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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox



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Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Ethics Toolbox

The 'duh' of fact checking

By Elizabeth Donald

When I speak to students about ethics, I call this the “duh” section.

There are no absolute rights in journalism and very few absolute wrongs. The latter are the “duh” section: You cannot take someone else’s words and pass them off as your own. You cannot run for office while working as a political reporter. You cannot make up sources or intentionally misquote someone, knowingly publish or broadcast wrong information, and so on. These should be obvious.

And of course, you must check your facts. It should be in the “duh” section. Fact checking is so integral to Journalism 101 that at first I hesitated to write about it in this space.

However, recent events indicate that even something as simple as fact checking can fall through the widening cracks in our new world order.

Before we all fell into the election abyss, there was the Chicago teachers’ strike in September. It made national news, because it’s Chicago, which is its own particular brand of nuttiness. As the teachers walked, a group called the Illinois Policy Institute sent out a release referencing a Southern Illinois University study that seemingly indicated the Chicago teachers scored more poorly on the ACT test than their own students.

This was immediately picked up by multiple news outlets. The release that said students scored an average of just under 21, and teachers averaged 19. It sounds pretty damning.

The only problem is, it wasn’t exactly true. The SIU report was released in 2008 from a study conducted in 2006, so already the numbers were six years out of date. The release implied that the teachers were taking the same test as the students, when in reality, the teachers’ ACT scores as reported were from their own high school years, sometimes decades in the past before massive changes were made in the test. It neglected to point out that 63 percent of those same teachers now have master’s degrees.

Also, while Illinois’ state average ACT was 20.6 in 2011, the Chicago students averaged 17.7.

At first I only looked into it to see whether the statement was worth debunking. But when I dug into the study itself, I found even that representation was misleading. The study was comparing the ACT scores of older teachers hired in decades past to more recent hires, and found that hiring standards were increasing — that in fact, the newer teachers had an average 21.6 ACT score.

The point is, it took me about 10 whole minutes to find out this statistic was only half the story. This is the kind of fact checking I’m talking about: not just taking the statistic you are handed and making sure it’s spelled the same as the release, but going back to the source material and examining it yourself with critical thinking and an open mind. Your feelings on an issue such as the teachers’ strike have no bearing; only the facts matter.

How many times during the recent election did news organizations grab a statistic based on this kind of half-baked, slanted analysis and simply run with it? I think sometimes we fall into the trap of assuming the people feeding us this material must have it right; surely they wouldn’t bother to give us numbers that are so easily checked … unless they are counting on our newsrooms being understaffed, overworked and occasionally sloppy.

As the Chicago strike should have reminded us, sometimes it’s all about the basics. Sometimes the “duh” section needs a refresher. And sometimes we have to remember that people are quick to dismiss facts that don’t jibe with the narrative they want us to tell.

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