In an age of misinformation mainstream media need a verifiability policy

  • February 28, 2023

Journalism should take a zero-tolerance approach to publishing false or unverifiable claims

I often ask friends – when you read an article in mainstream media about a topic in which you have some expertise (about health if you are a doctor for example), how often do you notice that it contains incorrect information? The majority of answers fall at the frequently/very frequently end of the Likert scale we’d be looking at if I were polling rather than chatting. I’m not talking here about serpent-headed aliens, microchip-containing vaccines or stolen elections. But I am talking about mundane examples of misrepresentation through partial presentation of the facts and fabrication.

I give illustrations from the Guardian newspaper, not because it’s a major culprit but because it isn’t. If the problem is present even in the best, it’s present everywhere. I am a long-time reader of the Guardian and subscriber to its online edition. I value its balanced coverage and regard it as standing head and shoulders above all other daily newspapers in the UK for its reliability and lack of bias. But at times I am left wondering, even in this newspaper, about a particular piece – is this true? How would I know?

On the surface the examples I will give may seem like minor infringements, but unreliable reporting in any part of the paper can lead to lack of trust in the reporting of every part of the paper; and we are storing up trouble for the future if journalists following examples such as these come to believe that writing a good story takes precedence over writing an entirely accurate one. There is a fairly simple solution to the problem but before considering it, a few examples.

An article in January 2023 described a survey which was said to have “…found that one in five LGBTQ+ people and more than a third of trans people in the UK have been subjected to attempted conversion…”. As part of an online survey, respondents were asked whether they had ever experienced someone taking any action (my italics) to try to change, cure or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. Describing the findings, the phrase “subjected to” appeared in the article headline, in the final sentence and three times in the text. There was no link to the survey report but when I found one it revealed that the campaigning group commissioning the survey has a particular take on what “subjected to” means.

“There must be no “consent” loophole… Conversion practices are abuse and it is not possible to consent to abuse …The definition of conversion practices should include religious practices…”. So examples of what respondents were “subjected to” included “I saw a counsellor…” and “My partner ended our relationship because of God and then the people from church prayed for us to become straight.” For sure, there were quotes about much more unpleasant experiences but even there the reframing was unusual: being beaten up because you’re gay is wrong, but it’s a stretch to call it a conversion practice. There was no indication of a typology of practices or the prevalence of various practices – anything and everything goes towards the headline figure.  This strikes me as a long way from what most people understand by the sort of conversion therapy that might be banned by legislation, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the survey was reported.

An article in June last year headed “Brain damage claim leads to new row over electroshock therapy” reported that electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) “…is now the focus of a huge row – which erupted last week – over claims that it can trigger brain damage, that guidelines covering its use are weak and that it is used disproportionately on women and the elderly.” Again there was no reported evidence of a huge row; just a link to a 5 year old Guardian article retailing the same criticisms from the same source as described in the 2022 article. The bust-up seems to have been imagined into life to act as a hook for the otherwise non-story.

Something from the pandemic. An article from January 2021 reported that the “Prince’s Trust happiness and confidence survey produces worst findings in its history”. Three accompanying comments linked the findings to the impact of the pandemic. The findings as reported were literally true (just) but a reading of the whole report gives quite a different picture. In 2021 just 56% of respondents said they were happy about, and 64% said they were confident about, their emotional health. Certainly the lowest on record but the corresponding figures for 2018 were 57% and 65%. In 2021 56% said there were always or often anxious. Again, the highest on record but the figures for the preceding years 2018-2020 were 53%, 54% and 55%. The really big changes have come since 2010 when more than 70% said they were happy and confident about their emotional health and fewer than 20% said they felt anxious or depressed all or most of the time. So a study that shows a decade-long decline in the emotional health of young people is reframed as a story about the impact of the pandemic by the simple expedient of not reporting most of its findings.

In a piece from January this year promoting assisted dying and entitled “Today, 17 people will likely die in unimaginable pain…” regular contributor Polly Toynbee writes, after a warm up about torture chambers, excruciating pain, horror and humiliation, that “On average 17 people a day die in terrible pain that can’t be relieved by even the best palliative care.”  The claim is based upon a review undertaken by the Office for Health Economics which, like the research it is reviewing, refers nowhere to the severity of pain but only to “unrelieved pain” much of which, it would be clear to anybody familiar with the clinical scenarios, will not match the descriptions offered. Toynbee’s account of unimaginable pain in end-of-life care comes in fact from her own imagination.

Much of this would be avoided if journalists put a bit more work in – didn’t just recycle press releases and did some of their own fact-checking, aided by basic critical appraisal skills. How would we know if they were doing that? Online encyclopedia Wikipedia, in facing its own questioning about reliability, has developed a policy it describes as Verifiability, not truth. “Verifiability” means that material must have been published previously by a reliable source, cited by the writer and consulted by them. Sources must be appropriate, must be used carefully, and must be balanced relative to other sources. 

Citing reliable sources, with a clear statement that the journalist has consulted them, gives readers the chance to check for themselves that the most appropriate authorities  have been used, and used well. In fact none of the four examples I give here would be compliant with such a policy. If respectable and respected mainstream media are to maintain their reputation for trustworthiness they need to demonstrate how they manage reliability in their reporting and not just assert that they do. An explicit, and explicitly followed, verifiability policy would be a good start.


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