Wednesday, March 30, 2011

No Sources, No Trust

Ben Goldacre has a column calling for citations of primary sources in media reports. It’s rather sad that this would even be an issue in 2011* – this minimal standard practice is the least we should expect, especially since those who fail to cite out of mere laziness or sloppiness create a hospitable environment for those intending to deceive** and lead students to have misconceptions about plagiarism.

Words to live by:

[I]f you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you. - Ben Goldacre

Something else I’d like to see: updates. 60 Minutes frequently annoys me for a variety of reasons (Frontline blows them away), but one particularly irksome practice is the tendency to report, sometimes gushingly, on some allegedly promising co-called innovation or visionary in medicine, education, or “development,” with nary a word later on how the scheme in question has panned out. It would be simple enough to organize their site so as to make it easy to follow stories or investigative areas over time, but they don’t. They could also have update episodes, tracking developments in stories from years past. (Come to think of it, I could do a better job of this here….) Questions of journalistic diligence aside, there’s a lot to be learned by investigating the course of treatments or programs that fail to deliver wholly on their promises and the reasons why.

Goldacre’s call also reminded me of an infuriating internet phenomenon: the Unsourced Quote Wall. I’ve seen a variety of ideologues – antivaccine activists, MRAs, opponents of animal testing,… - use this tactic, treading a path groomed by journalists who fail to cite primary sources. When I look into the items, I find page after page on Google with the purported quotations or the entire list and without proper (if any) citations. Because of this, it’s often difficult to discover whether anything resembling the quoted text was ever written or stated in the research or by the noted individuals “quoted,” but it appears that in many if not most cases the statements in UQWs are misattributed, quotemined, or made out of whole cloth. Nevertheless, they find their way everywhere. People who present them need to be consistently challenged to provide checkable references.

The media and internet cultures don’t have to encourage carelessness or fabrication. We can change habits and expectations for the better.

* (although it would be a fun game to see who can spin the most ridiculous news stories based on article titles)
** I believe they’re known publicly as “fabulists” in the UK.

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