Editorial: Shades of Grey: Distinguishing fact from speculation in the news

When it comes to the news, I’m an old fashioned guy. I do not care about what might be or what could be. I want to know what is. I understand that the world is complex and nuanced, and I know that not all information about a news story is available at first publication. I am patient enough to wait for new information as it comes.

However, in this world of infotainment, speculation rules. It is no longer interesting enough to report what is known about a story. Details must be gone over with a fine-tooth comb in order to project what could have happened or what will happen. This is where facts are blurred with guesses and estimates. Guesses and estimates are just that. They aren’t news.

A recent article on Poynter detailed the plan by news site Quartz (qz.com) to utilize a font shade key to denote facts from speculation in their articles. The idea came to Quartz writer Adam Epstein after he read a post on Reddit about the announcement of HBO launching a new subscription service. He noticed much of the information in the post was mostly speculative.

“ Originally, I wanted to write an all-encompassing guide, but we decided that probably wouldn’t read very well and would quickly become obsolete once the next piece of information trickled in,” Epstein told Poynter via email.

So Epstein got together with Quartz senior editor Zach Seward and devised a system to distinguish known facts from possible rumors using three different shades of text. This was the key that appeared above the HBO story:

via Poynter

When I first read the article, I was taken aback by the idea that rumor and speculation were even being used in the story in the first place. This was the tweet I sent to Poynter:

I got this response from Canadian journalist Justin Heyward:

After mulling his response over for quite some time, it made me realize something about the culture of news in relation to the public’s habits consuming news: not only does the public want the facts, but they want to take a shot at predicting what will happen or what did happen. It makes the news more interactive for the reader/watcher/listener. It gives them something to talk to their families and co-workers about the next day. More people consume news that gives them the opportunity to fantasize about the story than news that just tells them the facts.

Injecting this much imagination into the news has obviously led to mountains of mis- and disinformation. One only has to look at their Facebook feed to see how many people spend time making outrageous memes and “infographics” based on stories whose facts are not concrete yet. This is a major problem for journalism.

What journalists do not take into consideration when using speculation in their writing is cognitive dissonance. When a news consumer reads speculation and forms an idea about what could have happened or will happen in a story, it is hard for new information to penetrate that idea. The consumer has already “completed” the story in their mind, and no new information will sway them from their conclusions. This leads to the spreading of wrong or even false information. No amount of follow-up to the story will break through that much dissonance.

A good example of this was the infamous Obama birth certificate story. When the story broke, conspiracy theorists (some of the most prolific practitioners of cognitive dissonance) latched onto it, hoping to expose that our first African American president was truly not of American birth.

Anyone familiar with the fact that Obama’s mother was American and the precedent that any offspring of an American citizen are automatically American citizens, would know that any sort of controversy was null and void. Yet the issue was pressed so far that President Obama released his birth certificate for public viewing to finally quell the rumors. Even when the already well-established law and his birth certificate were presented clearly showing that Obama was in fact born in Hawaii, the idea that he is still not a true American citizen persists.

What can be done about this? Speculation is what is driving consumers to news providers, who in turn are making money from the attention, which is vital in an already unstable industry. However, the quality and integrity of the news is at stake, as well as the inherent duty of the Fourth Estate: to inform the electorate with information that is as accurate as possible. The balance between providing the service of information accurately and being able to make money to support the effort must be re-examined. What is more important, the facts or the views? How can financing a news provider be changed in order to remain faithful to the duty of reporting the news? Is it possible to halt the “clickbait culture” before it gets out of hand? Is it already out of hand? Can we measure a provider’s success in something other than views, hits, or shares?

In my old school opinion, the duty comes before the funding. However, the funding makes the duty possible. With the rise in Internet news, pay walls, and subscriptions, is it enough to keep journalism honest as well as financially secure? Can crowdfunding options be utilized instead of ad revenue or clicks per minute? Only time will tell. Until then, it would be advisable to skip reading the pale grey text in favor of the bold text.