Will Automation Put the Fact in Fact-Check?

February 15, 2017

by Dan Ward

Automated fact-checking may be the wave of the future, according to this Poynter Institute story, and that could be a good thing if it begins to add objectivity to what is currently opinion journalism.

Instead of checking facts and declaring them correct or false, many “fact checkers” today deal in degrees of accuracy, judging stories according to a scale of truthfulness.  Human judgment is required to determine whether a story is true, mostly true or half true, and that judgment requires a subjective review that inevitably is influenced by journalists’ feelings about a topic.  So instead of getting a verdict on whether a statement is true or false, we get an opinion that factors in bias, assumptions and context.

From the story about the goal of automation: “The state of technology and the maturity of fact-checking organizations today make it possible to take the first steps toward that goal.”

In a nascent industry that issues rulings like “Pants on Fire” and “Four Pinocchios,” the term “maturity” rates a Half True at best.

But of course, that’s just my opinion.


July 16, 2015

by Roger Pynn

The timely reporting of events has always been at the heart of the news business, and yet more and more often I’m seeing the word “recently” – a word that was verboten in my days as a journalism student – creep into news stories.  In fact, I counted three in the last week where it was clear the story had been missed … one by as much as a week.

Not so long ago I’d have written a blog post about lazy reporting, but the more you look at this the more it becomes clear it is a matter of total change of focus for newspapers.  The transition to “digital first” is happening more and more every day … and resources are being deployed for an era of a different type of reporting.

Our Orlando Sentinel provided great examples this week in its Business Monday section where we were treated in print to several stories you’d already have seen if you were subscribing to their new Growth Spotter – a subscription email product focusing strictly on business stories.

You can subscribe only to the Sentinel’s Web-based product for one fee and they throw Growth Spotter and a lot of newsletters in for “free,” or if you get the good old newspaper in your driveway, you get all the digital products as part of the deal.  But you really have to wonder how long the broadsheet will be around.  Perhaps one day they’ll give you the paper if you subscribe to the digital product.


But not if Tampa Bay Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash has his way.  This essay published first in his paper and then shared via the related Poynter Institute website is an eloquent sermon on why media companies should do everything they can to sustain the newspaper … as an institution and as a product.  Tash acknowledges exactly what I said about resource deployment.

In the end, people don’t buy newspapers – or click open their news websites – for the advertising.  They are a collateral advantage of pursuing information and knowledge.  People crave to know what is going on … right away, not recently.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

January 31, 2014

rpynn by Roger Pynn

Bob Dylan’s timeless folk song told us that the only constant is change and for many of my generation it was an anthem as young people began to question social and political values.  So I thought of that last weekend when at a Florida Public Relations Association Counselors Network Winter Symposium.  I learned that journalism is officially no longer what I was taught in college.

I’ve suspected as much due to the endless use of the words “I think” by television newscasters who are all too ready to offer their opinion (something my journalism professor Jeddy LeVar would have flunked me for).  There has been any number of signs that my old trade was disappearing, not the least of which is that many a journalism program is adapting to new media instead of teaching those who work in new media fields to adhere to the basic tenets of the profession.

But when Poynter Institute faculty member Kelly McBride, herself a former ombudsman for a major news organization, presented her definition of journalism, I thought about waving the white flag.  Said McBride, author of the book The New Ethics of Journalism, “Journalism is information that helps individuals connect with their communities and uphold their civic duties.”

I’d always thought of it as something like the Merriam-Webster’s description:  “The collection and editing of news for presentation through the media.”

But then again, McBride told me the problem with my concerns about the state of the fourth estate is a simple result of the aging process.  “You’re old,” she responded when I complained that too many journos aren’t trained as I was.

Yes.  I’m old.  Yet, all due respect to Ms. McBride, but I don’t think that’s what Dylan was saying.  What the person with an iPhone and a blog is doing only qualifies as journalism if they adhere to the basic concepts of factual reporting sans opinion.

Is it Plagiarism to Quote from a News Release?

July 6, 2012

by Dan Ward

A Poynter Institute report caught my eye today regarding a lawsuit filed by Steve Penn against his former employer, McClatchy Newspapers. Penn was fired last year by the Kansas City Star for “using material that wasn’t his and representing it as his own work.”

But he wasn’t accused of copying and reprinting other journalists’ work as his own. He was essentially accused of plagiarism because he lifted copy directly from news releases he had received, and printed this information without attribution.

