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Fact checking project – checking the facts of five articles by Dennis Rijnvis for Nu.nl

In our fact-check report we investigated the Dutch news website Nu.nl. Nu.nl is part of media group Sanoma that distributes media in several European countries. Sanoma describes Nu.nl as followed: “Nu.nl is thé digital news source of The Netherlands. Fast, trustworthy and clear: 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Nu.nl provides the latest news first in an uncoloured, innovative and clear way. Hereby, the visitors are key and advertisers are offered a big and high-quality platform.” However, as it is mentioned in the disclaimer on Nu.nl, they do not guarantee that everything on their website is correct and they do not take responsibility for the consequences of their mistakes. In this fact-checking report we investigated how accurate the stories on Nu.nl are.

In this report we have fact-checked five articles of Nu.nl that were all written by journalist Dennis Rijnvis. Dennis Rijnvis is a freelance journalist who has been working and has worked for several Dutch news websites and newspapers. His interest in articles on scientific research and his involvement in several media is what caught our attention. However, we found out that his articles for Nu.nl were the only ones that were suitable for this project and that were recent enough to be properly fact-checked. By checking his articles for Nu.nl we want to investigate if Dennis Rijnvis got his facts right, and what his methods are to create an (in)accurate story. We have also presented him our findings, and asked him for a reaction on our fact check report.

After thoroughly reading the five articles and underlining and/or colouring all the facts, we compared the information in the articles by Rijnvis to information in the original source. Regarding our main findings, we can conclude that most facts were accurate. The journalist mostly succeeded in properly translating and applying these to the news article on Nu.nl. Some of the word choices Rijnvis made were not exactly accurate. For example, Rijnvis used the word ‘entitlement’ instead of ‘narcissism’ and ‘cerebral cortex’ instead of ‘posterior cingulated/precuneus’. He also sometimes wrote more general terms whereas in the original source they mentioned specific terms and he sometimes wrote more specific terms whereas in the original source they were speaking in general terms. An example of this is the use of negative thoughts instead of repetitive negative thoughts and the use of compulsive disorders instead of internalized disorders. Furthermore, in all articles Rijnvis also left out some details about the researches. He, for example, did not mention the exact amount of participants in a study, all the topics of a questionnaire and what type of autism the participants in the study had. He also added some information that was not in the original source. For example, Rijnvis mentioned that in an article mice almost immediately restored their normal scratching behaviour, but the researchers do not mention anything about it happening almost immediately. He also mentioned in the same article that people could better not scratch when they feel an itch, but researchers mentioned that the results are applicable for mice but they do not know yet if it is applicable to humans as well, although they do suspect it is very likely. In another article, Rijnvis wrote about narcissism despite the fact that this was only mentioned in the research to explain that the results of the study are not applicable for narcissistic people. Rijnvis does seem to be aware of that as well, since he later in his article emphasized that the research is about narcissistic states and not about narcissistic traits. Furthermore, Rijnvis also makes some mistakes with the quotes he used. However, all word choices and formulation choices can probably be explained by Rijnvis’ attempt to popularize the studies. It is important to keep in mind that Rijnvis cannot use ‘scientific jargon’ in the Nu.nl website since the website is supposed to be accessible for a broad audience with different kinds of backgrounds. Rijnvis probably made all these choices to make his stories more comprehensible and attractive.

