Breaking news or highlighting inaccuracies? We are taught how to read but not how to think. I would not suggest the well meaning journalist exploits this fault. I would say the propagandist certainly does.
What is reliability? It is a quality. The quality of being trustworthy.
Is today’s news trustworthy? Sometimes. Is it consistently so? Not a chance.
In the growing disparity between quantity of news and quality of news concerns over “fact-checking” arises. Many outlets and multiple vested interests are eager to control this particular activity. So-called “fact-checking” has itself become a topic of controversy. It is not always trustworthy. It is sometimes intentionally inaccurate.
In short: we should not rely on another to tell us what is true and what is false.
But what is the alternative? Do we, ourselves, do the research? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
And so the challenge:
Is it possible to determine the reliability of news reports by only reading a single report?
I believe it is! And I invite you to participate in this experiment with me.
5 Key Factors: The Reliability Scorecard
This will be an evolving scorecard but to start we should at least have some guidelines! I suggest these five and have given examples from a popular story that was released earlier this year. Let’s see how reliable this original story is.
It concerns two North Korean officials. One who was executed by Kim Jung-un after a summit with President Trump, and another who was ‘purged’ and sent to a labor camp. Bloomberg was first to report it in the states, and this is the piece we will be analyzing.
‘North Korea Executed Envoy Over Trump-Kim Summit, Chosun Reports’ – Bloomberg
1. Breaking News! Source(s) –
The source of any news report is key. Accurate, trustworthy, reporting will name the names where possible. The sources are ideally people who state fact and stand by it.
Where the source is missing, the report is immediately untrustworthy. Where the source is ‘unnamed’ or ‘anonymous’, heavy questions with regards the story’s reliability should creep into your mind.
Where the only source is another journalist or another publication (AP reports, the NYT says, etc.), it may just be a run-away hit piece!
This Bloomberg article in the headline states the source is ‘Chosun’? Never heard of it, but I am assuming it is a news publication…Oh! It’s right there in the first paragraph, haha! “South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.”
Kim Hyok Chol, who led working-level negotiations for the February summit in Hanoi, was executed by firing squad after being charged with espionage after allegedly being co-opted by the U.S., the newspaper said Friday, citing an unidentified source…
Not off to a good start here.
2. Generalized assertions –
‘Everybody says’ or ‘the American people want’ are very obvious ones. But how about this one from our host article?
“Speculation has swirled for months…”
Who speculated? Where was this “speculation” swirling? When it’s pointed out like this it is very obvious to see how ridiculous this sentence begins. It makes it seem like EVERYONE was speculating!
But in its full context it is a bit trickier to tell.
…The move was part of an internal purge Kim undertook after the summit broke down without any deal, it said.
Speculation has swirled for months about the fate of Kim Hyok Chol, who hasn’t received any recent mentions in state media dispatches. Previous South Korean media reports about senior North Korean officials being executed following the talks have proven false.
See how it was just slipped in there?
Here is another generalized statement that produces the opposite effect. With no context given it seems innocuous and yet it is the key datum that defeats the entire article itself.
Previous South Korean media reports about senior North Korean officials being executed following the talks have proven false.
How many previous reports? 2? 100?! I guess we are supposed to assume if it’s 100 false reports the author would tell us.
But that one brings us to #3!
3. Omitted information –
Which ‘South Korean media’ were falsely reporting? Was it Chosun?
Seems important to know. Since he left out the specifics I guess we are supposed to gloss over it.
And what happened to the guy who was sent into hard labor? We don’t see anything in this report about him at all.
4. Contradictory facts in the reporting itself –
The fact that ‘South Korea media’ had been false reporting executions opens a massive door to this report also being incorrect.
Near the end of the article we get this gem.
North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun, one of its most prominent dailies, added to the speculation with an editorial Thursday, using language similar to previous opinion pieces that have coincided with executions.
Wait. The headline said a guy was executed. Now it’s speculation.
If two things contradict then one or both are false.
The headline insists a man was executed. The story says he might not have been. Then it pads in some of point #5 to confuse the readers and get us lost in a fog about it.
5. Inapplicable information / opinion –
Right at the top in the bullet points beneath the headline it says “Envoy Kim Hyok Chol was a career diplomat from an elite family”.
It is entirely inapplicable to the story what kind of family the man was from.
Kim Dong-yub, professor specializing in North Korea at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in South Korea, said was skeptical that the Chosun report was credible. This type of political execution would be seen domestically as an attempt by the North Korean leader to shift blame for a summit that was well-publicized within the secretive state, he said.
“It would mean that Kim Jong Un’s admitting to his own failure,” the professor said, adding that “that could damage Kim’s authority on his own leadership, a risk that he is highly unlikely to take.”
These two paragraphs are a waste of space. This is all opinion and has nothing to do with the story. Was a diplomat executed or wasn’t he?
Kim Jong Un may have gone into the summit with a faulty assessment from his team of Washington’s position and got caught flat-footed without a “Plan B” after Trump rejected North Korea’s disarmament offer, said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul for the Center for a New American Security. If the Chosun report is true, it may mean more delays for the sputtering nuclear talks, she said.
“Perhaps this explains why Pyongyang has been ghosting Washington and Seoul since Hanoi because it might have needed to clean house and regroup before negotiating again,” she said.
This is all opinion and conjecture from someone who is not a first-hand source. Her opinion is added to the report and is not applicable to the report.
Final score – NOT THE LEAST BIT RELIABLE!
This story was picked up from Bloomberg and further reported on by The New York Times, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, The Daily Beast, Fox News, CNBC, TIME, ABC News…
And in every one of those stories similar points to what I have listed above were present.
Indeed, after all these outlets picked up the story and blasted it all over America, further ‘unnamed sources’ said he actually wasn’t executed.
CNN and the rest then stated that the new report backed up what experts thought because the sourcing of the original story was ‘thin’. (‘Executed’ North Korean diplomat is alive, sources say)
And what about the guy who was “purged” into hard labor? He showed up, photographed, a couple days later at some artsy-fartsy theater event.
So do we really need to read all the news on this? From the first report – the initial report – I think we had all that was needed to determine the story’s reliability.
What are some of the things you look at to determine how reliable your news is? Did I miss any? Join the conversation on Twitter and go ahead and leave any comments or suggestions. I’d love to hear what you think.