A modest proposal.
Modest proposals are "tongue in cheek" suggestions for improving the world. This proposal is somewhat serious, but I am not so sure where the tongue should be allocated in this case.
It is apparent that our mass media have lost track of the concept of "disinterested" journalism, as Pulitzer promoted. Here are my suggestions how to improve the situation. Many of these solutions are already in place in the scientific literature, but some of these ideas are novel (such as color-coding for truth), and could be unique to our brave new digital publishing world.
- Sign your work. In my medical office, I expect all of my staff to "sign their work". Whatever they write has to be traceable to them. When there is a mistake -- this makes it easier to trace and prevent more in the future. This very simple rule could have enormous consequences for Journalism. Imagine, if a writer at the some paper writes that country-X is doing poorly-- and that they had to take responsibility for their own writing ? Or that all opinions in the magazine needed to be clearly marked as such. A variant of this might be to "code" articles, based on the ability of readers to determine if their content is correct. Imagine -- putting up a series of question marks that reflected a "trust" algorithm. A high weight being given to an ability to trace the source of the material to a trusted source. The Wall Street Journal does sign its articles. The Economist generally does not. Which to believe ?
- "Peer review". This means that a group of people also hoping to publish something, volunteer their time to judge whether or not a manuscript is likely to be correct, and whether or not it has something important to say. Starting up a "peer review' system for our media would slow it down, but could immensely improve the truthfulness. This could be done dynamically -- the article goes up, and the reviews gradually accrue. Here it would be helpful to have a method of weighting reviewers as well, as it would not help to have a large group of persons with no expertise contribute. There are online sites that have a method of doing this (such as technical sites)-- why not all ?
- Fact checking. During the last presidential campaign in 2020, sites were set up to "fact check" the candidates. Why not "fact check" the media as well ? Here I imagine a site where one could look up a reporter's name, and determine the number of statements that they make that are clearly right, clearly wrong, and indeterminate. Again, this could be dynamic. I could imagine a series of little "Pinocchio" graphics, or to complete the scale "George Washington graphics", to help readers grasp the reliability of the writer. It would be nice to know if there had been awards or perhaps less positive material about this reporter as well. Of course the devil is in the details here as who checks the checkers ? It could go circular. X quotes Y who quotes Z who quotes X again, creating a self-reinforcing system.
- Rules of evidence. In legal proceedings, when one is fighting a battle, there is often an effort to convince the court or members of the jury using "evidence". Why not introduce the concept of "evidence" into the media ? Perhaps this is too novel an idea, but imagine how useful it could be to determine if an article is just fluff or based on something real !
- References. In scientific articles, statements of "fact" are generally accompanied by a reference to an article on that subject. Why not introduce references to the media ? This would seem especially relevant to online media that can "link" to the reference on demand. If there is no evidence at all for a reporter's assertion, why not just make this clear ? Just put a statement at the end -- "The reporter could not find any published data to support this article." Or perhaps the reporter found another article in the National Enquirer, when they were checking out.
- Knowing who is claiming what and where. Individuals who write scientific papers usually have a "track record" of other papers. Reporters, on the other hand, generally have little content expertise. Why not put up the reporter's "cv" (curriculum vitae, list of articles written) online, so that readers can find out what this reporter seems to prefer to write about ? It would be nice to know if a particular writer of an article for, lets say, the Chicago Tribune, also wrote for, perhaps, the National Enquirer. For an article about, lets say, vaccines, it would be nice to know if a reporter had a Ph.D. in molecular biology, or a BS in English literature.
- Color coding sources. Expanding on this idea a bit to fit with our brave new digital content world, often reporters collaborate with content experts, and their article is a patchwork of sentences drawn from various sources. It could be useful to color-code the online articles according to what expert is claiming what fact is true. Or even to have a software system where you can click to show color codes for sources, estimated truthfulness, or whatever parameter readers might be interested in.
April 11, 2021
, Timothy C. Hain, M.D.
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