The results of the fact-check process were discussed in an interview with Dennis Rijnvis. The main questions in this interview were what sources he uses and on what he bases his stories. Rijnvis stated that he often starts by looking at (foreign) science websites. He searches for news that stands out and that would interest the readers of Nu.nl. Because he wants the topics to be understandable and relevant for every reader, he focusses on information related to daily life, animals, etcetera. After reading the news article, Rijnvis searches for the original research publication to find out what exactly was the focus of the research and looks online for interviews with the researchers. According to Rijnvis, Nu.nl has such a high time and work pressure that it is difficult for him to contact the researchers himself. When Rijnvis was asked the question whether or not he reads every research paper he discusses, his answer was “no”. He merely reads the abstract and if he does not understand that completely, he reads the methodology as well. In the interview Rijnvis also stated that he tries to look at things from the reader’s perspective. He tries to make the text more relevant and easier to understand for his readers. This is in line with our thoughts on why he chose certain words or why he chose to formulate a sentence a certain way. Rijnvis further stated that he also interprets the research and tries to determine whether it is reliable. When a study for example does not have enough participants to be reliable, he adds a sentence to place the study into perspective for his readers. Rijnvis says that he has the final responsibility for the content of his articles and that the content of the articles should be correct before they are published, and that this is up to him. Besides writing for Nu.nl, Rijnvis currently also writes for Quest and de Volkskrant. He stated that his method of writing an article is different for these media. For these media he always interviews the researchers about a study or topic he writes about. The second difference is that he thinks of these articles as more of “his own story” instead just a report about research. Rijnvis said that he reads more about the topic, conducts interviews and always sends his story to the researchers to let them check if there are any factual errors.

All in all, after checking all the facts and reviewing all the mistakes, we can state that we are satisfied with Rijnvis’ work as a journalist and Nu.nl as a medium. His articles are mostly factually correct. Sometimes he used a different choice of words or he left out some details, but as we thought and as he explained himself as well, those choices are made to make the stories more accessible and more comprehensible. Furthermore, those mistakes are not large mistakes that change the outline of the stories. The most important findings of the researches are correctly displayed.

Trust me! Everyone else does…

Trust and the media, they don’t always seem to go together. As the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, once said in an interview: “The biggest challenge facing the Internet today is reliability. There’s too much information out there that is either fraudulent or irresponsible, and how do you shift through all of that? Isn’t that the problem? You need professionals to do that”.

For the last few weeks I already wrote a lot about how you can be misled by stories or visualizations on the internet and why it is important to be critical. I have mentioned a lot that it is important to share reliable news and look for reliable sources and information. I also already briefly mentioned why it is important. Today I will dedicate this whole article to the reliability of news (organizations), since it is such an important topic.

Why is it important to share reliable information?

It is important to share reliable information, because a lot can go wrong if you don’t. Take for example the story about how to cure Ebola that was going around on social media. This story started with a text by a Nigerian student that said that everyone should bath with hot water and salt before daybreak and drink as much salt water as possible to protect themselves from the deathly Ebola virus. This hoax that presumably started as a joke resulted in two deaths and at least twenty hospitalized people. What this hoax shows is that it can be dangerous to believe everything you read on the internet. It doesn’t matter how much you want to believe the story or how plausible it sounds, you need to remain critical and really ask yourself if the story is reliable.

Another example is the ‘evil’ Ukrainain militiaman who allegedly took a teddy bear from the remains of the Malaysia airplane crash, MH17, as a trophy. He also allegedly told the reports on the scene to get lost and that there was a war going on there. This story was reported and shared by many newspapers and on social media. However, it turns out that the militiaman didn’t take the teddy bear as a trophy. He was showing his tribute to the dead. He also said: “We want those bastards to see whom they shot down. Do you see?” by which he meant that there were innocent children who died in the crash. This story illustrates that you need to be careful about sharing a story and how a picture can be taken out of context. Don’t think a story is reliable because it fits with your point of view.

What should be done to create trust?

Now, how can you create trust or make sure that you share reliable news? There are a few things you can do yourself as a journalist and there are few things that might have to change in journalism in general.

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What should be done in general?

What needs to change in general according to an article by Richard Gingras, head of Google News, and Sally Lehrman, fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics who specializes in journalism are the following things:

– Posting a mission statement and ethics policy. Stating their objectives, capabilities and standards could help both news organizations and journalists build trust.

– More disclosure about the process. Creating a clear label or creating a list of all participants in the process, such as fact-checkers, editors and lawyers, could help as well.

– Citations (through links) and corrections. If an article literally states what has been said, audiences can asses the effort and accuracy of what is reported.

Briefly put Gingras and Lehrman argue for more transparency about the why journalism works and the process behind a story.

 

What can you yourself already do?

What you as a journalist can already do yourself, is paying  attention to the following things and to be critical about them.

– InformationBe aware that some facts might have been misinterpreted or that not all facts are included.

