Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Fact and fiction.

Ok, boys and girls. Today Spotty wants to tell you how to evaluate information you might get from really any speaker or disseminator of information: a journalist, a government spokesman, a witness, whatever. The process is never fool-proof of course, but Spotty says if you break it down to its parts, you can get better at separating the wheat from the chaff.

There are really only four, count ‘em four, testimonial qualities. They are 1) perception, 2) recollection, 3) communication, and 4) prevarication, or lack of it. In real life, #1 and #4 are where things usually go off the tracks. You can evaluate everything a person says with these four tools. Let’s examine these qualities in action!

Perception means that the speaker is in a position to know what he is talking about. In court, that almost always means did the witness observe the thing testified about first hand; did he perceive it? As a very basic example, before a witness is permitted to testify whether the light was red or green when the car went through the intersection, the witness must first establish he was in a position to see the traffic light and tell what color it was. This is called foundation. Are you with Spotty so far?

Now, of course, outside the courtroom we all get lots of information that is not first hand. We call this journalism! No, not really. But journalists do rely for the most part on other sources for the information they publish to the public. In other words, they aren’t eyewitnesses to the things they report, in spite of the KSTP slogan.

Now, boys and girls, as you might expect, the potential for error goes up exponentially now. That is why journalists have rules about fact checking, being leery of a single source – or at least they used to be – et cetera. Being selective and careful about choosing sources is how a news outlet goes from being a news source to being a credible news source.

The reverse can also happen. Don’t believe it? Just walk up behind a good reporter and say Jayson Blair or Judy Miller and watch for the involuntary shudder or worse.

But Spotty, are the internets a good source? Only sometimes, grasshopper. Often, the internets are mere purveyors and repeaters of rumor and speculation. Sometimes though, a web article or blog will cite or link to a source, as in the American Prospect piece that Spotty referred to a couple of posts ago. Then the reader can make a judgment about the source, its diligence, competence, and its reliability.

Which brings us back to Pat Kessler’s Reality Check reporting that Democrats in Minnesota received “Abramoff-related monies.” Spot knew the moment the words left Kessler’s mouth that they were without foundation. None of Kessler’s sources, nor any of their sources, went back to a witness who said I know personally that Abramoff told the Indian tribes to send money to the Democrats, or I have a letter or email from Abramoff that says that.

Without a proper foundation, you are just making it up or relying on people who are.

Well, that’s enough for now. We’ll talk about the other three testimonial qualities in upcoming posts.

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