Posts Tagged ‘News’
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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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”.)
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
In this era of Internet news, one of my main news sources is svt-text—the teletext (!) pages of the Swedish national television, which I visit about once a day (albeit in the Internet version). The brevity of each individual page (being limited by what fits within teletext) makes the “articles” highly compact and it is easy to get a quick overview. If something seems interesting, there is always the possibility to find more detailed information elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the people behind this service are not intellectual giants, and I often find myself sighing over the unnecessary quality loss and inconveniences.
To take a few examples (some Internet-specific; some problematic for TV users to):
- The article titles are often so lacking in information that is hard to judge which articles are worth reading without actually reading them. In at least some cases, in particular with sports, even the rough topic cannot be predicted from the title…
For instance, I just called up the sports page and found the title “Rekordstort intresse för mästarna” (roughly “Interest for champions on record high”). What champions? What sport? What level (national? world? …?) What type of interest? Who is interested? Men’s team or women’s? “Ordinary” sports or “para-sports”?
Looking at the detail page, the actual story is so uninteresting that few would have bothered to open it with a better title and it can seriously be questioned whether it should have even been published in the first place: The Swedish national champions in floorball (!) have managed to sell 100 (!!!) season’s tickets. The page did not say whether this was the men’s or women’s champions. Honestly, this is something that barely qualifies for the local news paper of wherever these champions were based.
- During the conversion to HTML, links are added in such an unintelligent manner that any number occurring in the page stands the risk of being interpreted as referring to another page and being turned into a link. (Remember that teletext pages are identified by three-digit numbers.)
This has, admittedly, grown considerably better over the years, but it still happens, possibly as much as 15 years after my first visit…
This is the weirder as implies that the whole setup is amateurish, most likely in the form that a plain-text page is composed to be published “on the TV” without any alterations, while the Internet version is just generated from this plain-text without any semantic information. A professional would, as a matter of course, have kept the “master version” separate form the “TV version” and used a markup language (even be it a rudimentary one) to keep semantic information. The TV and Internet version would then both be generated from this master. This would include marking page references so that they cannot be confused with numbers during generation.
- While the language level is poor overall, there are two specific ever recurring and highly annoying problems:
Firstly, differences between A and B are almost invariably formulated as “A is better than B at [something or other]”, even when the “better” is highly subjective and even when it is not really supported by the text (e.g. because absolute numbers are compared when relative numbers would be appropriate). This in particular where differences between men and women are concerned*. I would only be marginally surprised if the headline “women are better than men at using drugs” would be used for an article reporting that women use more cocaine than men…
*Generally, they have a problem with a feminist or PC world-view, but with a Swedish news source that almost goes without saying…
Secondly, there is a virtual obsession with “hylla” (hard to translate, but “praise” when used as in the phrase “praise the Lord” is a decent match; “eulogize” can come close to, in some uses). If someone makes any form of positive statement about someone else, he allegedly “hyllade” him. If someone wins an international gold medal, one or two pages are dedicated to “tittarnas hyllningar” (or similar; roughly, “the viewers praise”)*. Etc.
*Why they waste space by including the praise of the viewers in the first place is beyond me. It has no news value and the page could have been saved for something more valuable.
The word, normally reserved for special occasions, is thrown around in a blanket manner and with very little value attached to it. Often it amounts to confusing “Would you have dinner with me?” and “Would you marry me?”…
- Naturally, as news items arrive or are removed, page numbers will change. To handle this should not be that hard: Alter the page numbers and references of all involved pages and then publish them together. But no: Individual pages are altered separately and published immediately, leading to such effects as someone opening a page on X and finding an article dealing with Y or both page 110 and 111 having the exact same contents.*
*Both can happen even when publishing all changes together, be it through unfortunate timing or because someone has opened an index page and then waited a minute or two before opening article pages. However, it will be a rare occurrence. The frequency at svt-text is far, far too high to be explained by such instances.
- Generally, there are many problems around page numbers and page handling. For instance, it is quite common that the contents that once were on page X stays on page X for days—even after the page contents have officially changed. (Following the new contents as a virtual page within the page.) Or take the leader-board for the recent British Open/The Open golf-tournament: With a fellow Swede winning, I tried to follow the results through svt-text, but found that every single time that I refreshed the page, the leader-board had moved to another page. After some five or six times I gave up (ESPN had something that worked much better). Is it not obvious that such contents should be treated differently and fixed on the same page? This especially since they do have a dedicated number interval for “live” sports results that is used for that exact purpose, e.g. to track the score of soccer games.
As I wrote in March, a jury ruled in favour of Novell in the fight against SCO, whose widely-considered-faulty claims had caused great costs and uncertainty for a number of other parties (including, obviously, Novell).