–  SourcesLook carefully at your sources and look for the original sources. Think about whether they are reliable.

Wordings. Also be critical to they way a story is portrayed. The article you are looking at could be framed.

Visualizations. Make sure you have good and reliable visualizations.

Conclusion

To summarize, it is important that you write reliable articles and that you look for reliable sources. By being reliable you earn your audience’s trust and present yourself as a credible writer (or organization). Trust and the media, like I said, don’t always go together. But there are some ways to create trust. The lesson for this week is: Don’t trust a medium simply because everyone else does, but trust it because you have valid reasons to do so. So it shouldn’t be ‘trust me, everyone else does’, but aim for ‘trust me, I’m reliable’.

Get your facts straight! Or don’t….

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The internet has brought us closer together. Stories can now reach much more people than let’s say 30 years ago and that’s a good thing. Much more people can have access to the stories you wrote and you can get in direct contact with your readers. But there is also a downside to this closing gap. Not only true stories are spread but also fake ones or at least not completely true ones. That is why fact-checking has become a bigger responsibility and a greater challenge. Still the amount of fact-checkers that are employed in a news organization is decreasing. It seem that the old saying ‘Get your facts straight’ isn’t as important anymore. But can you really make a good, trustworthy story without getting all the right facts?

 

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According to this famous quote by Bernard Baruch, every man has a right to be wrong in his opinions, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts. So it is your duty to get all the right facts. Still as journalist Federico Guerrini mentioned in his article for the Oxford magazine a more popular belief among politicians, and some journalists, is why should you spoil a good story with the truth.

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So which one is it? Who has the right idea about facts? Well, it isn’t that black and white. The right direction, in my opinion, lies in the middle. It is important to check your facts since it is your duty as a journalist to write accurate stories, but in some cases you can bend the truth a little to create a more attractive or interesting story. Besides, as I will explain later, it is impossible to check every single fact.

 

Why should you check your facts?

Fact-checking is, as I mentioned earlier, still important since it is your job as a journalist to write accurate stories. One of the newspapers that still have a separate fact-checking department is the German newspaper Der Spiegel. Their motto is “to say what is”. It is important to them “[…] to write and produce what is; to report, analyse and critique the world as it is, factually and faithfully, without fear, bias or influence”. According to the head of the fact-checking department, Dr. Eckart Teichert, Der Spiegel prints facts regardless of whether a friend or an enemy will be pleased and as a fact checker he also corrects the facts.  And not only will fact-checking make your article more accurate, it will also make it more credible. Klaus Brinkbäumer, one of the three editors for Der Spiegel, calls fact-checking their selling point. He sees it as part of what makes the newspaper trusted.

 

Why is it important for journalists to check their facts?

Being a good fact checker basically means being a good reporter according to the former head of research Vanity Fair, as quoted in the book ‘The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting It Right’ by Sarah Harrison Smith in 2004. But why is that so? Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book ‘The Elements of Journalism‘ that it is important for journalist to fact-check, because of the following five rules:

  1. Journalists first obligation is to the truth
  2. Journalists first loyalty is to the citizens
  3. The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification
  4. Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover
  5. Journalists must keep the news comprehensive and proportional

 

Why is fact-checking important for the public?

You have read now why fact-checking is important for journalists, but why is it important for the public? According to the international principles of professional ethics in journalism, as issued by the Fourth Consultative Meeting of International and Regional Organizations of Journalists in Paris on 20 November 1983, people have the right to true information and it is the journalist’s task to serve that right. The public have a right to get the objective picture of the reality. The people have a right, according to these principles, to have access to accurate and comprehensive information. They also have the right to express themselves freely through various media platforms. Furthermore, it is the journalist’s task to serve those rights to true and authentic information. Facts need to be reported in their proper context and the journalist should provide information so that the public can form a clear, honest and object picture of the world.