I’m proud to say that copy from many Curley & Pynn news releases has been “lifted” by reporters over the years. At times, our releases have run virtually verbatim in major news outlets. I’ve often thanked reporters for such coverage. Never once have I thought to accuse them of plagiarism.

If the Star had a written policy that required attribution of information pulled from news releases, then they were likely justified in firing Penn. But attribution or not, I have a hard time understanding how using a news release to build a story is tantamount to plagiarism.

When I clip a coupon from the newspaper and use it to save money on a purchase, that’s not stealing. I’m using the coupon for its intended purpose. The same is true of any reporter who uses a news release to build his or her story.

I Don’t Get It

September 14, 2011

by Roger Pynn

No self-respecting public relations professional would ever think it is OK to produce fake news.  It flies in the face of every ethical guideline … and, oh, by the way … it goes beyond dumb to qualify as just plain stupid.

As The Poynter Institute’s Jim Romenesko reported, a California water management district seemed to think it was just fine, leading me to wonder “who is in charge of public relations at the Central Basic Municipal Water District?”

I reached out to Valerie Howard, who is listed as the District’s media contact on its website, to ask whether the decision to use News Hawks Review, which Romenesko reported is affiliated with an outside communications firm that contracts with the District, was made internally or at the suggestion of outside counsel.

Her response:  “It’s unfortunate how quickly inaccurate news spreads. We’re drafting our request for corrections now.”

I don’t get it.   The media is increasingly irrelevant, anyway.  People don’t need fake news.  There is plenty of direct communication going on and intelligent people are making their own judgments on issues.  Why not build your own lines of communications and let influencers and opinion leaders – the people who matter to you – make up their minds?

Ours is a misunderstood business.  True professionals need to do everything they can to separate themselves from this kind of conduct and guide their organizations and clients toward meaningful, independent and transparent communication.

My Opinion on Opinion

June 24, 2011

by Dan Ward

Thank you to Jim Romenesko and the Poynter Institute for drawing attention to a blog post by Fast Horse founder Jorg Pierach, which calls for newspapers to “get out of the opinion business.”

Pierach says that newspapers “risk alienating partisan readers, who now have the option of turning to other places for news that more closely fits their worldview,” and that the opinion pages that are good for civic discourse are “also bad for business.”

What’s next after losing the Opinion pages? If people are getting their business news from cable TV and ideologically slanted websites, should newspapers drop business coverage altogether? If more people turn to the Internet for movie reviews, should newspaper reviewers hit the road? If more go online to debate the performance of their favorite sports teams, should we lose the Sports pages?

The day that newspapers take Pierach’s advice will be a sad day indeed. Rather than giving people even one more reason to turn to outlets that “fit their worldview,” we should encourage people to seek out opinions with which they disagree, because that’s how we learn. If you are a rigid ideologue who has no use for those whose opinions do not match your own closely held beliefs, then by all means continue filtering your news. But for those who wish to listen to different voices in order to build their own judgments, the Opinion pages are critically important.

While I often critique our hometown newspaper and its news coverage that has suffered from ongoing budget and staff cuts, I find that its Opinion pages are well done. I don’t always agree with the organizational opinion of the Orlando Sentinel, but I almost always learn something. And rather than be accused of bias, under the leadership of Opinions Editor Mike Lafferty, the newspaper provides an equal measure of columns from the left, right and center.

I agree with Pierach that what sets newspapers apart is solid local reporting, news analysis and in-depth investigations. I also believe, however, that the newspaper’s role in providing opinion on both local and national issues, and in driving conversation and debate, is a unique selling proposition.

I would rather our newspapers go back to focusing on what makes them unique – including the Opinion pages – instead of changing who and what they are to compete for ever-important “Web clicks.”

That’s my opinion.

Was NBC Practicing Imagination at Work?

March 30, 2011

by Dan Ward

GE’s corporate slogan is Imagination at Work.  I wonder who working at GE-subsidiary NBC imagined that not covering GE’s $5.1 billion profit/$0 tax payment would go unnoticed.

As the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride points out in Paul Farhi’s Washington Post article, failing to air dirty laundry hurts the organization’s credibility.  That’s music to the ears of anyone in the communications business, and a good reminder for any organization.  Failure to report uncomfortable news doesn’t make it go away; it just adds to the discomfort.

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