At a recent conference of newspaper editors in which I took part, a small crowd gathered to talk about journalism and new media. When I told the group that I had begun my career as a magazine fact-checker, several of them grew misty-eyed, as if someone had told a group of priests about his childhood as an altar boy.
I brought up my past because I think that fact-checking is the single best training not just for journalism but for life in general. It teaches you to think sceptically. It is easy to believe something when someone who appears knowledgeable asserts it. But if you have a responsibility for checking facts, you listen more carefully.
On what sources does the speaker base his facts? Is there something in it for him—a higher stock price, an advertising fee, or someone else’s gratitude? Or is he simply biased because of the people he knows, the company he works for, or the attitudes he picked up at home?
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I spent hours picking through sources—mostly dusty papers in the years before the Internet, or strangers on the telephone—to clarify questions of fact: Was this really the first such product? Was Mr Smith 42 or already 43? Was his claim that revenues had grown for the last five years true merely because of acquisitions that his company had made? And so on.
My life was ruled by “tk”—which stands for “to kum”, or “to come”, in the jargon of reporters. We fact-checkers would joke about the lazy reporters who would hand us copy such as, “Juan Tigar, tk years old, grew up in tk before studying at tk. Now tk title at Widgets Corp., he…” Our job was to fill in the tks.
But we learnt an enormous amount. We learnt not just thousands of facts that I have since forgotten, but an attitude of scepticism coupled with reverence for the truth.
That attitude contrasts with the scepticism I once heard from a Russian reporter about her early days on the job. “Whenever we read an article about the health dangers of butter, we would immediately run out and buy as much butter as we could find,” she told me. “We knew it meant there was about to be a butter shortage.”
In other words, Russians looked only for the agenda, the motivation behind the assertion. The actual truth was irrelevant.
Of course, spin, propaganda and censorship persist in journalism, but with one big difference: Almost anyone can now operate as a reporter. How can we ensure that these self-nominated reporters respect the truth?
In the US, the Federal Trade Commission has announced plans to require bloggers and celebrity endorsers to disclose gifts or payments from vendors and others seeking the bloggers’ positive comments online. But what about other kinds of bias?
As the journalistic priesthood erodes and everyone can become a citizen reporter or commentator, regulating or training all would-be journalists is not the answer. In line with the bottom-up, do-it-yourself ethos of the Internet, where people book their own flights, publish their own photos and sell their own second-hand goods, it should be the users’ responsibility to do their own fact-checking.
This is not to say that journalists should not check their own facts, or that priests should not observe the tenets of their own religion. But in the end, everyone has to become a better reader—more sceptical and more curious. Why is this story getting so much attention? Does this blogger ever say anything negative, or is she always talking about the great products she uses? Does she have any kind of disclosures on her blog? Why is this politician saying nice things about that politician? What company does the product reviewer work for?
Governments can impose regulations, but in the end we will get the kind of journalism for which we ask. If we ask for it, websites will offer not just content but also reputation systems, so that contributors will have reputations as reliable sources—or not.
We should not outlaw anonymity, which has its uses, but we can ask for details about the people whose words we are reading. Someone may legitimately want to remain anonymous, but we can draw our own conclusions about their reasons.
That much thinking may sound like a lot of work, but it is what is required of a responsible adult these days. Compared with a century ago, more people spend less time labouring to ensure their physical existence. But, in this increasingly confusing world, we need to spend a little more time labouring to ensure our own intellectual integrity—a task that we cannot outsource to governments or even to media. Facts are holy, but not all media that claim to report them—new or old—can be trusted.
Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, healthcare and private aviation and space travel.
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