Sunday, 17 January 2010

Information Error

There is a distinction between data and information.  Similarly there is a distintion between information and considered judgement.

With data such as: total cost of the prison service and the number of prisoners currently incarcerated:-

We get information like: It costs £40,000 per prisoner per year to keep them in prison.

We then get opinions like: The death sentence saves money and Newspapers call for the the return of hanging.

When someone has collected the majority of the pertinent data, if not all of the relevant data; they have agregated it and sumarised a balanced view of the available information; and then they have made evidence based judgements and drawn challengeble conclusions, then they can call themselves a journalist and they are worthy of having their report or article published.

You may not have liked someone's conclusion after they had given a subject this 'considered judgement' but at the very least you could evaluate their reasoning and formulate a plausible argument.

The development of the pace and currency of 24hr "news" channels initially brought a concern about the emergence of erroneous stories.  For me this has diluted a little now and my frustration is more centred around making "news" stories to fill the airtime - BREAKING NEWS: it's snowing in London
- rather than making news up.

In general, these stations have a prodution team and an editorial team ensuring there is a considered approach. They don't get this right all the time and I do wonder at the value of all the pseudo-news pumping out whilst they await a real news event. However this concern is nothing compared to the very recent phenomenen of rapid transmission of data, information and ill considered opinion on a worldwide platform via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

I note here that I am fully aware that I am an accomplice in this global pumping out of "news" but hopefully you can see I am considering my role in this phenomenon.  I became aware of the potential for poor judgement on misinformation by us (the general public) when I recieved a very well meaning email request to forward a photo of a kidnapped boy. It turns out, with a little research, that it was an urban myth and actually a spam email chain.  Email though isn't as immediate or interconnected as social media sites.

Recently (as you know if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin) I've just started reading the Gruaniad on an app on my iPhone and there was an article about a Guatemalan lawyer having a post death video uploaded on to YouTube that surprisingly predicted his death.  This article was in the technology section during the week. Yes, tech is one of my favourites, as is politics.

Apparently, he was murdered and at his funeral a video was played that had him predicting his death at the hands of a corrupt regime. Worldwide public opinion swung in to action and the Guatemalan President was nearly twittered off his perch and YouTube'd into iNfamy.

The dust settles, time passes, journalism investigates (and let's face it CIA covers-up and Politico-doctors spin) and we start to see a considered opinion that is opposite to our twit-gut response.

I don't wish to comment on the Guatemalan lawyer specifically as I have only read the linked article. I am concerned though that it is indicative of a trend in global media, of humanity's desire to achieve prescience.  To be the first to know, to tell everyone that they new before, despite the need to consider facts and context prior to forming a judgement.  I'm not sure this trend can or should be halted, I just hope as a society we are able to handle this new toy.

I would liken it to giving someone a box of matches. With the right guidance, it could be a force for good. Without advice, socially accepted norms and a desire to learn, and even without any nefarious motive- it could cause a destructive inferno.

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