Media

Hamilton Spectator Should Fact-Check Op-Ed Submissions

Anyone who is unwilling to ensure that the fact claims they make are actually true doesn't deserve to be published in a newspaper in the first place.

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 04, 2017

This article has been updated.

Can we take a few minutes to discuss the awkward matter of the Hamilton Spectator's selection of opinion editorials (op-eds) arguing against the city's light rail transit (LRT) plan?

It is impossible not to notice that the overwhelming majority of them are a painful mess of blatantly false claims, argumentative fallacies and downright bad writing - most recently a crappy listicle that one would expect any reputable newspaper to be embarrassed to spill ink on.

Just what is going on here?

Op-Eds No Longer Fact-Checked

Like many newspapers, the Spectator has a policy of publishing a selection of op-eds that were written by members of the community, rather than reporters, columnists or editors. This is an excellent opportunity for independent writers to have their say on matters of public interest, and it exposes readers to a welcome diversity of opinions on important social, cultural, political and economic issues.

At one time, the Spectator had a policy of fact-checking op-ed submissions as well as articles, columns and editorials. I experienced this myself in the early 2000s after submitting an op-ed to the Spec, only to have it rejected because the editor challenged my use of a projected number of casualties in the then-pending Iraq War.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with sending a submission back to the author noting the false claims, and asking them to correct the facts and re-submit it. I never begrudged the editors exercising their legitimate oversight, and I simply endeavoured harder to write an op-ed that would meet the Spectator's high standards.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, those high standards were eliminated for op-eds. The newspaper changed its policy and no longer fact-checks op-ed submissions. I believe this is a serious mistake that undermines the Spectator's credibility and does material harm to the public discourse.

The argument for this policy is that the purpose of the op-ed section is to represent the diversity of public opinions about various issues, and some people's opinions are based on false beliefs.

By this reasoning, it would violate the paper's commitment to free speech not to air opinions that rest on empirically false beliefs, and it would deny readers the opportunity to read all sides of the issue and make up their own minds.

Not Entitled to Your Own Facts

Naturally, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous aphorism comes to mind: You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.

I absolutely agree that the Spectator should aim to publish a wide variety of opinions, but that doesn't imply an obligation to publish just any old nonsense. At a minimum, a valid opinion must rest on some basic provable facts.

Trish Hall, a New York Times editor, explained her newspaper's policy toward op-ed submissions in a 2013 column:

We also need all of the material that supports the facts in your story. That's the biggest surprise to some people. Yes, we do fact check. Do we do it perfectly? Of course not. Everyone makes mistakes, and when we do we correct them. But the facts in a piece must be supported and validated. You can have any opinion you would like, but you can't say that a certain battle began on a certain day if it did not.

That sounds just about right. When the Spectator receives an op-ed submission, the editors should check its basic fact claims. If any are false or unsourced, simply send them back to the writer and ask them to correct or validate the claims. If they can't or won't, their opinions don't deserve to be published in a newspaper.

Of course, there is a fuzzy area of overlap in the space between fact claims, interpretations and opinions, and it requires experienced editorial oversight to navigate those corner cases. But that is precisely what professional editors are for.

I have been reviewing the Spec's anti-LRT columns for several years now and the overwhelming majority were based around blatantly false nonsense claims that were painfully easy to identify and refute.

It may be a matter of opinion to assert that overhead wires are ugly, but it is a straightforward fact claim to assert that "there will be no buses making more frequent stops between the long distance between LRT stops" - and that fact claim is straight-up wrong.

'Balance' a False Journalistic Value

I want to clarify that I'm not criticizing the Spectator's supposed partisan or ideological position in deciding to publish this kind of stuff. I accept on good faith the premise that the newspaper's editorial team is committed to being moderate, reasonable and fair in its editorial stances, and while I don't always agree with the paper's positions, I at least understand where they're coming from.

The real issue here is the dangerous idea that "balance" is a journalistic value. "Balance" is the idea that two sides of an issue should be treated as if they are equally valid and should get the same level of coverage and the same treatment, regardless of the extent to which each position is well-founded in evidence and reason.

When the paper treats obviously false claims and irrational, absurd analysis with the same seriousness and legitimacy as carefully fact-checked claims and rigorous analysis, it has the inevitable side-effect of legitimizing the indefensible and giving people the false impression that both positions are at least roughly equally supported by the evidence.

Bill Nye recently made this point in a CNN debate between him and a climate change denier: "I will say, much as I love CNN, you're doing a disservice by having one climate change skeptic, and not 97 or 98 scientists or engineers concerned about climate change."

