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Separating fact from opinion in the news

MSN Encarta has a piece from Tamim Ansary entitled “News: Fact or Fiction?“. I love this guy, and I’ve often thought about this very subject. His is a thorough discussion of the possibilities. Here’s a snip from section two, “Why some news is untrue”:

Since Watergate, we often think of anonymous sources as brave souls revealing dangerous truths at great risk to themselves. But they may just as easily be people injecting falsehoods into the news stream at no risk to themselves.

Indeed, someone can “leak” information into the news anonymously, and then use the resultant story as evidence for a claim: “It must be true–it’s in the paper!”

News reporting based on anonymous leaks can thus turn the press into a particularly insidious type of propaganda outlet. Most people distrust explicit propaganda, but leaks framed as news skirt suspicion.

In the third section, “What to do about untrue news?”, Ansary makes this controversial statement:

In the end, professional journalists and their employers are accountable because they have profits and livelihoods to lose. Behziz, Blair, et al. got fired–every one of them. What can happen to a blogger who lies? Nothing.

I have nothing against bloggers, but “citizen journalism” isn’t journalism. It’s the crowd around the traffic accident. That’s where journalism begins, not where it ends.

The end of the article is a list of things we can do as news readers to sort out fact from fiction. These are some very good recommendations. Here’s the list; go to the article for the explanations of each item.

  1. Follow story threads.
  2. Randomize your exposure to news sources.
  3. Decide if a stated item is a fact. Not a true fact, just a fact–a statement that can be proven true or false.
  4. Distrust attribution to vaguely defined groups.
  5. Consider a source’s competence and motives.
  6. Consider why an anonymous source wants anonymity.
  7. If it would make a good movie, be suspicious.

Start thinking critically now! Where are the facts in Ansary’s piece, and where are the opinions?