Category Archives: Journalism

Science and journalism: studies have findings, not facts.

As a science blogger, I am of course always happy to see more science news making it into the mainstream reports on a daily basis. But there are downsides for those of us who have taken up the task of reporting on scientific discovery, which are the over interpretation and rash judgement that come with a poor understanding of either the material before us or the basics of science. Rather than sticking to what a given study or announcement means, it is easy – even desirable – to take that information to what we believe is its logical next step.

The trouble is: science is inherently esoteric. You’ve never heard what you’re about to read in my blog about Science Topic A because Science Topic A may not have even existed before the study concluded. It makes sense to make science news accessible to the audience by tying it to our daily lives, otherwise much of your audience may have not frame of reference. To do that sometimes requires a bit of imagination. And a few liberties.

After two years or more of science blogging, I have continually discovered that threading the needle between good, imaginative writing and fidelity to the truth is an ongoing process. You don’t win them all, either. So it is easy both for me to criticize other media outlets for failing to meet the benchmark, and for anyone else to find a good example of me failing as badly. But if there is one thing any writer with any interest in factual reporting must absolutely, positively and unequivocally follow, it is this:

Studies have findings, but those findings are not automatically facts.

One recent example of good science reported poorly is the recent University of Illinois study that came to the conclusion that talking to your kids about your own past drug use might actually encourage a view of drugs as being more socially acceptable . But let me not put words in the researchers’ mouths:

“Parents may want to reconsider whether they should talk to their kids about times when they used substances in the past and not volunteer such information, Kam said. “Of course, it is important to remember this study is one of the first to examine the associations between parents’ references to their own past substance use and their adolescent children’s subsequent perceptions and behaviors.”

Its that second sentence that’s the killer, here. Because most of the mainstream media seems to have completely discounted it.

After thirty plus years and billions of dollars spent encouraging parents to talk to their kids about drugs, this new study seems to completely smack an axiom across the face. And it does. But these are findings from a single study, not facts to be reported as such and acted upon by your audience. The study cries out for further investigation, and it is sure to prompt a lot of debate and future research. It just isn’t quite as reliable as, say, our understanding of the boiling point of water.

Digging into the study itself is difficult – once again, this particular wing of the scientific community opts to publish its reports on paywalled scientific journals, rather than publicly – but the scope of the study seems to have been intentionally very limited. They sought to answer a simple question: does the fact that a parent has discussed their past drug use with their children automatically mean that those children will not support the use of drugs? The finding was “no.”

But what does “talking” mean, exactly? What else do the parents discuss besides drugs? With whom are they discussing drugs, besides their children? And if parents do not discuss drug use with their kids, how does this study determine whether those parents ever did drugs in the first place?

It is neither helpful to simply discount the findings nor report them as fact. But using language a bit more clearly, for example saying “new study suggests..” rather than “researchers discover..” would be a good first step. Headlines that tag “study finds” at the end of the sentence, as in “Don’t talk to your kids about drugs, study finds,” are also rather weak on the veracity. And it is hard not to imagine that our current climate of report-first cable news is incapable of such subtlety.

The differences have consequences. Take for example a recent TED talk by neuroscientist Molly Crockett on the crazy reinterpretation of her work that she has experienced, as a good conclusion to this article:

Your local social journo, their bosses, and you.

By now, most of you may be aware that Channel 13 was recently bought by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair is one of the juggernauts of media consolidation, from their own “About” page:

Sinclair owns and operates, programs or provides sales services to 87 television stations in 47 markets. Sinclair’s television group reaches approximately 27.1% of US television households and includes FOX, ABC, MyTV, CW, CBS, NBC, MTN and Azteca affiliates.

What you may not know is that, because of the change in ownership at WHAM, new policy changes regarding social media are going to potentially have a big impact on your relationship with the social media journalists, of which 13WHAM’s media team are among the best in our market. Because it is apparently the policy of Sinclair Broadcast to take ownership of social media accounts of on-air talent. This means that a social media account of your local broadcast journalist would now include full administrative rights given to the company: Lois Lane’s boss is now looking over her shoulder, whether you know it or not.