There was still some remaining uncertainty in theory (considering the overall situation and previous judgements, a practical problem was unlikely), because there were further “findings of facts” and various motions to be decided by the judge. As Groklaw now reportse:
Judge Ted Stewart has ruled for Novell and against SCO. Novell’s claim for declaratory judgment is granted; SCO’s claims for specific performance and breach of the implied covenant of good fair and fair dealings are denied. Also SCO’s motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial: denied. SCO is entitled to waive, at its sole discretion, claims against IBM, Sequent and other SVRX licensees.
Maybe I should say cases closed. The door has slammed shut on the SCO litigation machine.
I have already written about the Swedish media, its very hypocritical stance towards free speech, and its intellectually dishonest reporting. Today, I encountered an article series in DN, Sweden’s leading morning newspaper, that forces me to take up the question again:
While strictly filtering their own reporting through an overly politically-correct sieve, while writing with a clear gender-feministic bias, and while suppressing comments on their websites that are too deviating from the “correct” opinion, DN now launches at all out attack on the blogosphere and racism on the Internet.
Notably, this “racism” is often nothing but an irritation at the situation in Sweden, where a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by immigrants, where many immigrants live on Swedish welfare, and where many see a danger (whether real or not) that “the Swedish way” will go under. This is conceptually something different from racism and should be treated just like other political opinions: Fair evaluation, fair debate, and the right to free speech—not pre-conceived rejection, exclusion from the debate, and defamation. Even opinions that are, in a strict sense, racist are not automatically a cause to limit free speech—just as being a Creationist or Communist is not a reason to be forced to silence.
(Note that I am myself an immigrant, having lived in Germany for more than 12 years. My basic opinion on free migration is positive—and many of the views expressed e.g. on Fria Nyheter (cf. the above link) are incompatible with my own. The issue here is one of intellectual honesty and fairness, and the dangers of suppressing free speech and debate. This in particular as there are legitimate arguments both pro- and anti-immigration in Sweden’s case.)
Consider a few comments (from a few of the long articles, which are mostly more of the same):
Internet har blivit de främlingsfientliga gruppernas plattform. Bloggar, sociala medier och nyhetsartiklar svämmar över av rasistiska kommentarer.
(Internet has become the platform of the alien-hostile groups. Blogs, social media, and news articles [presumably referring to the comment functions of the traditional news papers] are flooded with racist comments.)
I have spent a very sizable part of my spare-time reading blogs in the last few weeks, and the statement is an exaggeration at best. As far as “racist” goes, it is down-right wrong: Most are opposed to the current rate of immigration or the behaviour of the immigrated population, but not racist. The same applies to my experiences of the Internet, in general, since 1994.
Nyhetssajter som DN.se är på inget sätt förskonade från rasistiska kommentarer. I allt större utsträckning tvingas DN.se stänga av kommentarsfunktionen eftersom de medverkande bryter mot lagen.
(News sites like DN.se are by no means protected from racist comments. To an increasingly higher degree, DN.se is forced to turn of the comment function, because the participants break the law.)
I have seen comments that were perfectly legal being deleted—including those that were merely critical of the news reporting, e.g. by mentioning biases shown by the journalist…
På DN.se gillar vi debatt – kärlek till det fria ordet är en förutsättning för att jobba på en plats där just det fria ordet är kärnan i verksamheten.
(At DN.se we like debate – love of the free word is a prerequisite to work in a place where the free word is the core of the business [occupation?].)
At best hypocrisy, at worst an outrageous lie: DN does not practice what it preaches—free speech applies only to journalists and those who do not deviate too far in opinion. Note the next quote.
Läsarkommentarerna på DN.se ska ligga inom ramen för vår policy, exempelvis plockar vi bort inlägg som är rasistiska eller sexistiska.
(Reader’s comments on DN.se must be within the limits of our policy, for example we will remove opinions that are racist and sexist.)
Apart from this policy, by its nature, being arbitrary, this explicitly rules out racist and sexist opinions. Notably, the definitions of “racist” and “sexist” in Sweden (like in the US) typically go beyond what is justified. It is not uncommon that negative statements about women and foreigners are called sexist or racist in a blanket manner—even when they happen to be true, respectively the maker of the statement has reasonable grounds to believe that the statement is true. The Swedish attitude towards sexism is notably of the same kind that got Lawrence Summersw thrown out of Harvard for stating established science.
Efter dödsmisshandeln av en 78-årig kvinna i Landskrona exploderade rasismen på nätet. Skitsnacket flödar, samtidigt görs så mycket information som möjligt tillgänglig för allmänheten – sann eller ej.
