Anyone who is unwilling to ensure that the fact claims they make are actually true doesn't deserve to be published in a newspaper in the first place.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 04, 2017
This article has been updated.
Can we take a few minutes to discuss the awkward matter of the Hamilton Spectator's selection of opinion editorials (op-eds) arguing against the city's light rail transit (LRT) plan?
It is impossible not to notice that the overwhelming majority of them are a painful mess of blatantly false claims, argumentative fallacies and downright bad writing - most recently a crappy listicle that one would expect any reputable newspaper to be embarrassed to spill ink on.
Just what is going on here?
Like many newspapers, the Spectator has a policy of publishing a selection of op-eds that were written by members of the community, rather than reporters, columnists or editors. This is an excellent opportunity for independent writers to have their say on matters of public interest, and it exposes readers to a welcome diversity of opinions on important social, cultural, political and economic issues.
At one time, the Spectator had a policy of fact-checking op-ed submissions as well as articles, columns and editorials. I experienced this myself in the early 2000s after submitting an op-ed to the Spec, only to have it rejected because the editor challenged my use of a projected number of casualties in the then-pending Iraq War.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with sending a submission back to the author noting the false claims, and asking them to correct the facts and re-submit it. I never begrudged the editors exercising their legitimate oversight, and I simply endeavoured harder to write an op-ed that would meet the Spectator's high standards.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, those high standards were eliminated for op-eds. The newspaper changed its policy and no longer fact-checks op-ed submissions. I believe this is a serious mistake that undermines the Spectator's credibility and does material harm to the public discourse.
The argument for this policy is that the purpose of the op-ed section is to represent the diversity of public opinions about various issues, and some people's opinions are based on false beliefs.
By this reasoning, it would violate the paper's commitment to free speech not to air opinions that rest on empirically false beliefs, and it would deny readers the opportunity to read all sides of the issue and make up their own minds.
Naturally, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous aphorism comes to mind: You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.
I absolutely agree that the Spectator should aim to publish a wide variety of opinions, but that doesn't imply an obligation to publish just any old nonsense. At a minimum, a valid opinion must rest on some basic provable facts.
Trish Hall, a New York Times editor, explained her newspaper's policy toward op-ed submissions in a 2013 column:
We also need all of the material that supports the facts in your story. That's the biggest surprise to some people. Yes, we do fact check. Do we do it perfectly? Of course not. Everyone makes mistakes, and when we do we correct them. But the facts in a piece must be supported and validated. You can have any opinion you would like, but you can't say that a certain battle began on a certain day if it did not.
That sounds just about right. When the Spectator receives an op-ed submission, the editors should check its basic fact claims. If any are false or unsourced, simply send them back to the writer and ask them to correct or validate the claims. If they can't or won't, their opinions don't deserve to be published in a newspaper.
Of course, there is a fuzzy area of overlap in the space between fact claims, interpretations and opinions, and it requires experienced editorial oversight to navigate those corner cases. But that is precisely what professional editors are for.
I have been reviewing the Spec's anti-LRT columns for several years now and the overwhelming majority were based around blatantly false nonsense claims that were painfully easy to identify and refute.
It may be a matter of opinion to assert that overhead wires are ugly, but it is a straightforward fact claim to assert that "there will be no buses making more frequent stops between the long distance between LRT stops" - and that fact claim is straight-up wrong.
I want to clarify that I'm not criticizing the Spectator's supposed partisan or ideological position in deciding to publish this kind of stuff. I accept on good faith the premise that the newspaper's editorial team is committed to being moderate, reasonable and fair in its editorial stances, and while I don't always agree with the paper's positions, I at least understand where they're coming from.
The real issue here is the dangerous idea that "balance" is a journalistic value. "Balance" is the idea that two sides of an issue should be treated as if they are equally valid and should get the same level of coverage and the same treatment, regardless of the extent to which each position is well-founded in evidence and reason.
When the paper treats obviously false claims and irrational, absurd analysis with the same seriousness and legitimacy as carefully fact-checked claims and rigorous analysis, it has the inevitable side-effect of legitimizing the indefensible and giving people the false impression that both positions are at least roughly equally supported by the evidence.
Bill Nye recently made this point in a CNN debate between him and a climate change denier: "I will say, much as I love CNN, you're doing a disservice by having one climate change skeptic, and not 97 or 98 scientists or engineers concerned about climate change."
Letting two talking heads yell at each other has the effect of leaving most people with the impression that the matter is up in the air when in fact the evidence overwhelmingly supports one position and contradicts the other.
The implications for public policy debates should be obvious by now: real progress in solving serious problems is subverted and sabotaged when the agents of narrow special interests are able to obscure the consensus among real experts from the public.
The news media are one of the fundamental pillars of legitimacy in our society, but that pillar has become increasingly wobbly in recent years.
The entire value proposition of a newspaper run by professional journalists and editors is that there is professional oversight to ensure that what people are reading has been vetted and checked.
When a paper chooses not to exercise this basic oversight, a lot of people are going to end up either misinformed about important policy issues or, if they understand the issue well enough to recognize that the claims are false, more suspicious of the paper as a whole.
The worst outcome, of course, is that people start to lose confidence in the professional news media altogether, which is already happening and has extremely dangerous ramifications for the future of a civil, democratic society based on an informed electorate.
The destruction of institutional legitimacy favours charismatic populism and illiberal authoritarianism, a crisis that is already happening across the developed world and is in serious danger of spreading.
Newspapers should be doing everything in their power to build and maintain trust with their readers. Trust is their most precious and fragile asset: it is the foundation on which everything else rests. Without trust, a newspaper is just another tabloid, another "fake news" entity shilling for some interest or other.
Without a commitment to the truth, whatever it is, we are left with "alternative facts," conspiracy theories and unchecked mendacity.
The argument can be made that readers ought to understand the difference between an article, a column, an op-ed and an editorial. But most people have neither the time nor the inclination to have to unpack every newspaper article they read to determine whether they should accept its fact claims - and they shouldn't have to.
It's really simple: there should be a single common standard of factuality and editorial oversight across the entire newspaper. Heck, even a "blog" like Raise the Hammer is committed to this basic principle - and we do this in our spare time.
For people who do accept the newspaper's insistence that op-eds are not like other kinds of articles and don't need to be fact-checked, this understanding merely has the effect of invalidating every op-ed - even those whose authors actually are scrupulous about verifying and fact-checking their own work.
Such readers are left to conclude that they can't trust what they're reading. If nothing else, that can lead to a kind of Gresham's Law of Editorial Content in which inept, disingenuous and malicious op-eds drive out prudent, well-written submissions sincere contributors give up on the forum altogether.
Even worse, it feeds into the broader delegitimization of the news media as a reliable source of news and arguments, and helps pave the road for "post-truth" demagogues who thrive in the chaos and disinformation of a free-for-all driven by a tsunami of "alternative facts" and paranoid conspiracy theories.
Seriously, just fact-check op-eds and the problem goes away. Readers still get to access the opinions of anyone who is willing to ensure that the fact claims they make are actually true. Anyone who is unwilling to meet this minimal test doesn't deserve to be published in a newspaper in the first place.
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