NEW YORK, NY- February 11, 2014 – In a media landscape marred by false equivalency, have we lost sight of the existence and value of facts? How are facts identified and tested in medicine, business, law and journalism, and what can we all learn about information quality?
These were just a few of the questions that were discussed during the dynamic conference, “Truth Be Told:” A Cross-Disciplinary Exploration of Finding Facts” hosted on January 30, 2014 by Baruch College and The Harnisch Foundation.
More than 170 students and professionals in the fields of law, business, media and medicine attended the panel discussion to analyze and explore the separation of fact from fiction. The discussion was moderated by Geneva Overholser, Senior Fellow, Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, USC Annenberg, who also co-directed the conference with Geanne Perlman Rosenberg, Baruch Professor and Director of the Harnisch Journalism Projects.
The panelists encompassed a group of experts who offered the audience a closer look on how each of them qualify the truth in their professional lives. Jane Aiken, Associate Dean for Experiential Education and Professor of Law at Georgetown; Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor, The New York Times; Harold E. Varmus, M.D., Director, National Cancer Institute and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1989; and Amy Whitaker, Full-time Faculty, Art Business, Sotheby’s Institute of Arts, kept the audience engaged with their insightful anecdotes and analysis of their professions’ tools for finding the truth and consideration of how the media covered the U.S. government shutdown and the national debt ceiling crisis.
“How do we find and verify facts?” asked Rosenberg during her opening remarks. “Journalism requires locating reliable sources, detecting and screening out spin, hype and falsehoods and unearthing newsworthy, accurate information. But law, science and business also have their own strategies and their own methods for finding facts that might make a difference between (in science) being informed by high-quality research or duped by junk science; or in law between a fair outcome in a trial and a miscarriage of justice; or in the art business between buying a valuable work of art and the possibility of buying something that’s worthless or even a forgery. With the internet we all, whether we are journalists or regardless of our profession, we all have a role of in identifying facts and publishing and sharing information; and we all have access to almost limitless information of all qualities from millions of sources.” I’m hoping this cross-disciplinary conversation with this amazing panel, guided by the legendary and incredible journalist and leader in journalism Geneva Overholser, will help to shed light on a variety of approaches for finding and verifying facts so we can all be more discerning consumers of and contributors to the information we all share, so we all can better informed for our own benefit and for the benefit of society.”
Each panelist briefly explained how their professions seek to find and qualify the truth, and separate fact from fiction.
Varmus said in his field of cancer research, the quest to find the truth is especially onerous because outcomes affect human health.
“Our goal is to get things right. People like to make discoveries,” Varmus said. “They like to be correct. The risk of not being correct is very high, reputationally and every other way; especially for those who do medical research. They don’t want to make mistakes that lead to things that adversely affect of health of human beings.”
He noted several types of mistakes that sometimes occur when scientists are seeking the truth in their research: Fabrication, Falsification and Plagiarism (FFP); Inadequate tools and equipment to conduct research; Faulty reasoning and making claims based on associations rather than cause and affect; and Sloppiness or taking shortcuts in order to complete the research before other competing researchers.
Aiken presented the methods in which lawyers seek to find the truth. The challenges differ, but the methods of deconstructing the evidence and probabilities to find the truth, still apply in law as they do in science.
“In the law we think of finding truth as the exercise of an adversarial process, where one side presents facts and the other side presents facts and the fact-finder, being a jury or a judge, decides what is [actually] the truth,” Aiken said. The trial process is covered by rules and rules of evidence. The purpose for having rules of evidence is that the reason, “we find truth is because by finding truth we define justice.”
Whitaker presented three stories focused on business and finance using the recent listing of Twitter in the New York Stock Exchange, customer service involving a cancellation of an air flight, and the purchase of art. She concluded by saying that the search for the truth puts individuals in “an interesting nexus of the qualitative and the quantitative” manner of finding the truth.
“You are really dealing with stories and numbers,” Whitaker said. “Numbers always look true. They look accurate by their nature, but in any complicated finance equation there is usually a piece of one number that is made up that’s based on a story. You can say that it is based on an evidence-based argument, but it’s based on a story and it’s also based on probability.”