You may already have noticed that a few of the on-air talents at 13WHAM have already changed their Twitter accounts, adding new ones that are marked as 13WHAM. Rachel Barnhart, Evan Dawson and Norma Holland have all done this, more may follow suit. They’re doing this because the company is asking for separate accounts, rather than attempting to take ownership of these journalists’ personal accounts.

Romenesko broke the story of Rachel Barnhart posting the news to her extremely large and active social media following:

Barnhart points out in the comments on her post: “The big benefit for stations is owning a reporter’s relationship with followers. The reporter can’t take the following with her if she leaves for a competitor or anywhere else.” She adds: “I don’t consider this a muzzle, as I can continue to use my own accounts, primarily as I have been. I just have to maintain additional work-only accounts.”

This precedent has many in local media both concerned for their own privacy and worried about the long-term effects this type of corporate control may have on free speech and the ability of a social media journalist to establish trust with their audiences. Calling it “silly and misguided,” journalists point out that the need for corporate control misses the point of social media entirely and as Rachel eludes to above, basically takes ownership of a professional’s ability to practice their profession.

Both legally and ethically, the corporate take-over presents a bit of a problem. Because it is already well established that your boss cannot ask for nor assume administrative access to your social network account profiles. They’re not allowed to ask for your password in pre-hire and they certainly cannot establish any level of ownership after hiring you. Journalists are many things, but they are employees of the companies they work for. The insistence on creating separate profiles is, to put it mildly, too cute by half.

There is absolutely no distinction to be made between owning one account and having administrative rights to the other. Because a social network account is a profile. It is a means of direct access to any person, but especially a journalist. Journalists at 13WHAM will be “encouraged” to use their corporate owned Twitter accounts when doing live tweeting or other “business” related to the news. Sooner rather than later, the audience will see the WHAM account as the authoritative one.

But beyond your local social journo and their boss, the title of this post did mention you, did it not? Oh, yes. It does. The reason is that, beyond merely 13WHAM, Sinclair also owns Fox 31 and rochesterhomepage.net, and presumably all the social media accounts you’ve been following related to Fox. And they’ve owned the local Fox affiliate for a long time. That means that all those things about you that Facebook already knows are also the purview of Sinclair Broadcasting Group already, if you’ve done any interacting with their Facebook presence. This would include:

  • Your comments on those posts and tweets.
  • Your posts to their Wall
  • Oh, yes. This absolutely does include the stuff you or they deleted in those times when you might have gotten a little carried away.
  • Semi-private messages such as DMs on Twitter.

Your privacy is a part of this. And any time you make contact with any of 13WHAM’s on-air personalities through their official accounts (and for those who haven’t already changed their accounts, who knows??) are now within a quick glance from any Program Director with the curiosity to look.

And if none of this strikes you as a problem because you have “nothing to hide,” what about those who do? Local media rarely works with Deep Throat and those that might would probably not opt for the barely-safe social media accounts they have. But people with tips about their companies? Victims of violence or scams who want someone to know but didn’t want to go public?

We can tut-tut about privacy all we like – who would use a social media account to pass private information? – but in this modern era, I am personally aware of many stories broken via first leads over social media accounts. And if those same leads could not trust to whom they spoke, would they be as willing?

Offline readers: never miss out on a hastily-withdrawn website, again!

Mitt Romney’s transition team website went live for a few embarrassing minutes. Of course, he had a transition website: you don’t just build one from scratch without a little advanced planning. But what that website looks like and what his plan might have been would have been interesting info to have been able to peek at. Unfortunately, the folks who caught on to the site at Politicalwire.com were only able to get screen captures of what was there. Basically, they took a picture of their screen while looking at the website.

Screen captures are better than nothing. But they suffer from a number of pesky problems. For a start, you can only see what was on the screen at the time: any content that might have required you to scroll down the page is not visible. Also, you’re limited to the number of pages they were able to screen cap. Additional information would have been lost. Finally as one nuts-and-bolts disadvantage, you can’t copy and paste text from an image. Who wants to transcribe? What is this, 1990? ( #LazyAsHell )

What would be really good would be to actually capture the documents themselves: all the individual pages, with links, text and images, reassembled for viewing elsewhere.

