Explainers and Transparency

Since the recent unrest began in the Middle East, Mother Jones has gotten attention for their invaluable explainer posts like this one on Egypt. These posts do more than report on events. They begin by asking and briefly answering questions like “How did this all start?” and “Why Are Egyptians Unhappy?” It’s a deceptively simple format, but the posts go a long way to providing some basic context prior to reporting what’s new. The Wall Street Journal has a similar feature today on “How Nuclear Reactors work… And the Dangers When They Don’t”.

There’s a lot of room to experiment with these sort of explainer features. (Jay Rosen at NYU is leading a project that explores the issue in depth at Explainer.net.) But context is arguably trickier than news reporting when it comes to providing some level of “objectivity.” There are often multiple reports of what happened, but even more of why it happened.

So explainers will need to think extra carefully about how to update “objectivity” – a thorny subject under the best circumstances – to fit these features.

The excellent analysis offered by Mother Jones and WSJ reminded of a post I wrote about back in August: the magazine-reporter ethos. The original post is by Jim Henley, and here are his key points:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

It’s relatively easy to come up with rough guidelines like these, or these ones by Factcheck.org:

1. Keep an open mind
2. Ask the right questions
3. Cross-check
4. Consider the source
5. Weigh the evidence

And explainers would do well to incorporate these guidelines into their efforts. But I’d argue they need to go even further, beyond rough guidelines, and develop more detailed rules and descriptions of their process. There are lots of advocates of transparency in future-of-news circles, often as a substitute for “objectivity.” But too often those calling for transparency focus on explaining the writer’s perspective – I’m liberal, this is my worldview, etc. – and less on transparency of process – we consider x to be a more reliable source than y and shaped our analysis accordingly, etc. Let’s see more process transparency. And keep up the great explainer experiments.

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

Reliable sources: An interview with Factcheck.org

I have a post up at The Atlantic Tech featuring an interview I did with Brooks Jackson, Director of Factcheck.org about determining reliable sources. Factcheck.org is a terrific resource, and Brooks’ insights are excellent. Please head over to The Atlantic and read the interview. Here’s a taste:

We tend to be more skeptical of assertions that run counter to our existing worldview. How can we adjust for this bias of “motivated skepticism“? In such situations, it seems our reasoning capabilities are coming to the service of our emotions, to ill effect. Is it ever the case that we ought to employ less critical thinking?

In unSpun, Kathleen Jamieson and I argue that to keep from being fooled by this common human tendency, its a good idea to keep asking yourself “Am I missing something? Does the other guy have a point here?” It also helps to be aware of this universal psychological tendency, and for teachers to point out examples of it.

Kathleen doesn’t like the term “critical thinking” because it implies to some that they should automatically be critical. We prefer “analytical thinking.” If you look at it that way, I think there’s no danger of being too analytical. I agree that there is a danger of automatically distrusting anything said by people in authority. In that sense, yes, there is a danger of too much “critical” thinking. It’s one thing to be skeptical, which is good. It’s another to be cynical, which is a sort of naive belief that everybody is lying.

For more on this from Factcheck.org, check out their Tools of the Trade:

A Process for Avoiding Deception

1. Keep an open mind. Most of us have biases, and we can easily fool ourselves if we don’t make a conscious effort to keep our minds open to new information. Psychologists have shown over and over again that humans naturally tend to accept any information that supports what they already believe, even if the information isn’t very reliable. And humans also naturally tend to reject information that conflicts with those beliefs, even if the information is solid. These predilections are powerful. Unless we make an active effort to listen to all sides we can become trapped into believing something that isn’t so, and won’t even know it.

2. Ask the right questions. Don’t accept claims at face value; test them by asking a few questions. Who is speaking, and where are they getting their information? How can I validate what they’re saying? What facts would prove this claim wrong? Does the evidence presented really back up what’s being said? If an ad says a product is “better,” for instance, what does that mean? Better than what?

3. Cross-check. Don’t rely on one source or one study, but look to see what others say. When two or three reliable sources independently report the same facts or conclusions, you can be more confident of them. But when two independent sources contradict each other, you know you need to dig more deeply to discover who’s right.

4. Consider the source. Not all sources are equal. As any CSI viewer knows, sometimes physical evidence is a better source than an eyewitness, whose memory can play tricks. And an eyewitness is more credible than somebody telling a story they heard from somebody else. By the same token, an Internet website that offers primary source material is more trustworthy than one that publishes information gained second- or third-hand. For example, official vote totals posted by a county clerk or state election board are more authoritative than election returns reported by a political blog or even a newspaper, which can be out of date or mistaken.

5. Weigh the evidence. Know the difference between random anecdotes and real scientific data from controlled studies. Know how to avoid common errors of reasoning, such as assuming that one thing causes another simply because the two happen one after the other. Does a rooster’s crowing cause the sun to rise? Only a rooster would think so.