Letting two talking heads yell at each other has the effect of leaving most people with the impression that the matter is up in the air when in fact the evidence overwhelmingly supports one position and contradicts the other.

The implications for public policy debates should be obvious by now: real progress in solving serious problems is subverted and sabotaged when the agents of narrow special interests are able to obscure the consensus among real experts from the public.

Value Proposition of a Newspaper

The news media are one of the fundamental pillars of legitimacy in our society, but that pillar has become increasingly wobbly in recent years.

The entire value proposition of a newspaper run by professional journalists and editors is that there is professional oversight to ensure that what people are reading has been vetted and checked.

When a paper chooses not to exercise this basic oversight, a lot of people are going to end up either misinformed about important policy issues or, if they understand the issue well enough to recognize that the claims are false, more suspicious of the paper as a whole.

The worst outcome, of course, is that people start to lose confidence in the professional news media altogether, which is already happening and has extremely dangerous ramifications for the future of a civil, democratic society based on an informed electorate.

The destruction of institutional legitimacy favours charismatic populism and illiberal authoritarianism, a crisis that is already happening across the developed world and is in serious danger of spreading.

Newspapers should be doing everything in their power to build and maintain trust with their readers. Trust is their most precious and fragile asset: it is the foundation on which everything else rests. Without trust, a newspaper is just another tabloid, another "fake news" entity shilling for some interest or other.

Without a commitment to the truth, whatever it is, we are left with "alternative facts," conspiracy theories and unchecked mendacity.

Single Standard of Factuality

The argument can be made that readers ought to understand the difference between an article, a column, an op-ed and an editorial. But most people have neither the time nor the inclination to have to unpack every newspaper article they read to determine whether they should accept its fact claims - and they shouldn't have to.

It's really simple: there should be a single common standard of factuality and editorial oversight across the entire newspaper. Heck, even a "blog" like Raise the Hammer is committed to this basic principle - and we do this in our spare time.

For people who do accept the newspaper's insistence that op-eds are not like other kinds of articles and don't need to be fact-checked, this understanding merely has the effect of invalidating every op-ed - even those whose authors actually are scrupulous about verifying and fact-checking their own work.

Such readers are left to conclude that they can't trust what they're reading. If nothing else, that can lead to a kind of Gresham's Law of Editorial Content in which inept, disingenuous and malicious op-eds drive out prudent, well-written submissions sincere contributors give up on the forum altogether.

Even worse, it feeds into the broader delegitimization of the news media as a reliable source of news and arguments, and helps pave the road for "post-truth" demagogues who thrive in the chaos and disinformation of a free-for-all driven by a tsunami of "alternative facts" and paranoid conspiracy theories.

Seriously, just fact-check op-eds and the problem goes away. Readers still get to access the opinions of anyone who is willing to ensure that the fact claims they make are actually true. Anyone who is unwilling to meet this minimal test doesn't deserve to be published in a newspaper in the first place.


Update: Paul Berton, the Spectator's editor-in-chief, wrote a response to this piece, and I in turn wrote a response to his response.

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.

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By Clyde_Cope (registered) | Posted May 04, 2017 at 15:16:36

Ryan - you are right on the money. Having read the letter I seriously question the integrity of the Spec. in publishing it - was it for sensational effect

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted May 04, 2017 at 18:15:51

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted May 07, 2017 at 20:51:34 in reply to Comment 121471

Jim C. - Why would Ryan write a piece criticizing '34 reasons LRT was the greatest thing' because, unlike you who make criticisms and negative (usually disrespectful) comments without a shred of evidence or facts to back your opinions, Ryan does research (ya, it's hard work, but sometimes not that hard if you bother to take the time). There is something to be said for evidence-based opinion vs. seat-of-the-pants, cheap shots.

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By Cultosaurus (registered) | Posted May 04, 2017 at 19:50:44 in reply to Comment 121471

You calling out Ryan on double standards for fact checking while you fail to provide any facts and in fact get the facts of the above article wrong is the height of obliviousness and absurdity.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted May 04, 2017 at 19:07:36 in reply to Comment 121471

I don't know who you are quoting when you write "fact checking opinions" in quotes, since I never wrote that anywhere in this article or expressed that sentiment.

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By JPDanko (registered) - website | Posted May 05, 2017 at 00:11:28

I think a big part of the problem is newspapers following the online world and writing to their reader demographic instead of writing the news.

