Heather Brooke at Westminster Skeptics

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 September 2011

Wendy M Grossman

Heather Brooke speaks softly but writes loud. At tonight's Westminster Skeptics  (Twitter: @westskep), standing appropriately enough opposite a silenced TV screen running a feed from Sky News, she talked about this fundamental question: in the digital age, buffeted by a "tsunami of information", how do we know what's true? Brooke's answer, which she expounds upon in her new book (my ZDNet review is here, might sound self-serving (journalists, in favor of journalism, who'd a thunk it!) but not wrong: we need journalists. Trained, professional journalists who have the necessary skills, developed over a long period, to sift through it all and reach evidence-based conclusions like good skeptics should.

 This is, of course, the birthright of the traditional media. So, she asks, given that this is the unique selling point of the news media, why have they abandoned it in favor of the less specialized, more easily duplicated  celebrity gossip and churned-through press releases? Cost efficiency, of course: investigative journalism is expensive.

 She asked the audience: is Twitter more or less accurate than the media? The general agreement is that mistakes are made on Twitter – but they are more quickly corrected. I think there's more to it than that. I think that people expect more from newspapers and are accordingly more disappointed – and more likely to remember – egregious mistakes. They also have many more years of newspaper reading to remember errors from: the oldest Twitter users have no more than five years on the system.

 Brooke propounds a set of rules that formerly were taught in every news organization's work place. Take a claim and investigate it:

 - Who said it? What is their name? (The "some people say" meme beloved of Fox News, as exposed by the movie OutFoxed is relevant here.)

 - What are the empirical facts and data? Where did the claim originate? Wikipedia thinks Brooke burned out in the US after investigating 300 murders. The source is a Guardian interview. We can trust that, right? But journalists make mistakes and what Brooke actually said was that she'd reported on 300 deaths. Many of them were not murders. (Three hundred murder investigations would qualify her for her own run of Murder, She Wrote.)

 - Double-source. Will the source go on the record? Can you find more than one primary source to verify it? Supposing Brooke confirmed that Guardian report. What does her editor say? She might lie – or have forgotten.

 Journalists have stopped doing a lot of this verification in the rush to get stories out first or while they're still relevant. A secondary but related issue is that those who do not like being criticized have learned to issue floods of rebuttals until they've muddied the waters so much that no one can tell what really happened. We're in this situation now with Wikileaks, the disintegration of which figures prominently in the book.

 I asked two questions:

1) How do you apply those rules when you yourself become part of the story, as Brooke did in The Revolution Will Be Digitised

2) If she had unlimited resources, what would she work on next?

 Essentially, she said that you apply the same rules: you verify what you believe is happening by talking to other sources and getting different points of view and seeing where they agree and disagree. And you write as honestly as possible, as she did about herself and her reactions to Assange as the story developed.

 As for next topics, she'd like to follow up the bits in the current book about the hidden trade among third parties of our personal data, whose extent she believes most people don't realize. She also wants to write about surveillance. She didn't say whether her resources are unlimited.

 We'll post a link here when the full recording, which will include the talk and all the audience questions, is up.


Update: the recording will be just the talk, not the (apparently very lively Q&A discussion that followed. For that, you have to attend in person!

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