Ben Goldacre has a piece in today’s Guardian criticising journalists who don’t link to primary sources. He quotes examples of spurious stories in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, which completely distorted the results of academic studies to support some quite bonkers assertions. Had the writers linked to the studies, it would have been instantly obvious to anyone who clicked through that their articles were crocks of shit. Which, of course, was why they didn’t do so.
But it’s not just journalists on right-wing papers who make bold claims without anything to back them up. Take the polemics from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, for example. 24,000 NHS bureaucrats, 4,000 health quango appointees, 12% more NHS managers in 2009. Really? Say’s who? I suppose I could go and check these figures out but why should I take the time? It’s up to the person making the assertions to back them up.
Then there’s Johann Hari in the Independent. I had a go at his rant about management consultants last summer. Again, it was pretty much data free. And no, Johann, linking to another polemic by another journalist does not count as evidence.
Or this gem, for example:
How about the biggest issue facing London in the long term – global warming? Half of the population of this city lives on a flood-plain – and as the sea rises, we become harder and harder to protect. The salt-water is already swelling towards us. When it was first built, the Thames Barrier had to be raised once every two years; now it is raised 20 times a year.
20 times a year? Are you sure about that Johann? According the Environment Agency, who run the Thames Barrier, it has never been raised 20 times in any year.
I find this especially irritating because I more often agree than disagree with Johann Hari’s views. But I find it difficult to take anyone seriously when they throw random numbers around without linking to any supporting data. The silly thing about the above example is that, had he linked to the EA’s website, it would have proved the point he was trying to make anyway, though not quite as dramatically.
On the whole, I find that journalists in the specialist sections of the newspapers, such as those dedicated to finance, management, science or the public sector, tend to provide more evidence and links. This is probably because they are writing for audiences who are more knowledgeable about their particular subjects and therefore more critical.
I have also noticed that more columnists are including links in their opinion pieces now. Could this be due to the influence of bloggers? Here’s Ben Goldacre’s take on the difference between bloggers and proper journalists:
There’s also an interesting difference between different media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, so they must build it by linking transparently and allowing you to double-check their work easily.
But institutional credibility isn’t enough these days. Writing under the banner of a quality paper like the Guardian, the Independent or the Telegraph does not give someone the right to make unsupported assertions. Sure, there are a lot of know-nothing ranters in the blogosphere but there are also some very well-informed writers who throughly research their subjects. Not only do they provide us with insights we don’t get elsewhere, they often expose the lazy journalism in the mainstream newspapers too.
Providing links to sources is not difficult. I try to do it in most of the stuff that I write and this isn’t even my day job. If I can do it as an amateur, surely the people who are paid handsomely to write can find the time to do so too.
What stops journalists from linking to supporting evidence? Partly it is arrogance; they still think the ‘institutional credibility’ means that people will just accept what they say. In other cases, it is because they are writing rubbish and know that the evidence will blow their stories of the water. As Ben Goldacre concludes:
But more than anything, because linking to sources is such an easy thing to do and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.
I too have found myself using that rule of thumb. I get part of the way through an article and stop reading when I see no links or references to support the writer’s argument. Uninformed and unsubstantiated opinions are ten a penny. I can get as many of them as I want down the pub. From well-paid professionals, I expect a lot more.