(After the man-slaughter of a 78 y.o. woman in Landskrona [apparently perpetrated by an immigrant over a parking disagreement] the racism on the net exploded. The bull shit [literally, “shit talk”] is flowing, at the same time as much information as possible is provided to the public – true or not.)
I note that Swedish papers are rarely keen on limiting themselves to true information. Further, that they artificially (try to) limit the access to information. Further, that the omissions they make are often as bad as lies.
In the end, the relevant question to ask is “Why are these opinions voiced on blogs?”—with the, at least partial, answer “Because they are suppressed in conventional media.”. Worse, there is a fair chance that this suppression drives those with a limited negative view on foreigners, based on reason, in the arms of unreasonable movements, e.g. of the Neo-Nazi kind. (Which, I stress, also have a right to free speech—and should be met with arguments ad rem.)
I recently wrote about the SCO vs. Novell trial, the verdict of which is now, with some delay, in:
A unanimous jury rejected SCO’s copyright claims, which likely means the end to this threat once and for all. Virtual champagne all around!
Of course, looking at the preceding decade, SCO has been harder to get rid of than Jason Voorhees; however, unlike Jason, it is not actually supernatural.
Right now, a trial of great importance is underway: The battle between Novell (the good guys) and SCO (the bad guys) concerning the rights to Unix. Unfortunately, most people seem to be entirely unaware of it.
Why is this battle so important?
In order to understand this, a brief overview is needed, and will be given below. By necessity, it will be an over-simplification: The story is extremely convoluted, involves many parties, and is stretched over a very long time. For those interested in more details, I recommend Wikipediaw; for those truly interested, there are enormous amounts of material present at Groklawe or, in German, Heisee.
Some forty years ago, the operating system Unix takes its first steps at AT&T. This little toddler is to grow into one of the dominating server and workstation operating systems for several decades—and to be the progenitor of both Linux and Mac OS X.
In the early nineties, AT&T sells the rights to Novell (the first of the combatants). In 1995, some of these rights are sold to SCO (confusingly, not the second combatant). Here however, we encounter the point of contention: Which rights, exactly?
Only in 2000 does the second combatant, then called Caldera, enter the arena by buying the Unix business of the original SCO. Not long thereafter, Caldera changes its name to SCO Group, in an effort to capitalize on the strong brand-name of the original SCO, which it has also bought. Meanwhile the original SCO departs from our tale.
Having had a few less than successful years, SCO looks for a solution to its money problems, and in 2002 it begins the dangerous gamble of claiming more extensive rights to Unix than it was acknowledged to have—and that Linux would contain significant portions of unlicensed Unix code. Calls for proof are raised; none is given.
In 2003, all hell breaks lose. A slew of law suits are started: SCO v. IBM, Red Hat v. SCO, SCO v. Novell, SCO v. AutoZone, SCO v. DaimlerChrysler. Claims and counter-claims are made, and litigation that lasts until at least 2010 ensues. SCO’s most noteworthy claim: IBM owns it one billion dollar (yes, billion) relating to its alleged and allegedly illicit use of intellectual property allegedly belonging to SCO. This amount was later increased to five billion… To make matters worse, this has the appearances of pilot case, with more to follow upon success.
The above paragraph has been revised for two errors since the original publishing:
When checking the numbers, I overlooked the increase to five billion dollars.
I claimed that even one billion was far more than SCO was every worth. While I still hold this statement to be true, it is technically wrong, seeing that Caldera had a market capitalization of more than that shortly after its IPO. That number, however and IMO, was severely hyped, did not reflect actual sales and prospects, and dwindled soon afterwards. (See also CNET on the IPOe or historical share-price informatione of SCO.)
Generally, I gathered most facts from a few timelines on the given links, without revisiting the case to a greater depth. (I followed the case with great interest in the early years, but with the passage of time…) Correspondingly, there may be other errors in detail—not, however, in the big picture.
In parallel, SCO tries to leverage its claims in other ways, e.g. by trying to bluff companies merely using Linux into purchasing “anti-dote” licenses as protection against potential law suits for larger amounts.
As time goes by, SCO becomes more and more focused on these lawsuits, seeing the rest of its business disappear. It is now in a do-or-die situation—win the jackpot in court or end up in bankruptcy. It has become a company effectively geared at just one thing—litigation.
Because SCO is never able to produce evidence, it has little success, often see its claims struck down by summary judgments, and only manages to stay above the water-line through injections of additional capital, including from Linux’, Unix’, and Apple’s archenemy—Microsoft. Those claims that are not struck down are often stayed awaiting one of the other cases, either SCO v. IBM or SCO v. Novell.
