The Ethics Alarms “Fake News” Project: Seeking Ethics Distinctions Among Web Hoaxes, False Narratives,”Fake News” And Negligent, Incompetent or Biased Reporting (PART I: The New York Times School Voucher Headline)

I LOVE this story! I wish it WERE true!!!

I LOVE this story! I wish it WERE true!!!

Yesterday’s New York Times included a story headlined  Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It, and it stated,

The odds are good that privatizing education will be part of the agenda for President-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration. […] You might think that most economists agree with this overall approach, because economists generally like free markets. For example, over 90 percent of the members of the University of Chicago’s panel of leading economists thought that ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft made consumers better off by providing competition for the highly regulated taxi industry.But economists are far less optimistic about what an unfettered market can achieve in education. Only a third of economists on the Chicago panel agreed that students would be better off if they all had access to vouchers to use at any private (or public) school of their choice.

While economists are trained about the value of free markets, they are also trained to spot when markets can’t work alone and government intervention is required.

That summation, however, was misleading to the point of falsehood. As the Scott Alexander points out at his blog Slate Star Codex,  the source for the story indicated something quite different—materially different:


Got that? Scott Alexander writes:

“36% of economists agree that vouchers would improve education, compared to 19% who disagree. The rest are unsure or didn’t answer the question. The picture looks about the same when weighted by the economists’ confidence.

A more accurate way to summarize this graph is “About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn’t.”

By leaving it at “only a third of economists support vouchers”, the article implies that there is an economic consensus against the policy. Heck, it more than implies it – its title is “Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It”. But its own source suggests that, of economists who have an opinion, a large majority are pro-voucher.”

My question: what is this? The news media, in the opinion of many (including me), has publicized the term “fake news” to suggest that blatant hoax stories concocted by those with malign motives have influenced U.S. public opinion, in order to duck its own responsibility for misleading public opinion by false news reporting. I have questioned in numerous posts whether one isn’t as much “fake news” as the other, earning the criticism from, among others,  Charles Green, an esteemed colleague in the ethics field, who protested that I was wrongly confounding two distinct phenomena: outright fake news intended to deceive, and flawed attempts to convey actual news to the public. I find the distinction that Charles claims as at least to some extent an illusion, based, I think, on his honest belief that misleading nesw reports are somehow more benign that outright hoaxes. I think, in the main, that the opposite is true.

The Times story is a good example. How many people will read the deceptive headline, not bother with the information in the graphic, and use the false description of the survey to throttle their voucher-supporting friends? How many readers, considering the issue and looking for guidance, will be persuaded by the Times’ propaganda by deceit? Why isn’t  a news report by the New York Times that intentionally—don’t try to tell me this wasn’t intentional—presents a news story as the opposite of what is true just as fake as the product of Macedonian teenagers who got Facebook to post that the Pope loves Donald Trump, or that a D.C. pizza joint running a child sex ring with the support of Hillary Clinton?

It should be obvious that the Times story is as fake and more persuasive. The evidence cited by the news media for the proposition that fake news affected the election is how many clicks and shares it received. Using that as evidence is itself “fake news,” isn’t it? I click on ridiculous headlines all the time. I share them, too, with notes that say to friends who presumably have a full and undamaged cerebrum, “Look at this stupid story!” Does that mean the hoax changed my vote, or theirs? How can newspapers and news media state as fact that clicks and shares show that hoaxes are powerful forces in forming public opinion, when there is no convincing proof of this at all? If the mainstream media does assert that in print without evidence, it is misinformation. What distinguishes that kind of mainstream media misinformation from the Pope story, or the pizza rumor?

Hmmm…Let’s see..

It seems more plausible than the Pope story.

It is more likely to convince someone who isn’t a gullible fool.

It is misinformation put forward to support a political bias.

It issues from a credible source.

It employs real facts to deceive, which is what deceit is.

