Saturday, August 04, 2007

Getting quotes straight is tough

Facebook has this status feature. Members post short quotes to let those on their "news" feed know what they're up to. Last night I wrote: "Greg is studying hard for his Trig final. To quote Talking Barbie: 'Math is tough.'" This morning, in an effort to verify my accuracy, I did a Google search of the quote and discovered that many various news sources quote Barbie differently.

The Atlanta Journal/Constitution (Nov. 20, 1995) and Akron Beacon Journal (Oct. 21, 1992): "Math class is tough!"

Chicago Sun Times: Jan. 1, 2006 -- "Math is hard." Oct. 25, 1992 -- "Math is tough!"

The general consensus from the Google search is that Teen Talk Barbie said: "Math class is tough." The publicity furor over this happened in October 1992. It is funny that a variety of quotes are attributed to Barbie because this is a talking doll. If a journalist wants to check Barbie's quote, all they have to do is grab her hand or push her belly (or whatever activated Teen Talk Barbie). Also, the quote is not that long. How hard can it be to get it right? Imagine how often people with complex ideas and language are misquoted by media types.

I am more forgiving of media foibles than most, having spent almost four years as a reporter at small to mid-market daily newspapers. The deadline crunch is incredible and fact-checking is a luxury left only to long feature stories. I made a simple, albeit time-consuming gesture of reading back quotes to my sources just to verify that I got it right. Only twice in over 1,000 articles did I have to print a correction related to a quote. One of them was my fault. I got a factual quote wrong. The other was from a bitter, mentally unstable control freak school board member who had disputed quotes from her in other articles.

In these days of corporate conglomeration (Rupert Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal!), downsizing newsrooms, declining subscriptions, and an aging readership, modern American journalism is at a low point. It's easy to find fault with it, but misquoting a talking doll is plain ol' sloppy journalism. And it's this kind of journalism (in our supposedly enlightened "Age of Information") that is the norm.

At least the sheer numbers of bloggers brings about some kind of consensus of truth. And the YouTube community provides visual proof. News gathering is grassroots. It's raw and unfiltered, full of crap and unchecked, but consensus, I've discovered, is more accurate than not. Check out The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki. The opening chapter tells about how the guesses of people at a county fair, averaged out, accurately guessed the weight of a butchered ox.

Of course, crowds are not often wise. Mass hysteria can prevail. But that's not an issue online. The "crowd" here is not a mass of people together, but a bunch of individuals working alone. But now that I think about it, misinformation can be as viral as the truth.

I guess the bottom line is: Don't believe everything you read. Don't even trust your senses. There is no truth. Just perception, approximations. All is chaos. We're ghosts made of swirling particles. It's too complicated to fathom. Give up and go sit in the corner. "Reality is tough."

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