franklin. The answer continues “The number of readers is even larger through the online edition, and therefore our journalism has an even greater impact.”*, which is a hard claim to check. However: According to a graph on page 5 of a report (PDF, in Swedish), DN dropped from an estimated 905 thousand “print” readers** in 2009 to 570 thousand in the first quarter of 2018 (with a further decline until now likely). The “overall” (“total”) numbers beginning in 2017 confuse the issue and could be (mis-)construed to imply an increase, which I discuss in an excursion. Looking at some graphs for other papers, I suspect that DN has also lost ground relatively speaking (but I have not dug into the details and might well be wrong).

*In my translation from a Swedish original.

**Strictly speaking, if I interpret the very unclear source correctly, these numbers likely refer to the potential readers counted for e.g. advertising purposes. See an excursion on readers.

With great reservations for interpretation, my conclusion would then be that DN has lost readers both absolutely and relatively despite the online edition. However, in all fairness, the 2009 online edition was likely free, implying that the prediction was made under radically different circumstances.

Excursion on potential vs true readers:
The report speaks of “räckvidd” (“reach”), which likely includes e.g. all members of a subscribing household (or all in a certain age bracket), even if only one actually reads the paper. (Disclaimer: I might be off in the details, but the principle is correct.) These numbers are then likely inflated considerably above the true number of readers. The general trend should remain the same, however. If anything, I would speculate on the trend being understated, because of generational differences and different habits among the young “now” and “then”. (In other words, the children living at home were more likely to read the paper in the past than they are today.)

Excursion on numbers and types of editions:
There are potentially three types of editions (and DN uses all three): Paper, digital-but-not-web (e.g. as a PDF file), and web. It is not obvious how what is counted where, and this could distort the discussion. (Especially, if the treatment is different for different papers.)

The graph contains several measures. The line called “Total”, in my best guess, includes all readers of all three editions. The “Print” line likely originally was the paper readers, but after 2016 include “e-tidningsläsande” (“e-paper reading”), which I suspect is digital-but-not-web. The “Digital” line is very unclear, but might refer to the web edition, which would work well in conjuncture with “Total”, if we allow for a discount of readers who belong to both “Print” and “Digital” (leaving the “Total” number smaller than the sum of “Print” and “Digital”).*

*I suspect that the closeness of “Digital” to “Print” is just a coincidence, because the corresponding entries for e.g. Aftonbladet are quite far apart. If not, some closer connection might have been present and forced a different interpretation. The much larger “Digital” value for Aftonbladet is also well compatible with an interpretation as a web edition, because Aftonbladet’s web edition is free of charge.

If we work under this assumption, the “Total” number for 2018 is a highly misleading comparison for the “Print” number for 2009: There was a great number of web readers even in 2009. Indeed, there might* well have been considerably more of them than today, because the current version is “pay-walled”, while the 2009 edition was not. Also note that “Digital” has fallen throughout its few years of display, and that this trend might have been present earlier too. Correspondingly, I suspect that the drop** in “Total” had been even larger than in “Print”, had the number been available. Under no circumstance is it reasonable to imagine an increase of 166 (1071 – 905) thousand from 2009 to 2018. (This even assuming that the editions are roughly comparable. If not, the addition is even more misleading.)

*This boils down to a fight between the trend towards greater online activities and the loss of visitors through the pay-wall. Seeing that Sweden had a very large Internet penetration very early on, my money is on the latter.

**At least in absolute numbers. It might have fared better in relative numbers.

To boot, I suspect that the difference between potential readers (as reported) and true readers (more interesting) will be larger for the web edition. This partly because it is more convenient and more natural to share a physical paper than online access, especially if different computers or computer accounts come into play; partly because the lower price makes it less wasteful to have a subscription that only one person uses.

However, even if we were to look at “paying customers”, the calculation would be misleading. Yes, the number of these might actually have increased. However, this must be seen in light of a much lower* price for the web edition, with less money actually flowing in.

*Compared not just to the paper edition, but to the digital-but-not-web edition. The former difference might have been offset by printing and distribution costs, the latter is not.

Disclaimer:
I suffered a computer crash during late-stage editing. Some changes might have been lost.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 28, 2019 at 9:00 am