This makes the Times’ variety of misinformation far worse than the kind of fake news it is suddenly proclaiming as a danger to democracy. Again: the bias and incompetence of modern journalism is the real danger, and the focus on hoax stories, rather than incompetent and biased reporting, is a partisan effort at deflection. Of course hoaxes that slip into the news feed are a problem, but we should not allow the news media to  explode this phenomenon into greater significance to mask their own culpability.

John Avlon was on CNN this morning talking about fake news with Brian Stelter, the network’s unobjective and unethical media ethics watchdog. Stelter. head nodding, allowed Avlon to intone about how the Right, trying to deny that “fake news” was a factor in the Trump victory, was “pushing back” on the news media’s crucial examination of the “fake News” issue by trying to confound real fake news (now there’s an oxymoron!) with “reporting of facts that they don’t like.” Like the Times story, John? Calling that headline fake news is denying facts? I’m not a voucher supporter, but I’m also not a supporter of lying. The Times took a survey that showed that more economists were in favor of vouchers than opposed them, and wrote it up as if the opposite were the case. What do you call that, John? Is that not fake because it’s not objectively ridiculous? Is calling reported news that isn’t true “fake news” a sinister effort to discredit the unbiased, objective, dedicated news media that never tries to put its fist on thee scales of public opinion, John? Tell me, John, isn’t what is really happening  that your biased progressive journalist pals are making the reverse of the argument you just accused the Right of making—that their false reporting isn’t truly fake because the Left agrees with it?

John Avlon himself is like  walking, talking, posturing fake news in human form. His shtick, as revealed in multiple books and essays, is to pose as a champion of objectivity, while he uses that false persona to attack conservative positions and politicians. This is the guy who simultaneously promoted a new, non-partisan, “No Labels” movement and wrote a book labeling conservative politicians and opinion leaders as “wingnuts.” No labels, said John on CNN, because they impede debate, and by the way, he said elsewhere, anyone who doesn’t support abortion is a wingnut.

Everyone, of all political persuasions, should push back against the media’s framing of the false “fake news” narrative. It lets the news media off the hook, and that hook belongs right where it is.

More to come..






32 thoughts on “The Ethics Alarms “Fake News” Project: Seeking Ethics Distinctions Among Web Hoaxes, False Narratives,”Fake News” And Negligent, Incompetent or Biased Reporting (PART I: The New York Times School Voucher Headline)

  1. It is getting to be like the old joke I remember from way back when I was in high school. The USA and the USSR had a car race. The USA won, and the Pravda headline the next day was USSR finishes second, and USA finishes next to last.

  2. I think the phrase “Economists Generally Don’t Buy It” is technically true. Economists who “don’t buy it” would include those who don’t know and those who disagree. That category is larger than the number who agree.

    That said, it’s definitely misleading. I don’t think Alexander’s suggestion is any better:

    “A more accurate way to summarize this graph is “About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn’t.””

    This would be just as misleading as the actual headline. The only accurate way to summarize the opinion of economists on this issue is to highlight the uncertainty–“Most economists don’t know whether school vouchers would improve education” is the only unbiased, non-misleading framing of this story.

    • ““Most economists don’t know whether school vouchers would improve education” is the only unbiased, non-misleading framing of this story.”

      Nonsense. There are several options for headlines that are technically and logically true.

      Your own headline is crafted around the creation of false dichotomy.

      With a statistical break down of 36, 37 and 19, you aren’t looking at a dichotomy at all, but a roughly three part continuum.

      Any statement that logically includes the middle part as one of the extremes of a dichotomy appeals to the Fallacy AND will *generally* mislead readers, ESPECIALLY when a reader approaches the headline with predisposed to prefer an outcome for example in the case of this headline: one FOR or one AGAINST privatization of education.

      • Example: the recent Gallup poll showed President Obama as the most admired man in America—with less than 25%. Headline: Obama most admired man in America. Verdict: True.

        Chris’s headline: “Most Americans don’t view Obama as their most admired.”

        Verdict: Misleading.

        • Good example.

          Off topic, though driven by the mention.

