Unexpectedly Intriguing!
September 5, 2006

The political controversy known as the "Plame Affair" ended last week with the same explosiveness with which it began a little over three years ago.

Then, the signature event that launched countless accusations and investigations of alleged malfeasance within the Bush administration, which was accused of "outing" Valerie Plame's identity as an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency was Robert Novak's July 14, 2003 column "Mission to Niger." Novak's column identified her role as such in reporting that she had pushed to have her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, sent to Niger to investigate whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium from sources in the African nation.

The spectacular end of the Plame Affair came last Friday, when the Washington Post editorialized on the matter. Rather than the Bush administration, they identified the actual person at fault for the controversy:

...it now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame's CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming -- falsely, as it turned out -- that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush's closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It's unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.

The editors of the Washington Post are being exceptionally kind in not identifying the "many people" (short list here) who took Wilson seriously. They are, of course, the highly partisan political activists and the journalists and editors of major news outlets who most loudly trumpeted the false charges, both of Wilson's claimed findings and then the accusations of illegal conduct on the part of the Bush administration in "smearing" Wilson and his wife when countering Wilson's baseless charges.

While one expects that highly partisan political activists will spin, twist, fold, spindle and mutilate the truth to their own ends, what of the supposed accuracy of journalists? Isn't there some way that we can separate the honest reporter from the corrupt hack?

Yes, there is. We can objectively measure the accuracy of journalism and, in the process, establish what news outlets and journalists are most credible.

It all starts by spelling out what we mean by accuracy. Here's Larry English's definition (excerpted from a 2003 article in DM Review) of what accuracy is when it comes to establishing the quality of information:

Information, whether electronic or on paper, is simply a representation of real world objects or events. Data elements hold values that are facts that represent some attribute of a real world object or event. Therefore, the definition is: Accuracy is the degree to which data correctly reflects the real world object or event being described.

With this definition, we can determine, to what degree, information within a news article or analysis column is accurate. We can assign a percentage value that describes how well the article or column describes reality (with 100% being true and 0% being false.) We can also assign a percentage in between these limits that would allow us to account for situations where we haven't established the certainty of the fact being asserted.

Then, it gets interesting. With this measurement of individual fact accuracy, we can now establish how credible the news outlet or the individual columnist or reporter may be. We can do this by multiplying the percentage values of accuracy for each article or column together to determine the overall accuracy, and by extension, the credibility, of an entire news outlet or just individual reporters and columnists!

For example, let's say that for three articles reported, we find that one is 100% accurate, one is 95% accurate and the last is just 75% accurate (all pretty high values!) We do the following math to find the overall accuracy of factual reporting:

100% * 95% * 75% = 71.25%

We can see that even these "high" levels result in the overall news product having a lower overall level of accuracy than the individual articles it contains. Now, spread this kind of scoring across entire issues, or days, or weeks, or years, and you can see why many traditional news outlets are struggling today.

Can you imagine what happens to a journalist's or news outlet's credibility when the even just a single "fact" they report or use as the foundation for an editorial position turns out to be wholly false?

The bigger picture is that the difference between the facts they report or represent in their articles and columns and reality is seriously eroding the trust journalists might have with their audience. That audience, tired of finding the news plagued by low accuracy journalism (aka "low quality journalism") to not be credible, will move, and has moved, to more reliably accurate and credible sources.

The problem of accuracy, and credibility, in journalism can be overcome. We'll talk about that sometime in the future....

Don't believe that the people who write editorials can get the concept of how credibility can be eroded through a continuing misleading communication of facts? See this editorial from the San Francisco Examiner that uses an example of the damage the federal government does to itself when it fails to provide fully accurate facts to the public. If only journalists would turn this critical eye onto themselves and their products!

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