Media

Criticism is Essential but False Fact Claims Don't Help

Thoughtful criticism is essential for good public policy and the newspaper is absolutely right to publish a variety of arguments looking at any given issue from different perspectives.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 15, 2017

I have great respect for Paul Berton, the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator, on both a professional and personal level. He is an introspective, genial and thoughtful writer, and his weekly essays just inside the Saturday edition are always a welcome insight into the state of a media industry in transition in the 21st century.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see that Berton made my recent RTH article on fact-checking op-ed submissions the subject of his most recent column.

Running a modern newspaper is a no-win situation. No matter what you do, you will be criticized roundly - usually from both directions - for your treatment of any controversial issue. You can expect lots of unsolicited advice, at least some of it delivered with a generous helping of abuse and snark.

I tried to steer clear of abuse and snark in my piece, but I am nonetheless guilty of my share of armchair quarterbacking. I wrote my piece to get it off my chest and without expecting any response, so I was thrilled that Berton thought it worthy of a reply.

Berton wrote that I am mistaken in concluding that the Spectator no longer fact-checks op-ed submissions to the same extent as columns and editorials:

Granted, like most other newspapers, we have fewer editors today, but we do not print obvious falsehoods. And we correct our errors.

Like all newspapers, we check dates, figures, events, addresses, personalities, titles, allegations, the spelling of names ... [sic]

If something doesn't sound right, we question it. This is done dozens of times a day.

This is very good to know, and I appreciate Berton taking the time to clarify the newspaper's policy.

My piece was spurred by my review of published op-eds in opposition to the city's light rail transit (LRT) plan, many of which have rested on false fact claims.

After raising my concerns on social media, I was contacted by several Spectator journalists. They explained, defended and sometimes criticized the paper's decision to publish these anti-LRT op-eds despite the false and absurd claims, and it was on this basis that I wrote my recent piece.

Berton's article included a helpful review of the distinction between editing and fact-checking as such, the difference between how newspapers and magazines apply fact-checking, the reasonable limits on verifying claims, and the difficulty in untangling a fact from an opinion.

Then Berton wrote: "McGreal's real beef is our decision to print opinion submissions opposing LRT for Hamilton, articles he describes collectively as 'a painful mess of blatantly false claims, argumentative fallacies and downright bad writing.'"

I'm very sorry to have left Berton with the impression that I oppose the paper's publication of anti-LRT op-eds as a whole.

To be clear, I passionately support the role of thoughtful criticism to expose bad ideas and make good ideas better. Indeed, much of what we write on RTH is critical in nature. Heck, my own previous article constitutes an example of critical writing!

In making this point, Berton linked to two recent anti-LRT op-eds. The first was by Carl Turkstra, a civil engineer, who reviewed some of the traffic issues that LRT will cause and concluded, "the gift might well turn out to be a Trojan Horse."

To be sure, I disagree with Turkstra's pessimism. As an engineer he must understand that the purpose of engineering is to apply math and science to solve technical challenges, and Metrolinx already employs traffic engineers who are doing exactly this. However, I did not object to the publication of his essay.

I found no issue with his fact claims or his analysis, and considered the essay to be a fair piece of commentary written by someone who did their homework and checked their claims instead of just spewing a hot mess of angry assumptions. Again, I disagree with Turkstra's argument but not the decision to publish it.

The second op-ed that Berton linked - the now-infamous list of 36 reasons to oppose LRT - is a different matter.

Several of its points are blatantly false fact claims, e.g. that there will be no local bus service along the corridor (the City has consistently and repeatedly confirmed that local service will continue), or that the LRT tracks will be elevated (the tracks will be at the same grade as the street and separated by a curb), or that the McMaster station will drop passengers in the middle of the street (it will be on the north curb with direct access to campus), or that LRT will be louder than buses (modern LRT vehicles are generally quieter than buses).

According to the City's LRT FAQ:

The LRT will replace current HSR B-Line express service. Local bus service in and around the LRT corridor will be maintained to feed the LRT line, however parallel routes may be used in some sections. HSR is still working on these details so updates will be provided when they become available.

Here are the op-ed author's exact statements in question:

LRT is replacing the B-Line Express, but not the other local bus routes that serve this corridor. At most, "parallel routes may be used in some sections" according to the City.

The 01-King, 05-Delaware and 51-University bus routes will continue along the corridor and will continue to serve local stops between the LRT stations. At worst, some of those stops may move to nearby parallel streets. They certainly will not be "eliminated".

I just don't see how any amount of parsing can bridge the gulf between the City's FAQ and the op-ed author's claim that "34 existing bus stops would be eliminated" and "there will be no buses making more frequent stops" between LRT station.

Many of the op-ed's other objections are just angry assertions of the implementation details, like property acquisitions or the railway underpass, as if they were reasons not to proceed. Some of those implementation details even directly benefit the city - like the Longwood bridge replacement, which is necessary and for which the City does not have a budget.

If this op-ed was just a one-off, I would happily chalk it up to the kind of thing that sometimes slips past the filters. No one and no process is perfect, and putting together a daily newspaper is an extraordinary undertaking with a great many moving parts set against unforgiving timelines.

Yet I notice a disturbing pattern among many - though not all - of the anti-LRT op-eds published in the Spec over the past several years.

There's a pretty compelling argument to be made for an op-ed submitted by a local Member of Parliament or City Councillor, even when it gets basic facts wrong.

