Demanding Transparency

While I’m on the topic of newspapers and columnists, I’d like to propose an overdue change to the newspaper industry:  let’s make them use citations.  The status quo gives newspaper authors a fair amount of leeway in playing fast and loose with the facts or, probably more commonly, using dubious sources.  Here’s an example from Paul Krugman:

Even with stringent limits, says the [previously named] M.I.T. group, Americans would consume only 2 percent less in 2050 than they would have in the absence of emission limits.

The phrase “would consume only 2 percent less in 2050″ is really odd.  Given the notorious slipperiness of Krugman’s columns it’s a red flag.  It could be right or it may be nutty.

The problem is we have no way of evaluating it because newspapers don’t print citations.  The historical reason for that is both obvious and understandable: printed newspapers have limited space and printing citations for every article or commentary would cost them a lot of money.  But there is no such limitation for the web-based versions of pieces.

One of the ways academics police themselves is by demanding proper citations.  There is considerable doubt about the news industry’s ability to police itself and I think the lack of open, transparent citations is a contributor.  The media likes to demand transparency from government.  Well I think we should demand transparency from the media.  Think of it as a Freedom of Information Ethic for the news business.  And to be clear, I am not advocating that they identify confidential sources.  I only have in mind the use of published, open materials.

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