Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Who to trust?

Which source to trust? Why one and not another?

I've been thinking about the best way to illustrate this since yesterdays post. it might take most of the rest of the week.I figure the best place to start is with two different sources, one of which I trust, the other I don't.
For the first one, I'm going to use Nobel Intent from Ars Technica. This is not a day to day news site, it doesn't tell you about what is going on in your local corner of the world. It's a science and technology site that brings together interesting stories from science, technology, business, law, politics and any other topic that the editors thing is useful or interesting to their readership. why do I trust it? (this isn't an exhaustive list by the way)
  • Ars technica have an advantage straight off the bat, namely that they occasionally publish in areas that I am familiar with. So I can tell if they've got something horrendously wrong in those areas. The fact they they very rarely get anything wrong indicates to me that their editors are hiring good people and their writers know the subjects they write about, taking pains to get things right. This immediately means that I extend a certain amount of trust in the areas that they write about that I'm not an expert in.
  • They are pretty upfront in where their biases are as evidenced by their stance on SOPA and PIPA. That they acknowledge those biases is also a point in their favor as it allows me to read their articles with those biases in mind.
  • They also publish their sources. take a look down the bottom of this article on the findings a probe that was sent to Mercury. There's line that looks like "Sciencexpress, 2012. DOIs: 10.1126/science.1218809, 10.1126/science.1218805  (About DOIs)." This is a link to the source paper that the article is about. If I think something sounds a little odd, I go go and check over the orginal source to see if what the source and the journalist are saying matches up. I have done this in the past, not with every article, usually just the interesting ones, and the journalists usually get it pretty bang on. This also creates trust.
This is not to say that I'm going to continue to trust them for ever and ever. I'll continue occasionally checking up on them, comparing them to original content or other reliable sources. If they start to waiver, I'll lose my trust in them. What about untrustworthy sources? Lets try the NZ herald. It's a different type of publication, one that is attempting to bring me political, social and business news from my local area, my country and the world. Why don't I trust this source (again, not an exhaustive list, I could go on. and on. and on. but I won't).
  • I happen to be reasonably familiar with the use of statistics. It is a rare event to be able to read the herald and not find the reporting of at least one story to be skewed or completely due to an abuse of statistics.
  • In some cases stories are made up with little idea of what is being said. The "it's all in the stars" story last week about how you're more likely to win lotto if you are a taurus is a fine example. It's not a news story, it's not statistically sound. At best it is a fluffy piece of nonsense entertainment. And when entertainment is mixed with news, rather than entertainment becoming news, the news becomes suspect.
  • The herald claims to be neutral. However when you go and dig out the original sources (they are never linked to), what the article and the source say, quite often differs. This makes articles seem like editorials with unacknowledged biases - something that does not engender trust. 
The salient points here are track record, acknowledgement of bias, soundness of reasoning and how well the stories are reported compared to the original items. One doesn't check the original source for everything, but it never hurts to take a sample of what you read each day or each week and see how well it matches up with reality. One of these sources does all that. One only claims to, but when you check, it fails miserably. If they get it wrong in areas with which you are familiar how can you trust them in those areas with which you are not familiar?

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