Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Whatever happened to facts?

For several years now I've been giving a talk at journalism conferences and classrooms I called "Whatever happened to facts?" I took as my starting point a brilliant headline from The Onion, which said, "One in five Americans now believes Obama is a cactus."

Clay Shirky, in characteristically sweeping and insightful style, today weighs in on roughly the same subject with a different (though not contradictory) tack. One of his conclusions? This isn't such a bad thing. 

The headline on the Poynter Institute excerpt reads ‘We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth’ He’s right about that, and it changes things.

For 40 years, I played "you-bet-your-career" on roughly these assumptions: that verified information is more valuable than rumors, opinions or speculation; that broad debate yields better results than narrowed discussion; and that an open mind is more productive than a closed one. 

Playing by the rules of the time, I won big. I had a satisfying and, I’d argue, productive career.

But as Shirky makes clear, whether we like it or not, the old rules have been irrevocably altered. Let me offer a few observations to supplement his argument about that.

People have been arguing about “What is truth?” at least since Aristotle and there never has been a consensus. (The Vatican could make Galileo kneel and mumble, but he didn't change his mind.) Newspaper journalists certainly did not find the key to that puzzle, but we did develop working tools that helped us manage. In “News Values: Ideas for an information age” Jack Fuller called these “the truth discipline,” and while I never heard it described that way in a newsroom, I learned and incorporated the principles into my bones.

In answering journalists’ more circumscribed question—“Is this true enough to print?”—we went through a simple but effective process: Had we talked to everybody involved? If there were documents, had we gathered and read them? Had we compared these events to others like them? What had otherwise been said or done about it recently? And so forth.

When it seemed appropriate, we’d also rely on citation of authority: university professors, or learned jurists or published authors. Shirky’s paper makes short work of this practice.

I continue to believe that an honest scientist who’s been studying something for 30 years is more to be trusted than a previously unknown activist with a website. In general it seems like most people would agree with that, but in specific we find many people don't.

- More than half the GOP voters in the presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi this election said afterward that they believe President Obama is a Muslim. 

-In Texas, Republican members of an elected textbook review commission eliminated reference to Thomas Jefferson from a list of inspirational revolutionaries and defeated a proposal to include the thought that “the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others.”

- And in 2010, a Pew study found belief in global climate change fell from 79% among U.S. adults to 59% — despite the fact that scientific consensus has grown more certain over the same time.

Sure, bring on your truth vigilantes, for all the good they do. PoliFact would vote the assertion there were “death panels” in Obamacare as the Lie of the Year, but two years later variants still surfaced at the vice presidential debate. The president pleaded “Get the transcript” when his challenger questioned his Rose Garden remarks about Libya at a presidential debate this week; we did, but soon found partisans raging about whether “act of terror” means the same thing as “terrorism.”

All of this makes it harder to be a journalist the way I tried to be for all those years, but that pales in comparison to the obstacles it creates for being a citizen. Put plainly, we can’t have a democracy without civic conversation, and we can’t have civic conversations without a shared vocabulary. The one traditionally supplied by the press was imperfect, but it was intelligible.

The state of journalism today is a classic example of what physicists call a phase transition, the transformation of a system from one state to another. In physics that’s defined by turbulence, uncertainty and chaos, a place where “complexity is maximal.” Sure sounds like the news business to me.

The good news is that phase transitions lead to something new. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t want to change from ice to water, or from water to gaseous steam. Change you will, though you’ll still be H2O.

David Carr has discussed an emerging news ecosystem “in which we 'move toward correctness' and truth eventually emerges.” That seems sensible to me, and I want to close by suggesting a few ways in which we are learning (or could learn) to get there quicker.

- The reputation marketplace. When he established eBay, Pierre Omidyar had a problem. He could connect record collectors in Alaska with suppliers in New Jersey, but how could he convince me to send money to a guy I’d never heard of? His answer was the system of mutual ratings by which buyers and sellers vouched for one another and built up credibility by honest performance. The process is vastly more sophisticated today but at its heart honest performance is still what we want to rate and promote in journalism. (Omidyar, interestingly, is running a journalistic enterprise in Honolulu today. Disclosure: I did some work for them);

- Algorithmic authority. We generally trust Google’s secret rating system to sort our search results, placing the best ones (by some criteria) on top. It’s far from perfect but in practical terms it works, kind of like the old “truth discipline” journalists once used. We can incorporate the algorithmic lessons learned by Google and countless others into our search for journalistic authority, as well;

- Provisional authority. Wikipedia has taught us many things about authority, most of them helpful. We’ve learned not to look to the iconic site for an immutable answer; what it says may change before tomorrow. But at the moment it represents something like an evolving consensus of the facts, as well balanced and presented as feasible. News reporting has always been like that, though we didn’t admit it. We can learn from and use Wikipedia as we improve;

- The authority of transparency. Replacing the “view from nowhere” with a discussion of “where are you coming from”—Jay Rosen’s now famous challenge to the press—certainly can speak to credibility. In my view this isn’t a zero-sum decision (all or nothing, all the time) but it surely will be a fundamental component in the new news ecosystem. Services like Talking Points Memo prove that every day;

- Transparency Two: Show your work. When your fourth grade teacher assigned math homework, it probably wasn’t enough to turn in the right answers. Chances are you were told to “show your work” to prove you knew what you were doing. Journalists have always done a little of this and are starting to do more. But showing some links and posting some documents isn’t enough. It would be relatively easy and valuable, I believe, to turn up this dial up to 11. There are many ways to practice this principle; you can find some beginning steps here.




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