Monday, August 27, 2012

Thinking about standards for information quality

Maria Armoudian presented a book talk on Book TV in which she explained that she began the research for her book by reading peer reviewed journals. Peer review is a means for validating the truth claims in submitted journal articles. Note, however, that science involves not only peer review, but replication of results. Journal articles are withdrawn after publication when the reported results repeatedly fail to be replicated by other laboratories. Indeed, articles may be withdrawn after publication simply because there is convincing evidence brought forth of misconduct by the authors relating to that article.

Armoudian focuses on journalism. Good journalistic standards involve both ethical commitment to investigative reporting by the writers and serious editorial review combining fact checking, and the legitimacy of the framing of stories and of the conclusions that are drawn. She suggests, and I agree, that the New York Times does a pretty good job of maintaining good journalistic standards (although errors creep in), and that in the golden age of television journalism, ABC, CBS and NBS network news also did so.

She suggests that in cases of genocide, the local media abandoned such standards in favor of hate mongering, and that combined with other factors, the message from the media was accepted by the public empowering murderous rampage.

Today, the audience of the three major network news programs is on the order of one-third of that of the golden age and their news budgets are down. Many newspapers, threatened by the Internet, have cut staffs. Many of the media sources from which people are getting their news and their information seem to have abandoned accepted journalistic standards in favor of maximizing market share and advertising income.

How can we improve journalistic standards and adherence to them? Scientific journals are evaluated in part by citation analysis. The more frequently the articles from a journal are cited by scientists, the higher the rating of the journal. It is assumed that when authors cite an article it is because they have found it useful in further scientific research. A journal that publishes many such articles may be considered to publish "good stuff". I note that scientific laboratories are often judged in terms of the number of peer reviewed articles that they publish, weighted by the rating of the journals in which they are published.

One way to improve journalistic standards is to publicize clearly the independent evaluations of the journalism of different sources. Alternatively, one could aggregate evaluations of the individual stories from a newspaper, magazine, or network.

We now have legislation that has entertainment graded with age specific limitations. How about legislation that has articles or media carry required grades of the quality of their content?

We have a long history of requiring broadcast media to broadcast news, and of licensing stations or refusing licenses on the basis of the quality of the news services that they provide to the public. That policy was based on the fact that the broadcast spectrum was limited and was owned by the public. It was therefore a legitimate governmental function to allocate the spectrum to those who would best use it in the public interest. The governmental review itself encouraged high journalistic standards.

I would suggest that public attention is also limited. We do regulate speech, legislating against libel and slander. On the other hand, the movies avoided governmental regulation to assure child friendly content by self regulation.

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