Post No.: 0318
When choosing a headline for a story, a good journalist should use the most well-supported scenario rather than a headline that’s only used to grab attention (clickbaiting), and then immediately follow it by explaining any other possible hypotheses to the events according to the evidence verified so far because the situation could be ambiguous. For example, an explosion could possibility be a terrorist attack, an industrial accident or something else? Alternatively, a good journalist could just report the known facts so far and then, without revealing his/her own conclusions, let the readers come to their own conclusions.
A story could potentially completely change the next day following a new revelation – this is why one must follow a news story over time rather than think that everything has necessarily been reliably discovered and answered correctly on the first days or in the first reports. So always be ready to update, refine or even completely reverse your opinions on a story according to any shifts in the overall weight of verified evidence gathered to date. A single news report seldom ever tells the complete story because it usually takes time for the truth to be investigated and to come out. It takes time to verify each piece of evidence even though journalists and editors are eager to be the first out with a story in order to beat other news outlets to it.
Journalistic truth is the best obtainable version of the truth based on verified facts up to the point of publication, and news reporting is an ongoing journey towards finding the truth since better understanding can only build over time and with more information. This therefore means that we, as furry news consumers, must follow a news story over time to find out what the truth or best truth is. So basically don’t jump to conclusions.
A problem however is that most people are biased about their own intuitions – as a result, many people think they can jump to conclusions based on just a few scant and ambiguous clues, as if they’re ‘great detectives’ and that nothing gets by or fools them. This illusion of superior intuition can be a dangerous thing – the fictional Sherlock Holmes even mostly used inferential or abductive logic rather than deductive logic so he too was merely jumping to conclusions. (Of course this works out fine for him in a scripted fictional world but we don’t live in such a world! Reading characters in dramas is also generally easier than reading people in real life because actors exaggerate in their art. ‘Dramatic irony’ is also frequently intentionally contrived by directors, which is when the audience understands what’s going on more than the characters in the drama themselves. Many fictional characters are also written to be relatively one-dimensional compared to real people, and follow clichéd stereotypes. So whenever you sense ‘oh I bet you that person is up to no good’ – this is far easier and reliable to do when watching fictional works of art. It may also be interesting to note that Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed in a lot of irrational beliefs and pseudoscience in his real life.)
A truly astute person is confident enough to admit and say, “I don’t know enough yet” and to accept that his/her early view is just provisional for the moment. Most people are also biased about their own impartiality but no one is completely neutral, with absolutely no unconscious preference to a particular conclusion or political stance, which leads to unconscious reporting biases and confirmation biases. This is why we must also listen to and read information that we find discomforting for us.
When evaluating information sources, they are more reliable if they are – independent (the source has no personal interests at stake about how the story goes), there are multiple sources who are independent from each other all saying the same thing, the source provides material that verifies what they say, the sources are authoritative and/or informed (such as someone who has relevant training and/or experience on the matter, or an eyewitness to or participant of the actual event in question), and if the sources are named rather than anonymous (an answerable and accountable source is likely to be more reliable). This ‘IMVAIN’ analysis for assessing sources of information stands for independent, multiple, verified, authoritative, informed and named.
The ‘CRAAP’ test is another mnemonic, and this one stands for currency (as in current and not out-of-date, or timeliness), relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose (why the information exists e.g. to inform, teach, entertain, persuade or sell, and is this purpose made clear?)
So when evaluating any source, ask – who is this person? What is their relationship to the news event? What information does this person provide? (And read/listen to what they’re actually saying and don’t try to infer or over-extrapolate what you’d like them to say or think they’re trying to say.) Does this person give facts or opinions? How does this person know what he/she claims to know? And what is this person’s interest in talking to the media? And maybe why are they only doing so now?
Does the news source provide evidence that actually verifies what it says or is it just asserting it? Red flags are strong language and an emphatic tone in place of solid evidence or logical reasoning.
Without being able to know or verify a source, one cannot, for instance, be sure whether it was released by someone with a personal grudge and wanted to present another person or organisation in an unfavourable light, or whether it was alternatively released by someone who personally supports this person or organisation and wants to show them in a favourable light (e.g. leaking a politician’s least, or most, favourable tax return). Depending on one’s sources, one can get completely contradictory and opposing one-sided views on exactly the same news story, hence it’s always wise to reserve judgement until one has absorbed all sides of a story and versions of events fairly.
Whenever a news programme invites a guest speaker or expert in, the views expressed by them are often only their own personal views so these would be in the category of opinions and commentary rather than proper investigative journalism or reporting. They can be merely interviews with one source and one side rather than a wide spectrum of sides. They usually represent the opinions of that person only and not necessarily of the news organisation as a whole (although of course one could question why they chose a particular guest and not another, especially if the interviewer isn’t exactly grilling them hard?) They might be there really because they want to commercially plug their own book or other product?
Whenever we see or hear a celebrity give their personal opinion on political matters on TV or radio, we must be aware that this presents a kind of selection bias too (e.g. their views could perhaps be biased towards ‘wealthy-person’ perspectives because most celebrities are wealthier than the average person) and they’re not likely to be experts on the matter discussed anyway, even though their opinions are highly influential on a lot of viewers or listeners! This is not to mean that what they say will always be clueless nonsense but we must be aware of these factors. (Check out Post No.: 0291 for more about such sources of expertise or ‘expertise’.)
Once again, never rely on just one or two pieces and sources of information – it’s only through lots of independent and verifiable pieces and sources of information over time can we build a more reliable picture of the truth or a well-informed position about a subject or issue. If there is new evidence found or revealed, the story could change and so what we perceive as the truth can update.
Even if you had witnessed something firsthand yourself, you might not know the full story (e.g. seeing a plane crash won’t necessarily tell you whether it was deliberate or accidental), never mind if you hadn’t directly witnessed something with your own senses yet wish to express a strong opinion about what ‘must have’ happened (e.g. who shot first and started a skirmish).
One must also read articles fully and carefully (e.g. it matters whether a scientific study was small or large, or something that worked on fruit flies may not work on humans). Finding the best truth is like completing a jigsaw puzzle where you won’t get the full picture until the very last piece is in, and many journalistic mistakes will likely be made and published along the way, which means that one should never stop and settle on a firm and forthright conclusion until the very last piece is in. Well really, in some cases we won’t ever know whether the last piece is finally in or not because for some stories new evidence will emerge many years later (e.g. (further) scandals committed by a certain public figure can be alleged or proved many years after they have died).
To know whether the last piece of a puzzle is in place or not assumes that we know what the final complete picture is supposed to look like, but we don’t get given that picture on the front of the box like we do with an actual toy jigsaw puzzle – hence we’ve got to understand and accept that virtually every conclusion we ever hold about the world should only ever be provisional, and pending possible further evidence.
If you happen to stop your search for more information after a mistake, lie or exaggeration (journalists are human too, and of course there are those who deliberately set out to deceive) then you can end up believing in the wrong things for the rest of your life. So don’t be a passive consumer of news – you’ve got to keep searching for or keep your ears open to answers and evidence, preferably from multiple independent sources. Even when you think something is personally beyond reasonable doubt with the current evidence – new evidence might arise in the future?
You should also demand further study and research from yourself whenever you form a hypothesis about something, otherwise personally accept that something as ‘inconclusive’, that ‘further research is required’, and keep your views on the matter soft. You’ve got to check and verify your own sources of information as well as your own logical reasoning and biases too (e.g. most of us are biased to favour our own nationality when sources from different countries disagree about something).
Woof. Well I for one don’t believe I know it all and that’s why I will never stop keeping my furry ears open and putting in the effort to learn more about everything I possibly can!