 

Why you should not and cannot get every fact right

As I said earlier, it is important to check your facts and to get the right facts, but in some cases you can bend the truth a little to create a more attractive or interesting story. Let’s say, for example, you are writing an article about how the amount of people who commit suicide increases during the holidays in December. You talk about the numbers and how they relate to other months. To describe the situation you might also say something about that many people don’t have family members to visit anymore or the days that are darker and colder during that time. Now does everything you see need to be right? Does it matter that the numbers might be incorrect? Yes, that matters since an incorrect number could change the whole story. But does it matter that December is indeed the coldest month? No, it is not important for your story that November, for example, was colder that year of the past few years than December. So it is important to get your facts right when it could change your whole point of view. But it isn’t as important to get all the right facts if it wouldn’t change much about your main point.

Furthermore, it is also impossible to get every fact right. Facts aren’t always objective. They can be open to interpretation. Facts can also change over time. Something that was a true fact years ago, might not still be a true fact.

Conclusion

 

To summarize, getting your facts straight seems less important to some nowadays, but in my opinion it still is. It is important to make sure you have the right facts and that your facts are true. It creates a trustworthy article and also increases your credibility. However, you don’t have to get, and you cannot get, ALL the facts right. In some cases you can still have a good story without having all the facts. Besides, it is also impossible to get all the facts right.

About framing: Just like an actual frame, there are also more sides to one story.

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See the picture above of the frame? As you are looking it now, you can see the nice golden borders. You are looking at the ‘pretty’ side of the frame. The side that is used the most and that you would find in most households that actually have this frame. You probably put a nice picture in it of your family, friends, a beautiful landscape or whatever you like. But this is not the only way to display the picture. You can also turn it around and have the pretty side face the wall. Now you would see the back of the frame. Maybe to some it would be less attractive, but it is still a possibility. Does this change the picture or the frame? No, it doesn’t. It merely shows another side of it. It changes your perspective on the frame, but it doesn’t change the frame itself. This change of perspective I just described is called framing.

As Robert Entman describes it (on page 52): “Framing essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”. When they are ‘creating news’, journalists also make judgments about framing. They decide how they make news events more comprehensible for their audience.

According to James Druckman the public opinion is influenced by the frames elites choose to use. He states that the elite can, for example, influence whether the public sees a certain event as a free speech issue or a public safety issue. It is important to note that the word ‘influence’ is key here. As Craig Watkins said, frames do not determine what people think.  According to Entman the effect of framing doesn’t merely stem from what they include, but also what they exclude. Or in other words, it is not just about what you say but also what you do not say. It is, however, the question if it is good or bad that some pieces of information are included and some are excluded.

To show you an example of framing, take a look at these articles. If you just look at the title alone of the article by the Guardian and the article by Cosmopolitan, you can see the way they have framed the news that the chocolate production might come to end. Of course, this example is a little extreme and the Cosmopolitan is not an actual news organization, but it does show you how different writers can portray the same story in different ways. As you can see, the Cosmopolitan (jokingly) describes this news as devastating and recommends everyone to stop eat chocolate now before it is too late. The Guardian takes a more neutral approach and also describes the facts later in the article.

guardian article

cosmo article

 

 

 

 

 

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When you look at these articles, do you think framing is good or bad? Does it matter to you that the same situation is portrayed differently in this case?

Now, look at these three examples about the shooting on the university campus in Florida. If you take a closer look at all three articles, you can see more differences. But the following differences are the most noticeable.

If you just look at the titles of the articles, you can already see differences. News organization CNN and the magazine TIME focus on the wounded students, while the non-profit news organization NPR focuses on the gunman who has been shot dead by the police.

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time article

 

 

 

 

 

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npr article

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Not only differences in the titles are noticeable, but also what they author has focused on. The CNN article, for instance, reports a quote by a student about the shooting: “As Kalich said, “Yes, the students (who) were in the library were affected. But 40,000 students lost their sense of security”.” As you can see by quoting this perspective, the CNN focuses more on the students and not just the students that were at the campus during the shooting.

The article by the Time quoted another student: ““This is always stuff you hear about happening at other schools like there are other crazed gunman at colleges but not at Florida State,” student Blair Stokes, who was in the library during the incident, told CNN. “I think this is another issue about gun control and about how we can be doing more in America”.” Do you see the difference? By reporting this quote the Time has shown that this was not the first shooting in a university in America and has implicated in this way that a stricter gun control is necessary.