And you can do just that with software variously called “offline browsers,” or “web spiders.” The role of an offline reader is to basically harvest an entire website and recreate it on your desktop. Webreaper, SuperBot, HTTrack. There are a host of options and they all do more or less the same thing. In fact, there are even plugins for Chrome and FireFox as well as apps for iPhone and Android.

Most have nice, user-friendly user interfaces and require very little tech savvy to operate. Just tell your chosen tool the URL you’d like to start on and click “Go,” or whatever. They just crawl right though the site, capturing each individual page as they go, then following the links on the page to find more to capture.

So, enterprising information-seekers – be they bloggers, journalists or just the frequently-curious – would do well to have a suite of these tools on-hand for whenever they might need them. Users should be cautioned, however, that republishing the content of another site on your own might well run afoul of copyright laws. Still, fair use is a reasonable enough argument for keeping records of government and political websites at minimum.

Memes, culture and the Tommy Mule Parallel.

I remember sitting in my livingroom, playing Atari 2600 video games against my father, while having a running conversation with everyone else in the room. He couldn’t do both things at once and was astonished with the ease with which my sister and I both could. Whipped his ass, too.

And I recall this image in part because, on what seems like a regular basis, we get clueless eyebrow knitters such as this one posted to Poynter:

No matter how the tactic hits, political reporters and commentators are covering every wrinkle, chasing a wild trajectory of phrases that would have previously gone unnoticed. Some of these memes don’t even begin as substantive critiques before they take off. I asked De Souza, via Tumblr, why the phrase “binders full of women” energized her in that minute after it left Romney’s mouth. Isn’t seeking out and hiring female candidates a good thing? “I would say he hired those women to fill a quota,” De Souza replied. “Politicians are all about status (especially if they’re running for president) so a cabinet full of women looks good for him.”

And further:

I blame journalists like myself for beating the binders to death. Even when we’re not consciously gunning for SEO dominance, the way we report today — glued to Twitter, absorbing and articulating snap judgments simultaneously — makes it increasingly likely that we’ll sweat the small stuff.

So on the one had, journalists are constantly scratching around for every new wrinkle in the Internet culture. But on the other hand, journalists are to blame for making these memes possible and popular. I guess it takes two hands to wring them together.

Seriously, STFU

Note: its ok to laugh, there’s no way you’ll remember this thing an hour from now.

See that funny LOLcat over there? Now look away for a second and go back to it. You see what happened? It instantly got less funny.

Because its a fucking joke, people. It is not a declaration of some deep seeded cultural fury or a rising sentiment among “my kind.” Its a joke that lasts in the moment and goes away immediately after that.

This is what I’m calling – for the purposes of the current discussion – the Tommy Mule Parallel. Tommy is a personality on 96.5 WCMF’s Break Room morning show and probably the deliverer of more jokes per minute on the show than most anybody else. They talk about whatever’s going on and he comments as they go. He’s generally pretty goddamned funny, but that’s not to say that, listening back a week later, you’d laugh. Neither would you suppose that someone from Cleveland would laugh at stuff about Rochester. That’s because the context is all wrong.

We could certainly, if we wanted to, transcribe Tommy’s every sentence to superimpose that sentence over a picture of a wacky-looking cat. And that would probably be funny to anybody listening to The Break Room that day. Nobody else.

But leave it to a journalist to ask, “why is that funny?” And expect an answer, too!

Memes on the Internet are pretty much the same thing: passing fancies of people having fun together. They’re certainly funny, but they have a shelf-life. And a context, outside of which, they’re just not funny. On a social Internet, anybody with quick enough skills on one graphic design program or another can create a bit of humor in the moment. They can be this half-hour’s “local” hero. As a person who is a frequent flier on Twitter and Facebook, I guess I’m accustomed to seeing these things fly by and not even bothering to think about what they mean.

Sometimes, I laugh. Sometimes, I don’t. You had to be there. Next.

The tone of coverage in the London Olympics may go any way the wind blows

The Oxford English Dictionary identifies 171 thousand words in the current-usage English language. Which to pick from when reporting a story?

The choice is not a small one. For example, was there a “controversy” or a “dust-up” surrounding that call in the volleyball match? Maybe a “fire storm?” Those three choices – all describing the same event – can have profound impact on how the audience views the games. And research out of Penn State suggests, based on analysis of the Beijing Games, that the weather has a big effect on what choices American journalists make.

