Tag Archives: journalism

How to manufacture facts like a champ

“Boomerang kids: 85% of college grads move home,” blared a headline on CNNMoney.com. “85% of college grads return to nest,” echoed the New York Post. “Survey: 85% of New College Grads Move Back in with Mom and Dad,”said Time magazine’s website.

Recently, the 85 percent figure emerged in the presidential campaign, in an ad from the Republican group American Crossroads that blames President Barack Obama for the boomerang.

We rated the claim False, but as we dug into the number, we found the media had repeated it with little scrutiny. Journalists were content to copy a number from other news reports without verifying it — or even asking when the survey was conducted.

If the reporters had looked deeper, they would have found some oddities about the firm that claimed to have conducted the survey, a Philadelphia-area company called Twentysomething. The company’s website had an impressive list of staffers, but when we checked on them, we found several who either didn’t work for the company or appeared to be fictional.

The whole story is even weirder than you might imagine, and cane be seen over at Politifact. Moral of the story, news without public citations is suspect.

With all the crap wikipedia gets on accuracy, they are quite good about creating a culture of “citation needed”. We need more of that.


Citation Needed

I was recently reading a NY Times article about the new gold rush going on in Silicon Valley which included the following statement: “Nationwide unemployment among computer scientists and programmers is higher than in other white-collar professions – around 5 percent”. Ok, that seems interesting, and not what I expected, so I wanted a citation.

Years of using Wikipedia has developed a very good set of habbits in actually looking at all the references someone links to in an article. Just because someone writes a thing down, doesn’t make it true. In the era of the internet you can’t hide behind your endnotes.

So I went trying to find this fact. Maybe they paid the $20 for the IEEE report on unemployment? Though I doubt it for an article that was basically about crazy perqs that were being given. All the freely available pieces of data cited on blogs are from October 2009, 18 months ago. I’m sure that 18 months in no way changed that number. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data that is broken down by job family is older than that, dating back to May 2009. And it doesn’t actually address unemployment, but employment. And when it break it down by job family, you start to realize how difficult it would be to figure out those rates anyway. If anyone has a better way to find these numbers, please let me know.

As the NY Times is about to put itself behind a paywall, I’m starting to wonder if one of the lessons old media really needs to learn from new media is heavily footnote. Trust is no longer given to an organization, they’ve all been too wrong too often. But trust can be given on a piece by piece basis if it has enough supporting material. And providing people good links to good primary sources is really valuable, as an hour on google will attest to. If the NY Times actually started doing that, I’d jump on the digital subscription bandwagon. It’s one of the reasons I pay for Ars Technica, they actually spend time getting good citations.

Journalism Warning Labels

These are brilliant:

It seems a bit strange to me that the media carefully warn about and label any content that involves sex, violence or strong language — but there’s no similar labelling system for, say, sloppy journalism and other questionable content.

I figured it was time to fix that, so I made some stickers. I’ve been putting them on copies of the free papers that I find on the London Underground. You might want to as well.