But other anti-LRT op-eds have been less defensible. They have engaged in empty fearmongering and baseless strawman attacks that falsely conflate modern LRT with antique trolleys and even 18th century technology, or repeated the false claim of eliminated bus service, or were based entirely on a draft report that had already been rejected, and so on.

It is only fair to point out here that from my reading, it appears the majority of LRT op-eds the Spectator publishes are supportive, and of course the paper's editorial position has been solidly pro-LRT for many years. LRT opponents may see this as evidence of bias, but what it reflects is simply that the case for LRT is vastly more broad, credible and well-supported by the evidence than the case against it.

Indeed, I have argued more than once in the past that the generally poor quality of anti-LRT arguments is itself a testament to the case for LRT.

Again, thoughtful criticism is essential for good public policy and the newspaper is absolutely right to publish a variety of arguments looking at any given issue from different perspectives - including opposition.

And my criticism is ultimately just that - one argument among many. The Spec editorial team certainly does not have to answer to me, and Berton's article was both gracious and thought-provoking. I expect we'll have to agree to disagree on this one, but it is to Berton's credit - and to the Spectator's - that they are willing to have this discussion in the first place.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

11 Comments

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted May 15, 2017 at 18:37:03

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted May 15, 2017 at 18:40:04

There's no option to delete accounts. Please delete my account immediately. Regards.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted May 15, 2017 at 19:09:19 in reply to Comment 121521

It's been painfully obvious for quite some time that JimC's problem is not with the LRT. His problem is with his perception of himself as contrasted to his perception of 'Ryan'. I'm sure others have noticed that all of his comments have targeted Ryan directly when it would have been simpler for him to just adhere to the subject matter. I've seen another fellow, since banned, wonder why Ryan 'gets all the attention'. This is the same deal.

Seeing the Editor in Chief of the Hamilton Spectator respond to Ryan's article and indicating his respect for Ryan's work is too much for 'JimC' to bear. Sad.

There is something called the 80-20 rule that essentially means about 20% of people will not follow a rule - be it showering before entering a pool or not stealing groceries. Many businesses use this number to account for expected thefts and the costs of preventing them. I think this same number can be applied to those who argue in good faith and those who don't.

Glad he's gone.

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By rgelder@cogeco.ca (registered) - website | Posted May 15, 2017 at 19:25:05 in reply to Comment 121521

Two things need to happen here:

  1. Ryan needs to run for something, now that his vested interest in LRT has been outed. "Vote for Ryan! He's probably not lyin'"

  2. We need to change the name of this publication to "Fancy Words and Pendantry". Either that, or start a punk band with that hame. Best. Line. Ever.

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By rgelder@cogeco.ca (registered) - website | Posted May 15, 2017 at 19:26:02 in reply to Comment 121522

You know what the Eagles said, JimC: "You can check out any time, but you can never leave".

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted May 15, 2017 at 21:13:51 in reply to Comment 121523

Doubt he will be able to keep himself away.

I don't comment often, but often do read the posts and comments here on a number of topics. "JimC" seems to have evolved from someone interested in constructive discussion, who raised valid questions that could be debated and resolved, to someone in whom I wonder "what stake could he possibly have?"

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted May 16, 2017 at 08:08:58

Jim reminds me of the type of person who voted for Rob Ford, Trump and many other populists. They are scared of the future, they don't see their economic lot in life ever improving and the changes that LRT, increasing density and gentrification will bring to their city will just make it much harder to survive, especially in the long term. They are convinced that there will be less help for the poorer among us, not more. With the current crop of city councilors in most major cities, MPP's and MP's regardless of location, I agree his point and his fears are somewhat accurate, unfortunately! Ryan and his somewhat easy access to the media and other powerful people(at least in Jims eye's anyway) is just symptom of a greater distrust that many feel and are only able to articulate through angry, sometimes nonsensical discourse. Jim doesn't see that Ryan has been doing this for a long time and slowly has been able to cultivate friends in higher places through good writing and a clear point of view.

Jim's view of the changes in Hamilton are not written in stone. It however doesn't have to be that way! Hit the council hard for better and more humane housing policies. Hold our federal and provincial politicians feet to the fire to make sure there is a lot more money for housing and income support programs. Not to mention some real and some actual job training and creation programs based in reality.

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By Mackenzie.Kristjon (registered) - website | Posted May 16, 2017 at 11:25:03

Wow. These are quite the comments!

Comment edited by Mackenzie.Kristjon on 2017-05-16 11:25:21

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted May 16, 2017 at 13:48:04 in reply to Comment 121521

Now that I think you're corrupt and an insider I can finally abandon this site. I won't give you the satisfaction or the clicks. Good luck Ryan.

Oh my, how on earth will Ryan continue on through life now???

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By RustyNail (registered) | Posted May 17, 2017 at 14:38:09

(I've set my profile up to hide comments below a certain score, so I didn't (and don't) read Jim's comments or those of any other troll. Why waste your time? Look at Trump supporters now - they still support him and always will. Oh and Rob Ford was the best Mayor ever, didn't you know? ;) )

As for Ryan's piece, it was quite clear to any reasonable person that Ryan was critiquing the poor quality of fact checking at the Spec - something that Berton failed entirely to address. Ryan wasn't complaining about the publishing of opinions contrary to his and it was facetious of Berton to suggest as much.

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By JPDanko (registered) - website | Posted May 17, 2017 at 14:47:10

Why do people assume that council is some sort of cushy plum job and not a sacrifice? Its called public service for a reason.

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