The study matched the positive and negative tone of coverage to weather conditions and air quality. And the results were consistent:

By using computer-aided content analysis, this study examined how Beijing’s weather, which was measured by the Air Pollution Index (API), temperature, and cloudiness (sunny or cloudy), might influence the coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics by 4 U.S. newspapers. The results demonstrated that the API and temperature were significantly related to the negativity of the news reports that were filed from Beijing. Specifically, as Beijing’s temperature rose or air pollution level increased, U.S. journalists used more negative words in reporting on the Olympics. The temperature was also correlated with the negativity of China-related reports. The findings provided evidence that journalists’ news decision making might be influenced by a greater variety of factors than we previously thought.

Basically, when US reporters’ hair got frizzy, they started talking shit about China. Which, let’s face it, is understandable in a country where they had to shut down all manufacturing in an entire city just so Olympic athletes didn’t die.

Twitter in the courtroom: what is the value added?

When Conservatives want to carp on “wasteful government spending,” the well they pull from again and again is government-funded scientific research. Because of course, what could more typify waste and abuse than a 1 million dollar project to study whale sperm?

But information doesn’t work like that, and neither does science. One cannot know, when they begin a research project, what they will discover by its end. And even less knowable are the mysteries that may be solved with a random scrap of information from your work. Science works like that all the time.

And it is with this in mind that I’m struggling to understand Twitter in the courtroom. Journalism and science work off of many of the same ethical standards, the first being that knowledge is valuable even if its value is not always immediately understood. Journalists have always fought with the justice system on the limits of their ability to cover trials – from cameras to now the stenographers of modern media, Twitter accounts. But having observed a fair share of courtroom cases covered by Twitter accounts, I become less and less enamored of their supposed ability to enlighten.

The problem seems to be that, while a full accounting of what happens in a court room is certainly enlightening, what happens on a Twitter feed does not quite live up to that standard. How could it, at 140 characters a clip, typed hurriedly on a tiny little phone keyboard? Instead what we get is sort of reverse TV Guide of what has happened as it comes up, without the benefit of seeing or hearing any of the testimony.

Not to pick on Sean Carroll, who is a good journalist. But it is difficult to imagine this information providing any particular insight into the unfortunate case of Richard Dallas, the man accused of raping a nine month old baby. Instead, it half paints a picture that the audience is invited to fill up with their own prejudices.

The result is not more information, its less information about more things.

Update: Twitter responses

Because I got so many responses, I thought I’d highlight some of them. It is clear that Rochester is getting tired of this trend:

Update #2: More Twitter!

Because I’ve had the opportunity to have a well-publicized debate with my very good friend, fellow blogger and Twitter journalism evangelist Rachel Barnhart about twitter in the courtroom, I decided to include it on the post for further food for thought.

http://storify.com/dragonflyeye/debating-live-tweeting-in-the-courtroom

 

Terror at the post office: local reporting raises more questions than it answers

As a story, the recent news about the Orlando postal worker, now resting in Irondequoit, who fell ill after handling a suspicious package has a little bit of everything: a deathly ill man; a caring mother; a government cover up; a terror angle. It’s an incredible tale. Someone, somewhere is cutting a check for a made-for-TV movie.

You very much want to believe “The Jeff Lill Story.” And so do I. What man-fighting-massive-bureaucracy-in-search-of-the-truth story wouldn’t I want to believe? None of them, never. But therein lies in the rub, because I think there’s reason for caution on the story, the movie, everything.

The story appears to be contradicted, or at least not fully supported, by the documentary evidence made available so far.

Considering the source…

To review, the story claims that Jeffrey A. Lill, a postal worker, handled a broken package from Yemen. Spilling out from the package were wires and tubes, which dripped a syrupy brown liquid that burned Lill’s arms, nose and throat and later made him very ill, causing organ failure and memory lapses.

Reporters at the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) and a journalism school grant program at the University of California-Berkeley dug into his claim and wrote the account most people read this weekend. It was distributed everywhere by the Associated Press and published locally by the Democrat and Chronicle.

