News sources are poor at building trust

Vijay Krishna Palepu
4 min readJan 6, 2023

Posted originally at: https://rant.vpalepu.com/2023/01/02/news-sources-are-poor-at-building-trust/e

I just got roped into a user survey by the NYTimes. And one of their questions was pretty revealing: “Of the following sources, which do you think is the most trustworthy for news? Select one.”

I picked “other” and wrote in Wikipedia. And I skipped every other news source that was listed as an option in the multiple-choice (these options included BBC, Fox News, NYTimes, and PBS).

This rant is about why I trust Wikipedia — more than any other source of news reporting in the world. And how it should be easy for news sources to copy what Wikipedia does — especially in their digital versions of newspapers or news bulletins.

About my NYTimes Subscription…

But first, let me talk about my NYTimes subscription … specifically why I have it. Talking about it is worthwhile since it provides insight into how I consume news, and what I think of journalism.

Yes, I subscribe to NYTimes because they happen to be very, very good at telling stories and reporting news with data. And they do not just dabble in random references to percentages and statistics in their news reporting; their data journalism rivals some scientific reports and studies that I have read.

This is not to say that the NYTimes is not biased. They have a very clear bias! Their left-leaning bias probably helps in defining the word ‘bias’. Also, as an Indian, I am not foreign to the anti-India screeds that the Times publishes routinely. But they are the paper of record for a reason, and I have come to accept that as long as I am willing to parse out the opinion and editorializing from actual information that NYTimes has to report, they remain a sound source of truth.

Also, I sincerely believe in paying for newspapers. As I was starting college, my father told me to always subscribe to a newspaper. He did that in the hopes that I would read more and keep up with current affairs. As it happens, I took that advice seriously. Aside from my first year in Graduate school when I was dirt poor, I have mostly managed to maintain a newspaper subscription. Besides the Times, I have in the past had a rotating set of subscriptions with publications such as The Washington Post, The Economist, and The New Yorker. I have also been a regular consumer of news from the BBC, and the Indian Express.

Why I trust Wikipedia…

So here is why I trust Wikipedia over all of them: Wikipedia provides a list of citations and references, and for me that builds trust.

By providing a list of references, an article is claiming that it has nothing to hide. This is a very basic trust build act. This also happens to be one of the bedrocks of scientific literature — outside of things like peer-review and disclosing experiment/study design and methods. But let’s get back to why references are useful.

For me trusting a news source is not about expecting perfectly true and accurate information, in each instance. Instead, it is about having access to verifiably true and accurate information. Because perfection does not exist, I expect that a news source will get something wrong on the “truth” or “accurate” aspects. So, if there cannot be a perfect dispenser of accurate news, I need that news that I can verify. Wikipedia does this with its list of references.

A list of references, when provided, empower me to check out the sources used by an article. It also allows me to consume a larger network of news articles that helps build context around the original article that I started reading. I end up spending hours-on-end reading about a subject on Wikipedia. I start with one subject, and time just flies by as I get engrossed in reading the background references of that original article. The same thing happens when I am doing literature review for a research paper that I am writing.

Now, if an article claims something that is referenced by a broken link, then is a warning sign. If that reference link takes me to a page that is different from that which is mentioned in the original reference, it tells me to be cautious. And a claim without a reference certainly rings alarm bells in my mind. But, if I can go read the article in a reference of my choosing and the basic claim checks out, then that cements my trust in the information, the source of information, and the publication that puts it out.

Here’s what Newspapers can do…

Newspapers should be able to put out a list of references for every single article that they publish in their newspapers. The same goes for video-based news bulletins. I think it would be sufficient to have these references show up in a web-version, or website, of the newspaper or news channel. And these references should not be behind a paywall — even if the original article stays behind a paywall. If a news report uses unnamed sources, then they should be listed as unnamed sources against the claims that are made using those unnamed sources (I do not think that a reporter needs to reveal their sources if they are not comfortable doing so).

Newspapers will claim that they do this already within the text of the articles that they put out. But I contend that tabulating references as a list or table makes those references more approachable, searchable, and open to easy cross-checks. Sources like Wikipedia, books and scientific literature already do this — they all contain a list or table of references.

If news reports started including such lists of references tomorrow, it won’t be a ground-breaking idea. Or, will it?

– vijay, finishing a survey from the NYTimes.

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Vijay Krishna Palepu

researcher • software • program analysis . debugging • UCI • blogger • software visualizations • Microsoft • Views my own • https://medium.com/cfh-during-wfh