          I’d love to see the Gallup poll question driving that survey…

          was it

          A) Which man do you admire most in America?

          OR WAS IT

          B> Who do you think is the most admired man in America?

          Materially different questions.

        • No, that’s a ludicrous comparison, Jack.

          There were dozens of other choices in that Gallup survey. In the survey of economists on school vouchers, there are only five options–two of which are some version of “agree,” two of which are some version of “disagree.” Reporting that most economists are on neither side of the issue and are in fact undecided is the most accurate framing of that issue. There is no majority on either side.

          “Most Americans don’t view Obama as their most admired” is functionally meaningless. It would make sense if it was a contest between himself and one or two other people, but it’s not. That headline would transmit no actual information. “Most economists don’t know whether school vouchers would improve education” is the most accurate headline in this case.

          • It isn’t a ludicrous comparison.

            Either you boil things down to a logical dichotomy or you describes things on a continuum. If you have more than 2 options and those options CANNOT logically be categorized into 2 great clusters, then YOU HAVE to describe things as a continuum. If you are stuck with a continuum and falsely align options into 2 broad categories you are trapped in a FALSE DICHOTOMY.

            This would occur if you had only 3 options on your continuum or 3 million.

            His example is valid.

          • ““Most Americans don’t view Obama as their most admired” is functionally meaningless. It would make sense if it was a contest between himself and one or two other people, but it’s not. That headline would transmit no actual information.”

            No, the headline wouldn’t be functionally meaningless.

            What makes it hard for you to analyze is simply because the entire survey itself is functionally meaningless, especially when derived from a population of 320 million. An admired person (in the sense that you really can admire someone) is going to be someone who actually PERSONALLY acquainted with the person being asked.

            Another tell is that “NONE” beats out even the top named option.

            It’s an honestly HORRIBLE question to even ask with any hope of making a rational evaluation.

        • Let alone and headlines leading into reports about the Gallup poll….

          The Gallup Poll itself is a misleading headline.

          The headline says “Most Admired Man in the World”

          Yet the question clearly bears a caveat “that you have heard or read about” which will immediately bias a person’s thinking towards “someone who is famous”.

          The question also bears the caveat “living today in any part of the world” which clarifies the product of the questioning.

          And finalizes with a vague reference to a 2nd most admired, with no explanation as to how that result is factored into the data.

          So, “Most Admired Man in the World” is already an understatement of what has been lead to and analyzed.

          • Whether the poll itself is valid is a whole other topic. As Jack said, “Obama most admired man in America” is an accurate headline for a news story about that poll.

            Neither the NYT headline nor Scott Alexander’s proposed headline for the school voucher story are as accurate. Both are technically true, but both skew towards their own biases. “Most economists undecided on whether school vouchers good for education” would be the most accurate headline. The point that more economists support vouchers than oppose them should be brought up in the article, but shouldn’t be the headline, since the majority of economists are undecided.

            • I’ve already shown you how Logical Dichotomies are different from Continua… Headlining a continuum AS a dichotomy WILL. ALWAYS. MISLEAD.

              Your proposed headline “fix” does just that.

              • How?! The headline in the NYT picks a side in a “dichotomy.” Scott Alexander’s proposed headline picks a side in a “dichotomy.” My proposed headline is the only one that actually recognizes a continuum–by pointing out that most economists are not on either side of a dichotomy when it comes to school vouchers, because they *don’t know* whether or not they would improve education.

                • ““Most economists undecided on whether school vouchers good for education””

                  Except that most economists ARE NOT undecided.

                  From the looks of it, 55% are decided on whether school vouchers are good for education or not (correction added, otherwise your “whether” term makes no sense). Whereas 37% are unsure.

                  Because again, you’ve made a dichotomy out of a three part (simplified 5 part) continuum.

                  • Ah, I see what you’re saying now! You’re right; my proposed headline would still be inaccurate.

                    What headline do you propose?

