Fact or Fiction

One of the important tasks of a good journalist is checking whether the facts written in a story are actually true. In order to do so, the writer needs to consult the original sources. A team of three researchers, Genya van Belzen, Frank Nogarede and Corella Treure, investigated different articles from the Algemeen Dagblad (AD). Before we go to the conclusion (which is based on our own experiences), we give short summaries of the [3] checked articles.

[1] “1 op 4 kinderen in reservaat misvormd door alcoholisme
This article aims to inform the reader of the severity of alcoholism in Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, USA. It is one of the poorest areas in the United States. One in four children is born with fetal alcohol syndrom (FAS). FAS is a condition in which children appear abnormal. Some have growth disorders for example. Moreover, the children can have mental problems as well. For instance, hyperactive or attention disorders and learning disabilities are some of the effects.

In a town just outside of Pine Ridge is Whiteclay situated. With a population of fourteen people and four liquor stores they sell more than four million cans of beer yearly. The people from the reservation buy their alcohol in Whiteclay as the law in Pine Ridge forbids alcohol.

After fact checking ADD1this story, some statements seemed false. Last year, Whiteclay only sold 3.9 million cans of beer. The fact-checker recalculated this by consulting the original source. Moreover, the population in both Whiteclay and Pine Ridge were not even close to what the article reported. The most striking finding was that the Tribe government in Pine Ridge lifted the alcohol ban back in 2013. After contacting the journalist, he replied that he was not aware of the new law. He said that the amount of sold cans was irrelevant and that it did not take away the problematic situation. We believe it does decrease the impact of the article.

[2] “Blade Runner Pistorius veroordeeld voor moord
This article concerns Oscar Pistorius, the famous ‘Blade Runner’ from South Africa who won different sprints while having below-knee amputees. But, the news article from AD captures a more negative side of ‘the fastest man with no legs’.

The article states that Oscar Pistorius is sentenced for murdering his girlfriend, and that this rejects the earlier sentence of culpable homicide. It is explained that Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp with four shots in February 2013. Oscar admitted that he had fired the gun, but the reasons for his action were being questioned because he said to think that Reeva was an intruder. There are several ADDD2reasons to question the confession of Oscar Pistorius (e.g. why did he immediately thought that the person in the toilet was an intruder instead of his girlfriend?), but there is also reason to question this news article. Reasons for mistrust are the limited usage of sources.

During the fact checking process, every statement was double-checked by use of reliable sources. Except for one statement, all information given was true and accurate. One sentence (i.e., ”Pistorius doodde zijn vriendin Reeva Steenkamp in februari 2013 met vier schoten door de deur van de badkamer”) was not accurate. The article reported that the shots were fired through the bathroom door, but Reeva Steevkamp was in the toilet of the bathroom during the incident. Hence, shots were fired through the door of the toilet instead of the bathroom door. One may say that this is debatable, but a door in front of a toilet is rather called a toilet door than a bathroom door.

[3] “Britse spermadonor verwekt 46 baby’s in twee jaar tijd
This article was about Declan Rooney, a sperm donor, who conceived 46 children the past two years. He also has 8 children of his own with 4 different women. He offers his services without the intervention of a sperm bank, but via a website, Facebook and even an app.

Starting from the source, there were some doubts about the article, because the Mail Online was the only article that was used. Moreover, the Mail Online does not appear as a very credible and trustworthy news source organization, since it especially publishes gossip related news. Besides that, the article talks about experts without any references about who these experts are.

From there on, we started the fact checking process and searched for every article that said something about this particular news. We checked every fact with different sources and also searched for the website of Declan Rooney. He hosted this website under the name ‘Upton North’, but it was unfortunately no longer online. In total, there were four inconsistencies in this news article. The two most important findings are mentioned here. First of all, thADD3e article stated that the sperm donor wanted to travel 300 kilometres to meet his clients. However, it was actually a radius of 50 mile which is about 80 kilometres. Second, the article reported that he also conceived some babies of his clients naturally, but this was not true because in a interview with Mail Online he denied having sex with his clients. After the fact checking process the findings were presented to the AD editors, since there was no author reported. Unfortunately they did not respond.

