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Strategic analysis
When Opinion Becomes Legislative Facts

Written by on December 5, 2017

This article is slightly different from my normal articles in that it isn't about a problem that's specifically in the media, but a problem that impacts our society as a whole, which we (in the media), play a part in.

The problem is how opinions become legislative facts, and how we in the media help that process along in the way that we report things.

Let me explain what I mean.

One of the biggest mistakes that we made as a society when we invented democracy, was that we allowed politicians to turn opinions into law, without the need for empirical evidence.

We see this every day.

A group of politicians starts to believe that something is a problem, maybe because of an article they read, or someone they spoke to, and then they get enough votes to create a law about it. And suddenly everyone else has to believe in that too (or at least abide by it), because otherwise you would be breaking the law.

The result is incredibly damaging, because we end up with a society where 'reality' is a deception, and where our legislation is formed based on assumptions that often aren't true.

This in itself is a big concern, but the fundamental problem is that we have a very poor sense of reality to begin with. You see this very clearly every single time you do a study that compares 'what people think' to 'what really happens'.

So, we have this incredibly poor sense of reality, and if we then allow this to decide our legislative future, we end up with a society that constantly works against itself.

This is a massive problem, and this is where the media comes in... or at least, it should be where we come in. Our role should be to protect society from the harm caused by people with inaccurate opinions, but instead we often see the opposite.

In the media, we often facilitate the spread of inaccurate opinions, we even promote it with editorials and featured opinion pieces. And we allow the opinions to have as much weight as the actual facts.

On top of this, we ignore how people behave online, with the result that inaccurate opinion pieces gain far more traffic than the fact-checks, simply because of the way we structure our editorial output.

Let me give you an example of how this often plays out.

Right now in my country (Denmark), we see this happening in relation to cheating in schools and the debate around that.

What is happening is this:

#1: Getting the wrong baseline

A research agency asked school examiners how much cheating they think is happening, without asking for any proof or any data. The result was that 33% of the examiners thought cheating occurred, and of those, most thought that cheating was done by 3-5% of the student population. Some examiners thought as many as 10% were cheating.

Remember, none of this is based on facts. This is merely based on their opinion.

#2: Politicians mistake the result for facts

The next thing that happened is a politician saw this report, and in their populistic focus took these numbers as facts and decided that this is a really big problem that needs to be fixed.

#3: The media...

The media then reports it like this:

And I quote from the article:

It is apparent from the study that the young people are thought to cheat using 'non-digital aids and unauthorized use of network connection, which the school has made available during the exam'.

It is obviously very difficult to clarify exactly how many cheat. But it is not only a fraction of a percent. It is a substantial proportion of the students, "says the minister, based on the investigation to Berlingske.

So now this is presented as a fact, and we have focused on the specific problem being 'unauthorized use of network connection', which is a 'substantial problem' that now needs to be fixed.

#4 The public is misinformed

The combination of this study, the statement of the minister, the exposure, and the way it is reported by the press, results in the public being misinformed. Because now the public has more than enough 'information' to form their own conclusions.

So when you go to work the next day, you will suddenly hear colleagues talking about how they "heard about this study that found that 5-10% of students cheat via the internet at exams" ... and then they start discussing whether the internet should even be allowed in schools.

You see how this works?

#5 The counterpoint

The next day, the newspaper realizes that maybe they should have researched this story better before publishing it, so to 'fix this' they reach out to the students to hear what they have to say about it.

And not surprisingly, the students don't agree. From their own experience, cheating is nowhere near that level.

But now we have the age old problem of the 'he said, she said' style of reporting. On one side we have the teachers, the examiners, and the Minister of Education + a study saying that 3% - 10% of students cheat.

On the other side we have students saying: "No we don't".

So... who do you believe?

This is a problem we see all the time with 'he said, she said' style reporting. It encourages people to make up their own minds, while discouraging them from demanding real data.

And instead of helping people to get more informed, it just makes the problem worse.

Again, what do you think is happening?

The problem is that you shouldn't think anything, because you have not been presented with any data from which you could form a conclusion. Remember, all of this started with a study asking people about their opinion, but because of the way this study was used, we have turned that into something that sounds like data.

This isn't data. You still have no idea whether there is a problem here or not.

But it gets worse.

