Truth in journalism: how to check the facts, ma’am

With the rise of anonymous internet chatter and demise of traditional printed newspapers, where do we find the “truth” in a raucous world? Below are suggested information sources and tips on how to skeptically parse facts from evidence, belief, and opinion.

Check the validity of facts, news, and rumors

Check news reports
Research general knowledge

Ironically, internet crowd sourcing has created a remarkably deep and reliable source of worldwide knowledge in Wikipedia:

  • www.wikipedia.org — Wikimedia Foundation, San Francisco, California
    • can be as accurate as printed encyclopedias (albeit with inelegant prose).
      • A study in the journal Nature said that in 2005, Wikipedia scientific articles came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopedia Britannica and had a similarly low rate of serious errors. When Encyclopedia Britannica disputed the study, Nature refuted their main objections point-by-point.
      • From 2008-2012, various studies comparing Wikipedia to professional and peer-reviewed sources in medical and scientific fields found that Wikipedia’s depth and coverage were of a high standard (such as in pathology, toxicology, oncology, pharmaceuticals, and psychiatry).
      • I’ve found Wikipedia accuracy to be remarkably high. When I spotted a few errors on minor topics, I corrected the articles. For example, under the entry for my home town of Chico, California, someone had entered a joke name for the town’s founder, which I corrected back to John Bidwell.
    • should be read with a bit of skepticism, as with anything you read or hear, due to possible editor partisanship or rare mischief.
    • can enlighten you with a global perspective on almost any topic, as refined by the consensus of an army of anonymous collaborative editors.
    • democratizes knowledge by letting anyone edit articles, within quality control guidelines enforced by the global community and the small non-profit Wikimedia staff.
    • ranks in the top-ten most-visited websites worldwide.
Check political facts and claims
  • www.factcheck.org — a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, operated by the University of Pennsylvania
    • carefully analyzes claims made by national politicians and other newsmakers.
  • www.politifact.com — a project of the Tampa Bay Times and partners
    • won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for its “Truth-O-Meter” ratings of national politicians’ claims.
    • includes links to affiliated state fact-checking sites.
Fossilized sand dunes, Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, Arizona (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)

Peel back the layers to find deeper meaning. Fossilized sand dunes, Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, Arizona. © Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com

  • votesmart.org
    • finds “Biographies, voting records, issue positions, ratings, speeches, campaign finance information. All politicians. Instantly.”
    • “At a unique research center located high in the Montana Rockies and far from the partisan influences of Washington, our staff, interns, and volunteers are working hard to strengthen the most essential component of democracy – access to information. Project Vote Smart is a non-partisan, nonprofit educational organization funded exclusively through individual contributions and philanthropic foundations.”
Examine extraordinary claims and religious beliefs
  • www.csicop.org — Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publishers of Skeptical Inquirer magazine
    • promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason to examine controversial and extraordinary claims (UFOs, astrology, paranormal and supernatural ideas, Creationism, urban legends, etc).
    • was founded by scientists, academics, and science writers such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, James RandiMartin Gardner, and others.
    • refers to additional sites: www.csicop.org/resources
  • skepticsannotatedbible.com — Skeptics Annotated Bible (SAB) website
    • Steve Wells shines the light of reason on the Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon to open the eyes of believers and non-believers alike.
    • Read how quotes from the Bible address modern human rights issues such as sexuality, women’s issues, slavery, etc.
    • Admirably, the site keeps an open mind by linking to stakeholder responses from believers and apologists.
    • Read what reviewers say about Steve Wells’ book at Amazon.com: The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (2013) .

How not to get fooled by false claims or hidden agendas: be skeptical

While trust is the foundation of civil society, skepticism is still required to parse facts from evidence, belief, and opinion. When you hear a questionable message, examine its source, motivation, evidence, and conclusions:

  1. Is the source of the message
    • firsthand or from trustworthy informants?
    • independent, free of conflicts of interest?
    • expert, experienced, or proven reliable in the topic?
    • transparently clear?
  2. Consider the messenger’s motivation:
    • Are they selling something, someone, or a point of view?
      • Check the politics/background of whoever owns the radio, television, print, web site, or other media.
      • On all media, beware the following warning signs (red-flag phrases) for an agenda that may unexpectedly depart from the host media:
        • “From around the web” links
        • Sponsored Links
        • “Sponsored Content”
        • Advertisement
        • “501 (c) (4) American tax-exempt nonprofit organization”
        • “Opinion or Editorial”
    • If the motivation is persuasion, be skeptical.
      • Persuaders such as lawyers, publicists, and campaigning politicians often omit relevant contrary information.
      • The more you feel urged towards a particular point of view, be especially doubtful.
      • A more-reliable source may have a tone which is unemotional and informative, and carefully quotes and attributes other proven sources.
  3. Examine the evidence and conclusions drawn.
    • Extreme claims require rigorous proof. The more consequential the claim, the more evidence is required.
    • Is the evidence logical?
      • A heartfelt story is just one data point.
      • Correlation doesn’t imply causation.
      • Be wary of simple solutions, as most issues have multiple factors.
      • Ask if alternate explanations are equally compelling.
    • Is a relevant fact or context left out?
      • Are all stakeholders given say?
      • Look for the inconvenient truth.
      • Consider other contexts that may change the meaning: research how other sources have covered the same topic.
    • Is the evidence reproducible or proven from direct observation?

Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) also applies to consuming information and voting. Read more in the book, Don’t Be Fooled: A Citizen’s Guide to News and Information in the Digital Age (2012) by John McManus, a communication professor and longtime journalist.

Recommended nonfiction books to expand your mind

2012: 2012: 2012: 2011:
2013:

  • Ideas That Matter: The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century (2012) by Anthony Clifford Grayling, “winnows a universe of ideas, ideologies, and philosophies into a personal dictionary for understanding the new century.”
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) by Jonathan Haidt, explores the origins of our divisions (culturally dependent moral intuition) and points the way to mutual understanding. Our tribal groupishness leads to our greatest joys, religious divisions, and political affiliations. In a stunning final chapter on ideology and civility, Haidt shows what each side is right about, and why we need the insights of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to flourish as a nation.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) by Steven Pinker, analyzes and describes historical declines of violence since ancient hunter-gatherer societies evolved into civilizations with centralized authority and commerce. Progressive morality has risen to a peak, which suggests grounds for guarded optimism. The most violent societies per person have been pre-state tribes. Violence has declined per person over human history because nation-states (the “Leviathan”) and rule of law have assumed a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Desperately poor countries are the most likely to have civil wars. Most murders are done by people taking the law into their own hands, in moralized self-interest. Religions have been a net negative violent force, often against Enlightenment values, against the flourishing of individuals, and against human rights. Excessively moralistic ideologies (tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical) throughout history have caused the most war, conflict, and death. Pinker warns that historical trends in the decline of violence (especially after World War II) are not necessarily guaranteed to continue. His thesis is descriptive, not predictive. Books, reading, and education have an empathetic value to reduce violence through the understanding of others. Reason allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.
  • The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible by Steve Wells (2013)

Photography is communication

At PhotoSeek.com, I carefully check all facts quoted in my photo captions and articles, especially for social and environmental issues, such as:

Hidden agendas can threaten democracy − a personal anecdote

A dog peers through a window in a white fence at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, USA.

A dog peers through a window in a white fence at historical Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, USA.

As a provider of photographs to commercial interests, non-profit organizations, and individuals, I prefer my images to be used in socially positive ways. But in August 2013, I learned to ask more questions before donating images:

A phone caller asked me to donate a photo to his “501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit” website which advocated home schooling. But after exchanging a few emails, I learned that the site promoted a far-right Christian Bible-based agenda of anti-scientific thought. (I instead favor empirical and scientific methods to determine the facts of the world.) The author later password-protected his controversial blog articles, including his weird discussion of the supposed “science bias” (an oxymoron) taught in public schools.

In a democracy, corporations shouldn’t have the rights to freedom of speech and religion like individuals.

On a national scale, some extreme political, religious, and anti-scientific organizations are now hiding their big contributions to political campaigns under umbrella organizations sanctioned by the IRS tax code, 501 (c) (4): 

  • 501 (c) (4) American tax-exempt nonprofit organizations
    • are designed for Civic LeaguesSocial Welfare Organizations, and Local Associations of Employees reputedly for the common good and general welfare of their community;
    • are allowed to address controversial topics; and
    • are not required to disclose their donors publicly.

In 2013, the 501(c)(4) “dark money” spending on political TV ads exceeded spending from Super PACs, both of which undermine democracy.

  • Super PACs, or “independent-expenditure only committees,
    • may not contribute to candidate campaigns or parties, but may otherwise spend unlimited amounts of money for promoting political agendas;
    • were made possible by two judicial decisions in 2010: “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” and “Speechnow.org v. FEC”; and
    • can raise unlimited funds from corporations, unions, other groups, and individuals.

The voices of powerful corporations and the rich shouldn’t be allowed to secretly bias political dialogue with money laundered through Super PACs and 501 (c) (4) organizations. Corporate hierarchy gives employees (and stockholders) little voice over donation decisions by the CEO or Board of Directors. To best serve public interest, corporations should be governed by certain social responsibilities and rights that should be distinct from those of individuals.

To improve the democratic system, the trail of all large political donations should be tracked by named source and publicly reported by law. Voters and consumers deserve to know who is behind political and commercial messages. We shouldn’t tolerate anonymous or hidden power brokers gaming the system. Read more at:

  • Opensecrets.org — Center for Responsive Politics
  • On November 26, 2013,”The IRS and Treasury Department on Tuesday issued proposed rules that could sharply cut back the amount of political activity that 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations can undertake and still maintain their tax-exempt status.” — www.opensecrets.org/news/2013/11/irs-issues-proposed-new-rules-to-cu.html
  • www.wamend.org — a state initiative to “get big money out of elections.” It urges the Washington State Congressional delegation to propose a federal constitutional amendment clarifying that constitutional rights belong only to individuals, not corporations; that spending money is not free speech under the First Amendment; that governments are fully empowered to regulate political contributions and expenditures to prevent undue influence; and that political contributions and expenditures must be promptly disclosed to the public.

—  Tom Dempsey, December 12, 2013

Note regarding the title of this article: Joe Friday, the fictional Dragnet TV series detective, famously said “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” Popular culture restates this today as: “Just the facts, ma’am.

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