Yet another student was quoted by NPR: “Allison Kope, a freshman from Cocoa Beach, Fla., said she was on the library’s first floor when she heard a loud noise. People began screaming about a gunman, she told the AP. “You never think something like this is going to happen to you until you have to react in that situation when someone is screaming there is a gun in the building. I ran for my life,” she told the agency. “I ran right out the back door. My laptop and everything is still in there. It was shock. It was just instinct. You don’t think about anything else, you just go”.” As you can tell by this quote, the NPR focuses more on the shooting itself and what happened during the shooting.

When you look at these articles, has your opinion about framing changed? Do you think framing is good or bad now?

In my opinion whether framing is a positive of negative thing depends on the topic you’re dealing with. In the case of the first examples about the chocolate production coming to end, I don’t think it is necessarily bad or good to frame the story. I think you can portray it anyway you want it. However, when the topic you’re dealing with is more serious, I would strongly recommend you to be more careful about how you portray the event. Matters like the school shooting in Florida, are far more serious and are carefully read. As a journalist, you need to look at it that way as well. Try to be objective and not only show your view on the matter. And yes, it is almost impossible to be complete objective as a journalist. You always put your own vision or perspective on a matter into your story, whether it is intentional or not. So what should you do? How can you still be as objective as you can? First of all, try to get all the facts. Even if you yourself don’t agree with some view, make sure you still get the information. It is your job as a journalist to gather information, so the public can form their own opinion. That also brings me to the second thing; try to show more sides to the story. Look at the event from different perspectives. And lastly, do not assume anything. Be critical and look for the most accurate, trustworthy information.

The power of good visualizations

Last week I already talked about how to find data and the importance of a good dataset. This week I’m going to talk about how you can make that dataset come to live. Visualizations are a great way to make your story more comprehensible and to make it easier for readers to extract meaning from your dataset.

Why should you use visualizations?

As Alberto Cairo, professor of the professional practice at the School of Communication of the University of Miami, author of the book ‘The functional art: An introduction to information graphics and visualization and an instructor of the free online data driven journalism course, describes a visualization is a graphical representation of evidence. He explains that we use graphs and maps because in many cases they are the only way in which we are able to extract meaning. A spreadsheet is just a set of numbers, where you can only see the actual figures. But if you transform that set of numbers into a graph or visual, our brain can extract meaning and patterns from that data. To show you how powerful visualizations can be, Cairo used this map as an example:

 

ukrainemap

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This map represents the elections in Ukraine. The different colors on the map represent what political party got more votes in the parliamentary elections in 2012. The blue circles represent where the Party of Regions, the party of the current president, has won. The orange circles represent where the Fatherland Party, the opposition party that is pro-Western, has won. The size of the circles represents the difference in votes in favor of the party that won in a particular district. Even if you don’t speak Ukrainian, you are able to extract the main meaning of this map. You can see that Ukraine is divided. You see that the Western part of the country votes more for the opposition party and the Eastern part votes more for the party of the current president. When you just look at a dataset, you would not be able to see this pattern. Thus, you would not have been able to extract the meaning of the data. And that is exactly why visualizations are so powerful.

Importance of good visualizations and things to avoid

Now that you know visualization are powerful and can make your story more comprehensible, it is important to be critical as to what visualizations you use. Your visualization should be clear, concise, not too complicated and should help your readers see the differences you want to show. When you use a good visualization, it can be a great addition to your story. It helps bring your story to life and it makes it clear what you are talking about. When you use a visualization in the right way, it can also make your story more interesting. However, if you use a visualization the wrong way, it can affect your readers’ interest in your story and your credibility as a writer. Bad visualizations might help you attract readers, but it is not smart to use them. If your readers find out that your display of the data is incorrect, they will distrust everything you say in your story and might not even be interested to read further. Mistakes can happen. So if you accidentally use a bad visualization only once, it probably won’t matter as much. However, if you start using them more often, it will affect your credibility. But what makes a visualization bad? And what should you thus avoid? To answer this question, I will show you some examples of bad visualizations and how to use them in a better way.

