Did I Read That Right?
How do you feel knowing that the Alberta Government employs 214 full-time communications personnel, each of who make, on average $108,000?
This news, brought to light this last week by the Canadian Taxpayer Federation, seemed to set off a firestorm of opinions - at least in my day-job office. But it wasn't all about the actual numbers. Instead, it was in reference to the data itself.
My boss is a numbers guy and a bit of an economist, perhaps. When he first heard the $108,000 figure, he paused to evaluate that a little. Questions arose: does that include vacation time? Benefits? Other costs associated with the employee? Or is that purely the annual salary?
Sadly, we concluded, journalists don't always do their due diligence in asking those questions, and in disseminating the information in a more useful way. Because, of course, that figure would be a lot less inflammatory if it read "$60,000 (plus associated costs and benefits)". That does have a slightly different ring to it, now doesn't it?
But all too often, people read the headline, or the attention-grabbing, inflammatory, riot-inducing phrase that is laced with a hint of truth but not properly balanced with the full spectrum of context.
I'm suddenly reminded of the brilliant April fool's prank by NPR in which they titled a story "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?" Of course, trillions* of people immediately commented online based purely on the title alone, many espousing the importance of reading… all the while neglecting to actually click the link to the full article (*Probably not the actual number). If they had indeed done some due diligence and pursued the full story, they would have found this:
“Congratulations, genuine readers, and Happy April Fools’ Day!”
We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this “story.”
Best wishes and have an enjoyable day,
Your friends at NPR.
Huh. Sadly, that small article duped a lot of very smart people. But smart people don't always think for themselves and don't always get all of the facts before speaking their opinion.
Or they take some article they've read as gospel. I love, for instance, many of the 'urban legend' type tales that go around being posted to social media sites. My favourite recent post talked of a woman who was rescued six years after washing up on an island because some kid saw her SOS on Google Maps. When I first read the story, I hoped it was true, but I knew that it likely wasn't. I knew enough, however, to go and fact-check first before passing the story on to unsuspecting friends and family.
So I went to Snopes.com, one of my trusted myth-debunking sites. Sure enough, the story is a fake. They generally do a fair amount of research and try their best to prove a claim's validity, but they even go one step further.
The founders of Snopes don't just want readers to blindly take even what they say on faith, so they've planted a couple of red herrings amongst their website: stories that are so obviously false, which they've purported to be true. They know how the general populace has come to rely on their site for information, and yet see how few people take the time to even fully read the explanations or the data they've managed to find. I admit, I don't always delve that far either.
Why not? Well, there's so much of it out there! It can be hard to keep up. Do I have to fact-check every article I read? Or do I just stop reading the paper entirely because I can't trust anything I find in it?
I don't think either of these is the solution, but I do believe we all need to be aware that what we're reading can't be taken as gospel.
Why did the journalist write the story? What's his stake and slant? What about the newspaper or magazine it was printed in? Do they have an interest in sending a certain message? There are also the sources of the data. Like those financials from earlier - provided in a report from the Canadian Taxpayer Federation. They obviously have a certain agenda that they need to support. Presenting the average wage for those employees, without taking the time to break down those figures or perhaps explain them fully, certainly helps them paint a particular picture.
Now I'm not saying these numbers aren't egregiously large, or that this shouldn't incite the public to demand more bang for our tax-paying buck. I don't know. I haven't done the fact-checking and due-diligence to make those assertions. But have you?
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