D&C staff wrote a separate short feature on the postal worker’s mother, and they apparently edited the story, but didn’t report it. Neither did the hundreds of other media outlets which published the AP’s version this weekend. Some outlets, including Reuters and WHEC, have begun to publish independent reports, but they mostly rely on Lill.

.. and the story…

To back up his claim, the original story relies on an email from Lill to his boss on the eve of the Feb. 4, 2011, incident.

But there is no suspicious package from Yemen in Lill’s email. He mentions only a strong odor, and describes his response to it this way: “I immediately cleared the area of employees (sent to breakroom) and took the gpc [general purpose container] of empty sacks outside to the Haz-Mat shed.”

No Yemen, no tubes, no oozing brown liquid, no nothing. The sacks are described as empty.

Now, it’s possible that Lill saw all those things but simply didn’t mention it in that particular email. And left untouched are the two whistleblowing employees the reporters say they confirmed the story with. But exactly which parts of the story those employees were able to confirm suddenly becomes very important.

One of them, Paz Oquendo, is described in Lill’s email as reporting the suspicious odor to Lill. She’s also quoted in the story, saying the odor was unbearable. But did she see the package from Yemen? Did the other whistleblowing postal worker? The story doesn’t make that clear.

In addition to calling the Yemen angle into question, the evidence also conflicts with other elements of the story.

The story says that the “USPS briefly stopped accepting mail from” Yemen after an October 2010 bomb scare, but the Postal Service’s website and a spokesperson said today that service from Yemen was never restored. It would have still been suspended at the time Lill says he encountered the package. Whether a package from Yemen containing wires and tubes would have likely made it to Lill’s sorting facility remains an open question.

The story also repeatedly calls on the Postal Service to investigate the incident, and hammers in that there hasn’t been an investigation. But a letter(PDF) from the service’s lawyers to local congresswoman Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, published by the D&C with the story, says that there was a thorough investigation that found Lill’s claims to be unsubstantiated.

Perhaps the authors didn’t consider the Postal Service’s investigation to merit the name investigation, but it’s odd that they don’t address that.

It doesn’t help the Postal Service’s credibility that, since it expects a lawsuit from Lill any minute, it’s very careful when discussing the specifics of whatever investigation it says was conducted.

What few specifics it does discuss provide an alternate story: On Feb. 2, a bottle broke, spilling a disinfectant in the sorting facility. The disinfectant was cleaned up, but some remained. An employee reported an odor (possibly Lill or one of his coworkers) and found the remainder on Feb. 4. The contaminated material was removed and no employees were injured.

That Lill is suffering from a terrible undiagnosed illness, and that he and his coworkers encountered a foul-smelling problem at the sorting facility that Feb. 4 day seems to be without question.

But whether the Postal Service’s specific version of events or Lill’s is supported more completely now depends on Oquendo and her colleagues’ recollection. If they remember the odor and Lill’s response, but not the package from Yemen, it’s down to a claim from a bedridden man who everyone wants to believe, but everyone ought to know that they shouldn’t do so without caution.

 

Everything you need to know about getting around the Gannett paywall

To be clear: I have no problem with anyone – anyone at all – making money. I also having nothing against anyone saving money, either. And I suspect, nobody has any problem with the fact that the creative friction between the two is what makes our great nation of Amurica the great nation that its great at being. Isn’t that great?

So with that said, is finding a way around the D&C’s paywall unethical? Well, let me put it to you this way: have you ever gone through the line at a store with your significant and two identical coupons? And those coupons say, “one coupon per customer, per visit?”

If you decided to use two different lines and get double the discount, then you’ve already become well-aquainted with the idea of game systems. And Gannett News has clearly decided that your consumption of their product is a game. A game where you get as far as your knowledge takes you. And somewhat perversely for an organization ostensibly charged with informing the public, it is a game where what you don’t know could cost you either money or information.