I get it - I write a weekly column on a photography website (with two or three times thespec.com's monthly traffic by the way) - I write to my audience, and occasionally I write for clicks - but I'm not a journalist and I'm not writing the news. If you want to be an actual newspaper, there is a higher standard. It can be done - look at the New York Times and Washington Post in the age of Trump.

But as any web publisher will tell you - articles that get people angry generate much much much higher engagement than just the news - and if factual old fashioned reporting doesn't piss off enough people, it's pretty tempting to generate interest by throwing out an op-ed designed to generate anger.

Since I'm taking the time to vent my opinion - I guess that goal was achieved. Bravo Spectator...

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted May 05, 2017 at 08:31:39

I have a friend of mine who works for the Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa's largest circulation major daily newspaper). We have had conversations about not just the lack of fact checking in op-ed articles but reporter submitted articles as well.

  1. During Ottawa's LRT vs. BRT debate during the 2006-2010 period, I was astounded around how the paper would print huge number of factual mistakes, on both sides of the arguments. My friend explained that, most were done to just make the articles fit a certain number of words. Reporters for example, leaving out key important sub-textual facts that explained some of the more mystifying technical points of rapid transit operating technology. The paper figures you are smart person and you will eventually figure it out, although some members of the public never do.

  2. Newspapers just don't have the numbers of staff anymore (editors and so called "fact checkers") because of employment costs. There are many professional grade computer programs that can correct grammar and spelling but it is largely the responsibility of the reporter or submitter to do most of the fact checking today.

  3. When stories are essentially assigned to reporters, very few have any experience and sometimes even the barest amount of interest in rapid transit operating technology. It's no surprise that the story might have a few errors when a junior reporter has little knowledge or excitement of the articles subject.

In the fall of 2013 on a rainy cold weekend, the City of Gatineau opened their version of the Ottawa's Transitway it is called Rapibus (Gatineau is name of the city across the Ottawa River from Ottawa). On the same weekend the Ottawa Citizen had an article about the local Ottawa Sex Show (Ottawa Sexapalooza I believe it was called and was marketed primarily at women). The person who wrote the sex show article opened with the comment that she had been given the choice of doing an article on the sex show or the opening of the new Transitway in Gatineau. She joyously chose the sex show and stated this point in her article several times. So the Rapibus System opening was probably not given to someone who even wanted the story. The Sex show article was standard throw away weekend garbage but the Rapibus article although filled with many unchecked technical errors, got front page coverage because one of the STO's buses had a traffic accident at a level crossing between the Rapibus Line and a important cross street on the opening day (The STO or the Societe de transport de L'Outaouais, is Gatineau, Quebec's transit provider).

  1. Some newspapers have a target audience and giving them hard facts is sometimes not appreciated. I once wrote a transit article to a local paper about Ottawa's Rapid Transit debate during that 2006-2010 period. It was rewritten several times not because of grammar or issues with my lack of professional writing credentials, the article had and I quote, "too many big words!" I kid you not. I asked if the article was being written for younger teens, tweens maybe or outright children? "No, young adults", I was told. "University or College aged adults", it was explained to was the main audience for the article. I asked for clarification and ideas, what was given to me as an example was the most patronizing, mind numbingly stupid series of sentences I had ever seen. The editor further stated, "This is what are target audience wants, expects and what they are capable of understanding." Thoroughly amazed, I wrote an article at about a 3rd or 4th grade reading level. That article which was eagerly accepted by the paper.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted May 05, 2017 at 10:26:12

The Spectator also has a habit of not responding to attempts to correct the factual errors in op-eds. For example, I submitted the following as a letter-to-the-editor. The Spec declined to publish it.

Re: Time to end the myth of Canadian exceptionalism (February 16)

Re: Air India perjurer released from halfway house (February 15)

In her February 16 article, Sarah Adjekum wrote that, “In Canadian history none of the terrorist attacks were perpetrated by foreign born nationals.”

Just the day before, February 15, The Spectator reported on the release from a halfway house in British Columbia of Inderjit Singh Reyat. Reyat was convicted of manslaughter and perjury for his guilt as one of the perpetrators of Canada’s worst terrorist attack, the 1985 Air India bombing. 329 people were killed, including 268 Canadian citizens.

Inderjit Singh Reyat is a foreign born national, having been born in India.

Kevin Love

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2017-05-05 10:26:43

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted May 05, 2017 at 11:38:07

Rather foolishly, I took a look at the Spec article. What a truly strange set of "alternative facts." In my opinion, the most bizarre was where the author referred in two places to "elevated tracks." Perhaps this person is thinking of places like Chicago, which actually do have elevated tracks. But as far as I am aware, precisely zero of Hamilton's LRT system will be elevated.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted May 05, 2017 at 13:00:56 in reply to Comment 121481

I was somewhat perplexed by the item 'Needs a garage'. How is that a negative? He might as well have written 'It needs wheels and seats'.