This first example below of the bad visualization is quite obvious. As you can see, the height of the bars in the visualization on the left doesn’t match the numbers that are displayed. Instead of using this bad graph, you should be using the graph on the right. You can see that in this revised graph the numbers match the height of the bars.

cnngraph

 

 

 

 

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In the second example you can see that in the graph on the left, the numbers on the vertical axis don’t start at zero. There are indeed some differences between those zeven months but the differences are not as big as they seem in this graph. If the y-axis would have started at zero, you would have been able to see that more clearly. Instead of using the graph on the left, you should use the graph on the right where you can see the actual differences. However, it should be noted that it is not always bad to start the vertical axis somewhere above zero. You may have noticed that the vertical axis in the first example doesn’t start at zero either. However, in that case the differences in heights of the bars represent a large difference in the amount of money that the government has spent. If the axis would have started at zero, you would have believed the differences weren’t as big. So keep in mind what your graph is representing and what is the most adequate way of displaying your data.

y0as

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the last example below you can see that the visualization on the left provides you with a lot of information. The first map in the first visualization shows you the unemployment rate in the Netherlands from the January 2008 until January 2013. The second map shows you the rate from January 2012 until January 2013. This visualization is supposed to show you how the unemployment rate has changed over the last five years in comparison to the last full year. However, in this display of the data it is very hard to extract the real meaning of this map. It is difficult to see the differences between those two maps. Instead of trying to display all this data at once, you should use a map that is more concise. In this case, it would be better if you just showed the second map, like shown in the second visualization. If you still would like to show the development over the past five years, it would be wiser to use a different kind of visualization.

nederlandkaartkleuren

mapnederlandaangepast

 

 

 

 

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What are the key elements to a good visualization?

So what makes a visualization good? Cairo states that there are  four features that define a good visualization. Your visualization should be functional, beautiful, insightful and enlightening. The shape of the graphic should match the questions that the visualization answers. The visualizations should also be attractive and insightful, so that readers will be eager to read your story. Besides that, the information displayed in the visualization should also shape the perception of the reader. According to Cairo, the three rules that you need to keep in mind in order to portray these features are as follows:

  1. Think about your audience and the publication.
  2. Think about the questions your visualization should answer
  3. You should be able to understand the visual without reading every number

In my opinion and as you have seen in the examples above, there are some other important and more concrete factors to pay attention to. You need to make sure that the numbers you show match with what you display in your graph. Moreover, pay attention to the y-axis and the x-axis and try to keep your visualization clear and concise. Don’t try to display too much information at once. And also, keep in mind what you want your visualization to represent. Like Cairo stated, it is important to think about the questions your visualization answers. That can mean that in some cases it is more logical to break a few rules in order to display your data in a more adequate way.

Conclusion

Visualizations can be a powerful and quiet useful addition to your story, provided that your visualization is correctly used. You have read above why it is important to use good visualizations. Furthermore, the examples above and the rules of Cairo have shown you what you need to think about before you create or use a certain visualization. Think about what you want to show and what message you are trying to deliver. And like always, be critical!

How to find the data you’re looking for

One particular field of journalism is data journalism. Simon Rogers, Data Editor at Twitter, former editor of the Guardian’s award-winning Datablog and an instructor of the free online data driven journalism course, describes data journalism as a way of telling stories by using numbers. It brings stories that are in the public eye to life by showing the numbers behind the news. The data can be accompanied by visualizations, but they are only there in service of the story.

For as long as journalism has existed, the reporting of data has played a role as well. In the olden days data was often collected by using a notebook and a cassette recorder and journalists often had to rely solely on the research and analysis performed by statisticians. Over the years the techniques of data journalism have changed. Journalists have had much easier access to tools that help them gather data, such as Excel and Numbers, and easier access to tools that help visualize their data. In the digital age we now live in there has also been a wider spread of open data. Governments and other organizations that collect statistics around the world are publishing thousands of databases online, which has made it both easier and harder at the same time for journalists to find the data they are looking for. The search for data has become easier, because journalists can now browse through the Internet and search for the information they need. However, since so many datasets are now available to journalists and the public in general, it is also more difficult the find the ‘perfect’ dataset. What I mean by the ‘perfect’ dataset is a dataset that not only offers you the data you’re looking for to accompany your story, but that is also valid. This blog post will offer you, as journalists, guidelines on how to find this ‘perfect’ dataset yourselves.