                    • Oh, first one to pop to mind, a bit clunky, but could be finessed some:

                      No Majority Consensus Among Chicago School Economists on Efficacy of School Vouchers

                    • Thanks, Tex! That headline manages to be way more accurate than either the NYT’s, Scott Alexander’s, or mine.

                      It probably wouldn’t draw as many readers, as it doesn’t fit an easy narrative. But it’s the only ethically correct headline of the options we’ve seen so far.

            • I want you to meditate on this. Your quotes:

              ““Most economists undecided on whether school vouchers good for education””

              IS LOGICALLY different than:

              “the majority of economists are undecided”

              Once you see how and why they are materially different, you will understand how your headline is flawed.

              It’ll also clue you in as to how your own biases are skewing your ability to craft a non-misleading headline.

  3. The misleading as discussed by Jack is maybe less misleading when you factor in that the response is given by the members of the University of Chicago’s panel of leading economists.
    The article title says, ” […] Economists Generally Don’t Buy It” implying that generally speaking, the average economist doesn’t buy it.
    However, the members of the University of Chicago’s panel of leading economists are not representative for the average economist.
    “To economists the world over, ‘Chicago’ designates not a city, not even a
    University, but a ‘school.'” (1)
    “A key tenet of the Chicago school is that free markets function well in most circumstances, so government intervention into the economy ought to be limited.” (2)

    A better argumentation in the NYTimes article would be something like,

    If even a majority of the members of the University of Chicago’s panel of leading economists can’t vouch for the believe that a voucher system would improve education it probably isn’t a good idea.

    (2) Robert Barro, Nothing Is Sacred (2002), Ch. 1 : Thoughts on Friends and Other Noteworthy Persons.

  4. Idle curiosity…when did ECONOMISTS, who generally can’t agree on how to tie their shoes, get to be experts on education?

    • Huh?

      I don’t think they are prescribing teaching methods or academic curricula…

      I think they can fairly weigh in on what system they think is best to get money into schools. Which is what they were asked about. And given the government’s track record for waste and mismanagement of funds combined with what appears to be increased dollars and decreased results, that side of the question IS economic in scope.

      Given that the free market has a proven track record of increasingly quality while decreasing cost, though it is admittedly slower than sledgehammer-for-a-thumbtack type government action, it seems reasonable to opine that maybe a free market education system might actually work out for the better also.

      I think they can weigh in on the question as asked. Again, they weren’t asked about the details of methodology or coursework.

      • Tex, what they were actually asked about is if the free-market system should be applied to education. That would include, presumably, charter schools operating as for-profits. There is no way that question can be legitimately answered without a good working knowledge of educational systems nuts and bolts, as well as the various means of evaluating the efficaciousness of that system, as well as the economics of the free-market system. I readily grant their knowledge of the free-market system, but question how that knowledge could be applied without any knowledge of the product being offered…in this case, education.

        • Which is possibly why the largest group of economists answered that they didn’t know whether school vouchers would improve education–they knew they didn’t have the relevant knowledge to draw a conclusion.

          Which should have been the headline.

          • Except there’s a statistical dead heat between economists who agree and economists that are unsure that vouchers would improve education.

            So even now you are spinning and misleading.

            I’m beginning to think this is a feature, not a bug.

        • I really don’t see at all how your response compels economists to understand how teaching occurs…

          Whether $100 comes from $500 dollars of taxes and $400 of it goes to administrators, support staff, bureaucrats, and the democrat party unions OR $100 comes from $150 dollars of contracts purchased on the free market where $50 goes to a competitively streamlined administration doesn’t seem to touch on what the $100 actually goes to in a classroom, such as teachers, equipment, supplies, etc…

          It definitely doesn’t touch on educational methodologies or curriculum.

        • Zanshin above really has the best protest against the article in terms of whether or not the survey is a representative cross-section of all economists.

          The Chicago school is a haven for those who demonstrate and explain the virtues of a free market system. The pollsters could easily have gone to a number of other schools that espouse Krug-bot style Keynesian ideas and other command-economic ideas and gotten a wholly different picture of things.

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