In the autumn of 2007, the issue seems to be concluded: A summary judgment falls, stating that Novell is the rightful owner of the relevant Unix rights, which pulls out the carpet from all other cases; and SCO is effectively bankrupt.
However, hanging by a thread and protected by Chapter 11, SCO manages to remain to in the fight—and in August 2009, an appeals court finds that parts of the summary judgment were premature and must be treated in a full trial. This trial is now underway, expected to be concluded in the coming week (knock on wood).
As should be clear even from this greatly simplified overview, the situation has been highly chaotic, and great stakes are involved. Those who dig into the sources given above will find more chaos yet, including many other examples of highly disputable behaviour on the part of SCO—and many cases of infighting and internal intrigues.
Now, why is it important that SCO lose this trial? Mainly, were SCO to win, it would set a dangerous precedent with regard to making legal claims bordering on the frivolous, extorting money by means of legal threats, and making grossly misleading accusations against other organisations: The justice system is abused often enough as it is—with a SCO victory, we could see a flood of lawsuits where failing companies try to ensure their survival by suing wealthier companies, possibly causing immense damage to third parties along the way. In addition, it is still conceivable that a SCO victory could do great damage to the companies and communities involved in developing Linux, and similar lawsuits against other members of the extended Unix family would not be inconceivable—and consider if Linux takes a severe hit at the same time as Apple is locked up in ten years of costly litigation: All of Gaul could well be conquered by the Redmonds this time.
Notably, while the probability that SCO will win sufficiently many battles is small, the stakes are sufficiently high that there is still reason to be nervous. In football terms: We may be a few minutes away from the end of the fourth quarter and have a two-touchdown lead—but the game is the Superbowl.
The issue of ObamaCare may be more important, but neither the OJ trial(s) nor the actual Superbowl holds a candle.
This blog is intended to deal with a great variety of topics, but here I find myself writing about Sweden, newspapers, and blogging—again:
Firstly, I would like to comment on the presence of Fria Nyhetere (“Free News”) on my blogroll: Why would I add a Swedish news-blog that I had (at the time) only visited twice onto the blogroll, while writing for an international audience?
The reason is simple: The abysmal quality and strong political/ideological distortion of Swedish news-reporting. This is not unique to Sweden, but it appears to be both stronger (on average) and more uniform in direction than in other countries. The most blatant problems include an exaggerated political correctness and the gender-feministic reporting discussed in an earlier entry. Generally, I often have the impression that there is an “official truth” on many subjects that is uncritically propagated in a manner indicating quasi-religious blindfolds (similar to those worn by e.g. creationists).
To make matters worse, the two papers (DN and SvD) that I regularly visit, have been known to delete user comments that are too far from this official truth. (Notwithstanding that the remaining comments are often in aggressive disagreement with the articles they are attached to—the people does not appear to be as easily led as some would like it) In particular, I have made a rare comment of my own to point out the lack of objectivity that the paper it self has—these have without exception been deleted.
Here Fria Nyheter plays an interesting role as a news medium which is not bound by political correctness and official truths, but instead often focuses on the spots that the normal newspapers gloss over. I do not always agree with or identify with what it says, but I feel that it could become a very valuable counter-weight to the newspapers—and would like to give a small help in doing so.
Secondly, I would propose an extension of the freedom of speech to, among other things, combat the selective deletion of comments. To paraphrase what I recently said in reply to a Swedish anti-censorship poste:
I would consider an extension of freedom of speech to a point where even a natural person or a business is not allowed to suppress opinions in a selective manner: If one has a comment function, one is only allowed to filter out statements that are illegal, are an abuse of the comment function (e.g. spam), or are offensive in their form (e.g. through personal attacks or bad language)—but not because thy are “unsuitable” or “politically incorrect”.
If this is not acceptable, one has to live without a comment function (and take the risk of losing readers or that Google comments [by which I meant “Sidewiki”] are used instead).
The details of this can be discussed, e.g. whether a natural person (say, an individual blogger) should underlie these restrictions, or whether the list of criteria that allow deletion is complete; however, by and large, I would see it a clear improvement on the current situation.
A case could be made that blogs should underlie the same restrictions: As I gather by hearsay, there are many bloggers (in particular those belonging to exactly the PC or gender-feministic factions, or those with a strong religious conviction) who delete too disagreeing comments as a matter of course—even be they comparatively polite and factual. Just like with some newspapers, it is dangerous to deviate in opinion, point out errors in reasoning and facts, or otherwise criticize the credo. (Unlike with newspapers, however, this issue is complex and has many other aspects.)