Sullivan said journalism is an “inexact science” and said competition and finding credible sources in the digital age poses new challenges in reporting the truth.
“The equation has gotten considerably more difficult, because in the digital age we are putting out information just as quickly as we possibly can, and accuracy is definitely taking a beating,” Sullivan said. “Journalism has been called, ‘the first rough draft of history.’ These days it’s getting more and more challenging to be right at first, because there is so much competitive pressure.”
After setting the stage by showing three news clips featuring the coverage of the debt ceiling and reading media excerpts that included the critique titled, “Shutdown Coverage Fails Americans,” written by Dan Froomkin in Al Jazeera America, Overholser led the discussion that focused on false equivalency in the media. Each panelist, applying the guidelines they use in each of their professions to find the truth, presented recommendations and observations on how the media can better report complicated matters to ensure that the public understands all sides.
Sullivan quoted the article, “The Endless Battle Over Judicial Nominees,” written by David Leonhardt of The New York Times and said, “One of the easiest sentences for a political journalist to write is some version of ‘Both sides do it.’ And one of the easier arguments for an advocate to make is a version of “Only the other side does it.’ “We love that conflict (you know). Let’s put a guy here and a guy (over) here and have them sort of duke it out. But that doesn’t really get to the truth very successfully.”
Whitaker said the need to have both sides represented in the media coverage of the debt ceiling interferes with the more important conversation that accepts multiple viewpoints from more people.
She said the current false equivalency coverage, “allows for tremendous failures of imagination about future outcomes. Here, what we are really talking about,” Whitaker says referring to the video clips shown, “is one side’s view of a political process and another side’s view of the acceptability of a political process, but what we should be talking about is what will actually happen if we default on the Sovereign currency. And I think generally it takes work to imagine the future.”
“If you are trying to create equivalent sides of the argument, they should allow for more conversation about the merits of the debt ceiling coverage itself so more people in the population at large could have participated in it,” Whitaker added.
As the conversation continued, other observations focused on media’s selectivity of the news that is reported and what the audience chooses to absorb based on their own views and discrimination.
Aiken, who said she mostly gets her news from The New York Times, compared media coverage to litigation cases presented in court. She said many law cases are settled out of court and are never brought to the court room, because both parties settled outside. Aiken said the same thing happens in media when stories that are not viewed as important don’t see the pages of newspapers, because it was decided that those stories would not capture the interest of readers. “If it’s not sexy, it’s not interesting to the general public,” Aiken said.
Sullivan added, “You have an American public which is tuned in to its own version of reality. If you are a liberal, you are watching and listening to liberals talk; and if you’re conservative you’re tuned in to particular TV shows and reading particular publications. And there is, I think, less and less the ability to cross over and hear the other side or the various sides to imagine different possibilities because you are essentially getting your beliefs confirmed over and over.”
The “Truth Be Told” conference was also available through Web stream and audience members asked questions via Twitter or in-person. One of the questions asked via Twitter was: “How will wearable technologies impact the future of journalism, truth telling and eye-witness testimony in law and journalism?”
Aiken, responded by saying, “I think it does have a huge impact. The ready access to information that people have [sometimes] maybe not good information, but ready information to check any fact that you’re proposing.”
Aiken, a professor of law at Georgetown, concluded by saying, “If content is ubiquitous, which essentially it is with all this ready access, then our job is to teach people how to evaluate content, and that seems to be the critical piece of teaching these days.”
Aiken said content is not the main concern. It’s whether someone has an ability to know how to learn and how to distinguish between fact and fiction.
This event was made possible by the generous support of The Harnisch Foundation, and is a part of The Harnisch Journalism Projects, which include strategic interventions, educational programs, research and experimentation that aim to advance high-quality journalism, support press freedom and foster an informed, actively engaged public.
About Baruch College:
Baruch College is a senior college in the City University of New York (CUNY) with a total enrollment of more than 17,000 students, who represent 160 countries and speak more than 100 languages. Ranked among the top 15% of U.S. colleges and the No. 5 public regional university, Baruch College is regularly recognized as among the most ethnically diverse colleges in the country. As a public institution with a tradition of academic excellence, Baruch College offers accessibility and opportunity for students from every corner of New York City and from around the world. For more about Baruch College, go to http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/.
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