Every good game needs cheat codes. So here you go:

Everything you need to know about getting around the Gannett paywall:

  • The paywall counts the number of articles you have viewed. More than 20, you’ll have to pay.
  • Unlike the New York Times paywall, the Gannett paywall ALSO counts articles you’ve viewed through social media links towards your 20 free.
  • Blogs on the D&C DO NOT count towards your 20 free.
  • Clicking articles multiple times. This is very odd:
    • Clicking the same article multiple times DOES count towards your 20 free. What the hell?
    • Once you’ve reached your 20 free, clicking the same article multiple times DOES NOT trigger the paywall block. You can still view any previously-viewed articles….
    • So, clicking the same article 20 times will screw you, but as long as you really, really like that article – which, presumably, you must – you’re all set.
  • The paywall relies on sessions, which in layman’s terms, means that the paywall can only count the number of articles clicked on one computer, one browser at a time.
    • Switching browsers – using Chrome or Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, for example – means you’ll have a whole new 20 free articles.
    • Switching to your work computer means 20 additional free articles
    • Switching to your laptop means 20 more articles.
    • Switching to your smartphone or tablet… you get the idea.
  • “Well, fuck me old boots, Tom!” you say in an exaggerated British accent, “Nobody wants to have to manage all those different browsers!! I just want my horribly biased, pathetically misinformed editorials and aggregated AP content with my morning coffee.”  No worries, mate.
    • Instead, just clear your browser’s cookies and you can start all over again.
    • As mentioned in comments, Firefox and Safari both have private browsing modes. Close your browser when you’ve hit the cap and reopen. Presto! Chango! You’ve reset the clock.
    • Rather than dumping your whole browser cache, those who use developer tools in their browsers can find and delete the cookie named EMETA_NCLICK to effectively reset the clock.

This is a pretty good list for now, I think. If you have any additional insight to add, please do so in the comments. I’ll update the list as either new info comes to light or the rules of the game change.

In press releases, KODAK doubles-down on print in a big way

While in the early throes of their current bankruptcy, KODAK executives announced that they would be concentrating their efforts on the nascent and as yet unprofitable printing side of the business at the expense of the consumer photography business that had been their source of brand recognition for eighty years. At the time, what I did not personally anticipate was that, rather than their crappy home printers, KODAK would focus on… newsprint.

It is genuinely hard to imagine the benefits of swapping one dying industry for another. But in a flurry of press releases, KODAK has made it clear: they believe they know something that we don’t.

On Saturday, KODAK announced their new print process, dubbed KODAK SONORA NEWS. Freaking KODAK and their ALL CAPS names, but I digress. The new print process is one the company claims to make running print presses faster, cheaper and greener. The company claims this improvement is achieved by skipping the processing step entirely, allowing publishers to go directly from the computer to the press.

On Sunday, KODAK announced still more details on their new Computer to Press (CTP) process. The KODAK Intelligent Prepress Manager (my CAPS LOCK thanks you) is designed to allow more control for printers, data-driven models and – get ready for this – mobile access. I guess so you can change fonts while you’re dining. Or something.

Finally this morning, KODAK unveiled another complimentary bit of software for their CTP system, wNewsNet. This press release seems larded with industry buzz words (funny, that) and doesn’t really describe much of what wNewsNet actually does…

Taken together, it is clear KODAK plans to push this system hard. I can imagine that this points to what is probably a much more profitable future for print media: extremely small presses, efficient and hands-off, that can print out paper copies of digital media on-the-fly. Not exactly friendly news to the giant press industry – this opens the possibilities of more City Newspapers and even smaller publishers, not more profitable D&Cs – but that’s all assuming that this whole thing doesn’t fall on its face in the first place.

Journalism and linking: permalinks for content are important too.

The debate has been burning up the journalism community on Twitter all weekend: a hotly contested issue of linking and primary sources. If you didn’t break a story, should you cite the person who did and link to them? Felix Salmon maintains – probably rightly – that in most cases, readers won’t be clicking on those links anyway. His exhaustive discussion of the topic is a great read all by itself.

For my part, as a person who began blogging eight years or so ago, linking to other sources is a matter of course. It’s just what bloggers do, even if we know that in many cases, that link will not be clicked on. I’ve always considered it a sort of in-line bibliography (my topics are not always journalistic) and a means of providing your readers a direction to go to find out more about a topic that you’ve discussed.