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How can you get data to support your story?

Quote: “Data journalism begins in one of two ways: either you have a question that needs data, or a dataset that needs questioning. Whichever it is, the compilation of data is what defines it as an act of data journalism”. – Paul Bradshaw

Paul Bradshaw is the Head of the Online Journalism MA at Birmingham City University, Visiting Professor at City University’s School of Journalism in London and also an instructor for the online data journalism course. His quote shows that a story can be either based on a question for which you need to search data or on a dataset which raises an interesting question that needs to be sorted out. This blog post will be focused on the first situation. You have a certain topic in mind and are looking for data to accompany your story. The first thing to do is ask yourself ‘What kind of data am I looking for?’. When you know what you are looking for, you can start searching for the data.

Where can you find data?

Of course you can collect your data by doing your own research, but in most cases you will probably not have the time or money to do that. Therefore, a quicker way to gather data would be to look for it online. As I have mentioned before, more organizations are publishing their data online. You can, for instance, go to a government website or the website of a national statistical service and find all sorts of data there. On this Wikipedia page you can find a list of national and international statistical services you could use to gather data. You can also look for information on the websites of international bodies, e.g. the website of the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the World Bank or the European Union.

How do you know if your dataset is valid?

When you have found a dataset, you need to make sure that the data is valid and does indeed support your story. So how do you know if your data is trustworthy? Rogers states that when you are relying on data that is collected by someone else, you need to check who collected it and when and how it was collected. Get in touch with the person who collected the data and ask them about it. Besides that, also try to find another source that has the same kind of data and compare that dataset with the one you found. These two steps are very important to determine whether your data is valid or not. Take for instance this example as described by TechTarget, that shows how the analysis of big data projects can go wrong. In this project researchers wanted to use Twitter feeds and other social media to predict the unemployment rate in the United States. They looked for words that pertained to unemployment, e.g. jobs, unemployment and classifieds, in tweets and posts on other social media. After that they looked for correlations between the number of words per month in this category and the unemployment rate of that month. During the project there was a sudden increase in the word count, so the researchers believed they were on to something. However, what they failed to notice was that Steve Jobs died in that same period they found an increase. Therefore, the number of tweets with ‘jobs’ in them were of course higher but not related to unemployment. If the researchers had looked more closely at what was happening during the time of their research, they would have known that the increase in words was unrelated to the unemployment rate. So it is important for you, as a journalist, to be aware that not all research is accurate and trustworthy. If you look for another dataset that says the same thing, the chances that you found a good, trustworthy dataset are higher. Furthermore, you need to be aware of how you interpret the data. Most mistakes about false data analysis are made by interpreting the data wrong. Look carefully at what the data is actually saying and not just at what you want or believe it is saying.

Source

 Keep the five W’s in mind

The most important things to remember when you are trying to see if your dataset is valid are the five W’s, as described by Simon Rogers. Ask yourself these questions before you use the dataset you found.

  • Who: Where did the data come from?
  • What: What are you trying to say with your data?
  • When: How old is your data?
  • Where: Which situation is described by the collected data? An essential part of data journalism is to combine different datasets and create a new story. Simon Rogers has, for instance, combined the gun ownership and homicides over the world and made one supporting visual out of it.
  • Why: Why is the data you found interesting and what does the data mean?

 Conclusion

In conclusion, the ‘perfect’ dataset will offer you the data you are looking for, that can accompany your story and that is also valid. This blog post has showed you how to find this dataset and how to determine if that dataset is valid. To summarize, you need to check who collected the data you found and when and how it was collected. Get in touch with that person and ask them questions about their data. When you found a dataset that could support your story, be aware that not all data is accurate and trustworthy. Try to look for another source with the same kind of data. The chances that your dataset is trustworthy are higher when you have another source that says the same thing. If you want your data to be valid, always keep the five W’s in mind. The five W’s offer you guidelines that can help determine whether the data can be trusted or not.

