Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The BS Filter

Okay, so shortly before my... family unpleasantness, I issued a retraction on a story regarding Lindsay Lohan's guest appearance on 2 Broke Girls. The story I was going off of was total bullshit, from a site known to those familiar with it to be total bullshit. Therein lied the problem: I wasn't familiar with the site.

This basic point- not knowing the site, or at least, not knowing the creator of the content offhand- is very common when we read something online. And even when you do know the creator, often you won't even get that far. Nobody will. It's literally impossible to do. The responsibility and expectation of a journalist is to read and comprehend the data they're going off of before they put out their own work. Though, really, the expectation is to read and comprehend, well, all the news they see. That's their job, after all. That's what they're paid to do. But there is a limit. There are only so many articles you're able to read, only so many you're able to independently verify, and the latter is going to be a smaller number than the former. And news comes in at a much higher rate than you're going to ever be able to read it, even if your mantle is buckling under the weight of Peabodies and Pulitzers.

Let me show you. Go to Google News. Go down the front page, just the front page. Don't click on anything. Just scroll down and count up how many articles you see. I have a couple custom categories on mine, so my number may be different from yours, but I came out at 69 individual links to articles. Some of them, to be fair, are going to separate accounts of the same news item, but then, if you're going to be verifying a story, odds are you're going to want to click on all of them anyway. Are you going to be clicking on 69 news links a day? Plus whatever else might be hiding behind the front page that would be deemed worthy of relaying? Plus whatever else Google News doesn't catch at all? Of course you aren't. The headline of a story stands a good chance of being all you see of it.

But you're still getting information regardless. Even just following headlines gives at least a tiny bit of information, and that tiny bit of information is likely how you take in a lot of the news you read, whether you realize you're doing it or not. Even if you haven't been following, for instance, the search for the missing plane, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, when you see headlines that tell of expanded search zones that range from Kazakhstan to Australia, you're going to get the idea just from that that the search isn't going well, because searching for a downed plane generally doesn't require anywhere near that kind of range.

The question then becomes: what to do with this information. Believing all of it blindly, clearly, is going to lead you down some very bad roads. But neither you nor anyone else has the kind of time it would take to manually separate fact from fiction. How do you proceed? How do you get on with your life as best you can?

What you do is you set up a bullshit filter (BS filter from here on in). You give yourself a set of guidelines to follow that helps you begin the process of deciding what to believe and what not to believe, and save the more labor-intensive checking for things you're less sure about one way or the other. You give increased weight to content from some sources, and decreased weight to content from others. Particularly untrustworthy sources can get automatically dismissed. Information that fits your current worldview gets more weight than information that doesn't, and stories can be flagged based on a particular part that sticks out or contradicting a previous story you've seen.

However, discarding that which does not fit your personal conventional wisdom can cause a lot of problems. If circumstances have in fact changed, you can get caught off guard. The practice can lead to a lot of echo-chambering, as taken too far, you might only believe news you agree with anyway. And you're susceptible to getting taken in by rumors that continue down the path of current conventional wisdom. This last one is what ultimately got me regarding Lohan.

Eventually, you are going to run into issues with whatever BS filter parameters you've set up. While close examination of more news can be done, it can't be done for everything. All you can do is continue to refine your filter. The difference sometimes between a professional journalist and a non-journalist can be little more than the refinement of the filter, but even a pro can be taken in sometimes. You want to check everything in a story, but some of the information might seem trivial to review every time you write a story. You wouldn't feel the need to keep looking up the capital of France, for instance; you should just straight-up know that it's Paris. The problem becomes, what in the story you're doing do you feel confident enough in knowing that you're just going to put it down? And at what point do you conclude that your information is correct enough to publish? Sooner or later, you must stop researching. You have to eventually say 'okay, this all looks right', or else you'll never run the story. Even that which you've researched will eventually be put through your BS filter, or else you would be researching your research, and then researching your researched research, and so on and so forth forever.

Though this is the best way to fix a BS filter, at least from a journalist's perspective: be more careful. Take the extra bit of time, make extra sure your information is correct. This is one of the key advantages a collective group- e.g. a newsroom- has over an individual: teamwork. They can have more eyeballs on more stories. More to the point, they can have more eyeballs on each individual story. More eyeballs means more BS filters that a story has to go through, and more layers of research, and more opportunities to find and flag anything in a story that smells fishy. When you have that many layers of vetting going on, it should usually be enough to get everything right, though as we know, it often isn't. Deadlines, pageviews, personal agendas and the pursuit of glory can do funny things to a story, even without the possibility that everyone's BS filters failed at the same time.

What can you do other than that? If you're not a journalist and just need to better tell fact from fiction? It's an unsatisfying answer, probably, but it comes down to simply continuing to refine your filter. Learning is a lifelong process. You're never going to get it totally right, but you can always work to get just that little bit better for next time.

I don't mean to be making excuses, though I could see how this could come off as such; if so, I apologize as it's not my intent. My intent is to try to understand just where I messed up and gauge the potential for such a mistake to happen again down the road. Will I make a mistake again? Unfortunately, eventually, of course I will. We all will. We're human. All I can do is be as careful as I can, continue to calibrate my own BS filter, and just generally learn from the mistakes I do make so I can, if not eliminate, at least minimize the likelihood of making mistakes in the future. And if and when I do mess up, it's on me to fix the mistake as quickly and as loudly as I can; we've all heard the old saying about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.

That's a very important part of being less stupid: knowing how and where you need to do so.

No comments: