On 7 March 2019 the Dutch website RTL News published an article titled: “Sustainable thinker often the worst polluter”. The article claimed that several connections could be made between sustainable thinking and polluting behaviour. In other words: those who claimed to worry about the environment were often the ones who polluted more.
The article was based on a scientific report by I&O Research, which made several connections between polluting behaviour and various socio-demographic data such as income, education level, gender and voting preferences. The report itself was more nuanced though, and made no claims about a possible connection between environmental thinking and polluting behaviour. Comparing the RTL article and the report, we found some glaring errors made by the author. You can read more about this in our Factcheck-post linked here.
Moreover, the author missed (best case scenario) or completely ignored several pieces of information found in the report. For example, VVD voters (a conservative and liberal party on the right side of the political spectrum) are considered the biggest polluters. Peter Kanne, the expert who led the research team that created the I&O report, told us that many theories found in the article are false.
What surprised us the most was that several other Dutch media picked up the article and published it without even checking any sources. Factchecking is a skill a modern day journalist is expected to use on a frequent basis, so why did not one of them bother to double check whether or not the information was correct? Is it too much to ask of our professional journalists to provide unbiased, complete information?
Articles being published on several news platforms is not an uncommon phenomenon anymore, but how has copy-paste journalism become so accepted in a sector that prides itself on delivering truth? Is it the ever growing workload, time constraints or simple negligence?
It would be naive to think that our current zeitgeist has nothing to do with the problem. We keep getting busier. The workload in newsrooms keeps getting higher while at the same time deadlines are tighter. There often simply isn’t time to double-check information, at least not thoroughly. Another cause could be the lack of rest and leisure time in a journalist’s schedule. Taking a day off for mental health reasons or for a break is seen as unprofessional. Journalists on news desks often work long and irregular days. Overtime, irregular shifts and nightwork are rather the rule than the exception. The result is articles of lower quality and a higher risk for burn-outs or depression.
According to studies there is an increasing trend with companies that generate news attention by creating their own ready-made articles that they then send out to news media. The branded content is then picked up by overworked journalists and often published with barely any changes. The rise of digital technology and social media has also given companies the tools to create their own news blogs and websites, where they can create and publish their own “news” cheaply. Not only professional journalists, but also bloggers, citizen journalists and alternative media are able to spread news quickly. Thus, the digitization of the media landscape has also led to a certain decentralisation, which in its turn can be confusing for readers and even journalists, who can’t distinguish between correct information and ‘fake news’. There are simply too many sources.
Another study shows that only 13% of journalists rank control and analysis of information in their top three of most important journalistic daily tasks. Fewer and fewer journalists value the process of factchecking. We believe that’s a pity. Changing this phenomenon in the short term is difficult, but it’s clear changes needed to be made. Factchecking remains a valuable basis of journalism, especially if we want to be taken seriously as a source of information and more importantly as a source of truth.
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