You cannot trust the internet, but you can trust news websites. Can you not?

In this day and age the internet plays a very large role in our lives. Vacation pictures are going on Facebook and Instagram, our funny conversations with friends are Tweeted and Retweeted and songs we or our children sing are recorded and uploaded to YouTube. Most of us are glued to our phone and computer and rely on the internet for all sorts of things. Not just recreational and fun things, but we rely on the internet as a source of news and information as well. And that is exactly where it gets problematic.

Imagine that you are scrolling through your favourite news website to see if there is anything new happening in the world. You see a catchy headline, click on the story and start to read. The story sounds plausible and has a picture with proof that the described situation happened. So the story must be true, right? Why else would a news website give this story any attention? Well, think again. Of course a news website is dedicated to real news and real events and not fake stories, but even people who write for news website might get caught in this web of internet lies. Take for example, the story that has been circulating about a tourist who came back from a vacation in Bali and found out that there was a spider living in his body. This story has circulated on social media, but has also been posted on various news website all around the world. Websites like the Australian NT News, the Dutch Algemeen Dagblad, and the Irish Daily Mirror to name a few have published this story. It was later stated by various experts that spiders are not naturally inclined to show this kind of behavior and that, therefore, the story was fake.

Verification steps

Even journalists might find it difficult to verify certain stories. Unless you witnessed something in person, it is not easy to determine whether or not a certain situation has actually happened. So how do you know what event is real and what event is not? A sufficient, concrete answer to this question is not easily found. According to Claire Wardle there is not any technology that can verify a specific user-generated content (such as the Twitter picture of the man with the spider in his body) with a 100 percent certainty. However, there are a few guidelines that can help you predict whether a story might be true or not. Wardle describes the following steps that can help you determine how plausible a story is and that can help you as a journalist decide whether or not to publish a certain story. There are more verification methods that you can use, but this blog post will focus on the four main factors. If you are interested in other verification methods or more detailed descriptions, you can look at the Verification handbook.

Step 1 & 2: Look at the provenance and the source
When a certain story has been shared on social media and other websites multiple times, it becomes difficult to determine who the original source is. The first thing to do is to browse though all the links and go back to the first time the story has been published. When you find the website or the profile of the person who has brought the story into the world, there are a few things you need to pay attention to. Look at previous articles or status updates, the people in the friend list or the followers and the pictures and videos that have been shared. Do you notice anything striking about these things? Have they been talking about serious matters or more about fun and playful matters? Use your common sense here. If something already seems a bit off at this point, it probably is. However, if you want to be sure, there are a few tools you can use to verify the information you have gathered during your search. Reverse image search tools such as Google Images or TinEye can, for example, help you check whether a picture has been published online before. Another way to check a story is to simple get in touch with the original publisher and ask him or her questions about the content.

Step 3: Look at the date
When looking at pictures or videos it is not only important to see if the picture or video has been posted online before, but also if what date it is taken. The date can reveal if it could be taken during the event that is shown. You can also verify the date by checking the weather of that specific date. Let’s for example say that the picture you have found was taken on the 1th of November 2014 in the Netherlands. In the picture you found you can see that it was a very dark, rainy day, which sounds plausible if you think that November is indeed an autumn month. However, if you go to Google and you look at the weather that day, you can see that it was actually a pretty hot and sunny day. Thus, the picture you have found probably is not taken on that exact date.

Step 4: Look at the location
Besides the date, the location is also an important factor. You can verify the location by searching it on Google Street View. If there are key elements missing from the Google Street View picture that are shown in the picture itself, it probably is not a real, untouched picture.

Conclusion

To answer the question proposed in the title of this blog post, you probably  can trust news websites most of the time since their main goal is indeed to provide you information about real events and not to share fake stories. However, the same lesson, namely ‘do not trust everything you see on the internet’, that applies to the internet in general also applies to news websites. You cannot trust everything that is reported on news websites either. Use your common sense when you look at news websites as a source of information. And when you are still in doubt, make use of the tools that are available to you to verify the information. The most important thing to remember is that when something sounds off, it probably is even when it is published on a website with the intention of sharing only real news.

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