By the end of the second article that interviewed the students (the one posted a day later), the journalist finally reveals some actual data. They wrote:

In 2016, the Ministry published a comprehensive investigation of cheating at over 550,000 written and oral tests in upper secondary school.

It showed that there were 329 cases where there was suspected cheating and 143 cases where students were expelled.

This corresponds to suspected cheating in 0.06 percent of the examinations and confirmed cheating with rejection as a consequence in 0.026 percent.

Mind you, the first part about suspected cheating is just another opinion, but the second part is the amount of actual cheating discovered.

But the really interesting thing about this is that this study, which they conducted last year, showed an entirely different result.

Instead of 3-10% of the students cheating, and it being a substantial problem, they only found that 0.026% were actually cheating. And the examiners only believed that 0.06% were suspected.

The difference between the first and the second study is just crazy. But the scariest thing about this is that this data isn't going to matter, because you can't fact-check retrospectively.

Reuters Institute wrote a great study about this not long ago. Fact-checking has to be done at the very start, before you get any other information, otherwise people will start to form their own conclusions.

The result is that people still don't know the truth, and the Minister of Education has latched on to the findings of the recent study (and ignored the the one from last year with the real data in) because it fits better with her political agenda.

This leads us to the final stage.

#6 Legislation

Because of all of this, the government is pushing ahead for legislation to 'solve this problem of substantial cheating'.

As the Minister puts it:

We can see that cheating is commonplace. Professionals estimate that cheating takes place on a significant part of the completed exams and tests. At the same time, we can see that it is difficult to prove cheating

The way we have been doing exams so far has made it difficult for professionals to detect and intervene in cheating. But now there is no longer free access to the internet, and politically, we will discuss what technical solutions used in higher education, can be used in upper secondary schools in the future to reveal cheating.

Yes, you read that right.

The Danish government has decided, based on only 0.026% of actual detected cheating, that future students shouldn't be able to use the internet, and to invest in expensive and potentially privacy invading technical solutions to monitor students.

Just stop and think about what happened here.

We allowed an opinion to become legislative facts. And it's happening in such a way that it's directly damaging the innovation and future of education.

And, in the media, we helped them, because of the way we reported it.

It's easy to place blame on everyone else. You can blame the company who did the study, but they were merely asked to conduct it, and they did point out that it was based on opinions so they could claim that they didn't do anything wrong. You can blame the Minister for presenting this as a fact, but to her, it is a fact. Some might even go as far as to start blaming Facebook, because, they will say, if the media hadn't reported it, people would just have read about it there.

But the reality is that none of this matters.

We started out with what sounded like a simple news story, but which has now caused lasting damage to the future education system of an entire nation.

As journalists, we have a responsibility to protect democracy. Not only have we failed to do that, we were instrumental in causing actual harm to take place.

And in an age where this 'tactic' has become commonplace, the role of journalism also has to adjust to ensure we live up to our responsibility.

We need to do two things:

First, we must be fact-first focused: Meaning that we don't start by reporting someone's opinion, and then fact check whether that is true the next day. We start with the facts, and we report the facts. And only then do we base everything else on whether it aligns with those facts or not.

Secondly, "prove it!" should be the single most used phrase in journalism. Today, I very rarely see this, because journalists are so afraid of being perceived as biased that they resort to just being reporters.

Pointing to a study where people are merely expressing an opinion is not proof. And if the politicians aren't willing to provide actual proof, we shouldn't cover it. Or more to the point, when those situations come up, we should instead give voice to people who do have actual data to show.

For instance, if a politician says that crime is up when it's actually down, don't publish what the politician said. Reach out to the police and publish what they have to say instead.

If a politician says that climate science isn't real, don't publish it. Interview people who actually know what they are talking about instead, and publish that!

Don't even mention the politician, because as soon as you do that you are right back to the 'he said, she said' style of reporting, which encourages people to make up their own minds.

I have said this many times before. As journalists, we have a responsibility to reality, not to the politicians or anyone else.

And if you want to have a debate, make sure that it starts after people have learned the facts. Don't start to debate something without anyone knowing what the world is really like.

Sure, people will debate anyway on Facebook, but that's not the point. The point is that when people turn to a newspaper, they must end every day more informed than when they started.

The age of 'just reporting' is over. It might have worked back in the 1950s, but today it causes more problems than it solves.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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