It does feel ethical to cite where you’ve gotten things. I’ve often gotten the distinct impression that one reason mainstream media refuses to cite its sources is that its easier to maintain the pretense of journalism-as-distict-from-blogging if you don’t have to give bloggers, twitter accounts and other non-traditional sources credit for anything. You can keep using the lame, bland and uninformative tropes Felix Salmon refers to: “sources say,” or “those close to the discussions say…”

But as long as we’re discussing linking, there is another side of the story that should not be over looked, particularly for editors and those in positions to affect web structure. And that is my biggest pet peeve in citing news articles: the fact that many news orgs do not maintain their content past a certain date.

That date can be as little as a month. After this time, the link you created to give your source credit is dead as a door nail. Local news is particularly bad in this habit. Nor is it at all necessary: blogs have long maintained “permalink” structures that allow content to remain online indefinitely without using up namespaces or cluttering up URLs. Why news orgs feel the need to move content from one place to another is beyond me.

And it is, in my estimation at least, unethical. It has the feeling of saying, “well, this may not have been accurate, so let’s get rid of it.” Yes, facts change as we go forward. New facts come to light. It’s important to impress upon visitors that “this is old news,” and encourage them to read the more current stuff. But it’s also important to take ownership of what you’ve put out in the past. Yanking back old content may rob people of valuable information – the very same information journalists everywhere are arguing about right now.

There is currently a project underway in Rochester to link together as many journalistic and informational resources as possible and facilitate new thinking among the journalism community here in Rochester. Its called Hackers and Hacks ( #hhroc ), and I very-much support the effort. But a critical question that journalists and their bosses need to ask is: if we want permanent access to critical information, do we not also have the obligation to provide it?

Can you read food labels? Most Americans say they can

Color me doubtful on this one…

Nielson Wire has released the results of a world-wide study on people’s understanding of food labels and health issues. And according to a survey, 57% of Americans responded that they believe they understand food labels “mostly.” But the problem with opinion polls of this type is that your opinion of your knowledge and your actual knowledge do not in any way need to agree. This isn’t really an opinion poll question, since your knowledge of a subject could have been tested.

Comparing the distance, on average, between people’s perception and a quantified measurement would certainly be interesting. That distance could be non-existent, it could be miles, no way to know from this poll.

The other problem with this study is: I don’t see any methodology link. How did Nielson go about finding people for the poll? Cell phone? Random field sampling? Because both of those methods would, depending on the neighbourhood, yield vastly different results.

Food Labeling Confusion Weighs Heavily on Minds of Global Consumers | Nielsen Wire.

The grey area in LeRoy: when is a diagnosis not a diagnosis?

The latest developments in LeRoy include the arrival and press release of a New Jersey doctor who specializes in identifying a syndrome called PANDAS (Pediatric Acute Neurological Disorder Associated with Streptococcus) or as its apparently been renamed, PANS (Pediatric Acute Neurological Syndrome). So, if we may take a step back and look at the current top contenders for culprits, we have:

  1. Mass Hysteria (a syndrome)
  2. PANS (a syndrome)
  3. An unproven link between TCE and Tourette’s-like symptoms

Doctor Trifiletti states that mass hysteria is a “diagnosis of exclusion,” basically meaning a diagnosis of last resort. But his own pet disorder is in fact no more specific than mass hysteria at all. Whereas mass hysteria is thought to be brought on by stress, PANDAS is believed to be brought on by Streptococcus (strep throat, basically). The only reason one might be perceived as better than the other is if we dismiss the idea of communicable psychological disorder.

But that the name PANDAS was changed to PANS suggests that this link, too, is in doubt. Or at least, perhaps more links have emerged. PANDAS is not even recognized officially as any kind of disorder at all.

As a person who blogs about and dearly loves science, I would never suggest that finding the actual cause of the LeRoy girls’ symptoms is unimportant. But looking at the current list of suspects, you do have to wonder what immediate benefit that answer will provide those girls and their parents?

I’ve discussed what a syndrome is before, but basically: it’s a set of symptoms with no known cause. If the three best answers include two syndromes and a potential red herring, aren’t we back where we began?

The treatment for PANDAS appears to be a course of antibiotics and vitamins. The treatment for mass hysteria is a few trips to the psychologist and maybe a course of anti-anxiety medication. The treatment for the TCE “intoxication” would probably depend on whether or not that actually exists.

Maybe its time to focus on getting those kids better.