The conspirator in me is thinking the Spec printed that list to display how ridiculous the arguments have gotten.

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted May 05, 2017 at 19:22:42

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted May 07, 2017 at 20:44:47 in reply to Comment 121484

Dear Jim C, Economic uplift has occurred in the majority of cities that have installed LRT based on numerous case studies (Ryan can quote you many examples, and no, not one of the very few exceptions - Buffalo) so is it a fact? Maybe not. A very probable result of LRT? More than likely. If a youth 'at risk' with limited job skills manages to secure a decent paying job in the Operations, Maintenance & Storage Facility cleaning LRT cars at night, and gets off the street, has pride and dignity in holding down a job then yes I would say that is a 'life-changing opportunity'. By the way, some employers have hired Down Syndrome youth and they are some of the more remarkable and dedicated workers they have on staff (see Globe & Mail article on Joey Moss Apr 29 - a kid hired to clean the dressing room of the Edmonton Oilers and who was taken under Wayne Gretsky's wing years ago when he won Stanley Cups for them. Joey is still there an loved by all on the team and fans alike. He recently sung the national anthem). I would say that HIS life change for the better in immeasurable ways. So, what, exactly do you have to offer this demographic (besides criticism and cutting remarks). That won't put food on their table nor pay their rent. It is no joke but real life.

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted May 07, 2017 at 20:32:44

I had this letter printed in the Spec last Friday May 5 to correct the erroneous and just plain silly objections to LRT from the author. My list of 36 reasons LRT isn't right for Hamilton (May 3)

Dear Letters Editor, I read this with fascination (and extra time). While there are a concerns that seem to have validity, many are silly and some just plain wrong (a new bridge will be required to cross the Red Hill Valley).

In the silly category, among many, I would say #1 is typical: 'LRT will cause huge disruption to traffic, businesses, people etc.' Now I ask the writer, honestly, when in the history of the planet has a project of this magnitude NOT caused disruption and congestion? It's akin to stating that things will get wet because it is raining.

The upshot is, as numerous (and dubious) as the reasons against LRT are, hundreds of other cities in the world have had these very same problems to face. And yet, somehow in the entire universe, Hamilton is somehow fundamentally different? Nonsense.

My question to the writer is: Are we a fearful and helpless people in the face of problems, or are we up to the challenge and competent enough to tackle them head on? I would hope that forward thinking individuals would prefer to be in the latter category in what we call 'The ambitious (not fearful) city.'

Grant Ranalli, Hamilton

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted May 08, 2017 at 01:43:31 in reply to Comment 121488

An excellent letter!

The Spec published it here

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By positive1@cogeco.ca (registered) | Posted May 07, 2017 at 21:02:55

Ryan, I agree that Op Eds should be fact checked, but in the interim, it will be up to the reading public to set the record straight whenever bogus claims or Op Eds of dubious validity are published and call them on it with letters to the editor.

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted May 13, 2017 at 09:55:09

lmao how does it feel Ryan to be put your in place by The Spec today?

http://www.thespec.com/news-story/7312161-berton-there-is-a-difference-between-editing-and-fact-checking/

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By Henry (registered) | Posted May 14, 2017 at 11:56:45

Great post!

Galileo is not lurking in the Spec's op-eds. Berton parses the difference between fact-checking and editing while missing the bigger point. Galileo gathered empirical evidence to support his arguments. I've noticed their op-eds are increasingly filled with ad hominem attacks, false straw-men, and wild speculations that often cover self-serving interests.

A good editor would take care to ensure reasonable and relevant premises lead to well-reasoned conclusions. There is more than a few Spec’s op-eds that are little better than the ravings I read on social media at no cost.

On substantive fact checking, The Spec’s decline in actual reporting means its editors don’t have the details to assess op-ed claims. Example 1: The Spec’s lack of coverage of the Burlington Airpark story, combined with the Airpark owner’s self-serving op ed, created huge fallout for the airpark’s neighbours. Example 2: The Spec's lack of coverage of Burlington's school closure process over the past several months coupled with their reliance on unedited op-eds replete with groundless claims has only impoverished the community discussion; people are repeating the published and now authoritative bile because it was "in the Spec".

Comment edited by Henry on 2017-05-14 12:02:34

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