In general we found that the Algemeen Dagblad is a medium which is quite reliable. All three of the researchers had difficulty finding an article which contained certain mistakes. On average, it took us two weeks (of hard work) to discover actual inconsistencies.

However, we argue that this medium often lacks reliable sources to support their claims. For instance, in the Pine Ridge article the journalist wrote many ungrounded statements such as: “Mothers give up their children often” and “There is a lot of alcoholism”. Furthermore, the three articles were almost exact copies of previously written stories by other (foreign) websites. Therefore, we can conclude that these journalist might have forgotten about the fact checking process. According to us, this is part of being a journalist and we consider this being “lazy” if it is not been done properly. However, even though we couldn’t find many mistakes on the AD, they were still present. These mistakes were found in the sources used by the AD as well.

Overall, we conclude that the Algemeen Dagblad is a reliable news website but the reader should stay critical as their referral to original sources remain absent. We understand that the AD’s journalists need to produce quantity, but this should not go at the expense of the quality of the article. We advise the journalists to not simply copy an article, but look closely and research whether the statements in other articles are actually true.

Do you see what I see?

The dictionary says: “A visualization is the process of representing abstract business or scientific data as images that can aid in understanding the meaning of the data.” But, unfortunately some visualizations do not aid in understanding the meaning of the data. Today, I am going to tell you something about (misleading) visualizations.


Some visuals are misleading as they give a wrong idea or impression. In the case of the advertisement of the McDonald (see above), the Big Mac looks more attractive in the advertisement than in reality. When you look closer to the infographic (see below) you will see that some features are also deceiving (e.g. the infographic appears to suggest that the travel industry is less dynamic in Europe than in the Asia-Pacific region).

Infographic bad

So, visualizations can deceive us, and this can be done in several ways. For instance, by truncating your x-as (e.g. are the top tax rates 5 times higher now?), by using 3D charts (e.g. is item C bigger than item A?), or by use of inconsistent scaling (e.g. is this a fair comparison?).

These misleading attributes can be implemented by the designers in one of the four editorial layers (i.e., data, visual representation, textual annotations, and interactivity), and it can be seen as a strategy to pick the right layer to deceive. Following Alberto Cairo, the most misleading visuals are based on the following three tactics:

  1. Hiding relevant data to highlight what benefits us;
  2. Displaying too much data to obscure reality;
  3. Using graphic forms in inappropriate ways.

Why are misleading visualizations bad? Jessica Hullman reported that even subtle changes in visualizations could influence responses. So, peoples’ interpretation and opinion could be altered towards an issue as a result of a misleading visual. In some instances this could have tremendous effect, for instance with emotional topics, such as racism, or decisive topics. The study of William C. Bradford suggested that over half of the people are visual learners. Supposedly, this is due because we understand visuals more easy as they affect us both cognitively (i.e., decode a text) and emotionally (i.e., strengthen our creative thinking). The study of Bruce I. Reiner reported that words are processed by our short-term memory whereas images go directly to our long-term memory. So, it seems that we remember the (wrong) interpretation extracted from a visual better than text. As a result, we could take action on the basis of false information.

Albert Cairo: “Charts, graphs, maps, and diagrams do not lie. People who design graphics do.”

Why do we use visualizations? We visualize to make stories or pieces of information more interesting and appealing (e.g. for commercial purposes, see McDonalds’ most finest hamburger), but also to make it more comprehensible and more easy to understand information {e.g. for informational purposes, see infographic}. We make misleading visuals to reach an objective that would be difficult or even impossible to obtain without ambiguous or false attributes. But, is it really a strategy? Do we make misleading visuals on purpose or could it be ‘just a mistake’? Please, look at the images below. Tell me in the comments if you thought they did it on purpose or if it was just by accident.

The visuals above are, in my opinion, both beautiful, but a little misleading. The first infographic shows the state individual income taxes collected per capita with some nice illustrated coins. But, a critical remark on this infographic could be that they only demonstrated the income taxes and they did not relate this to other interesting features, such as GDP. Another remark is that they didn’t elaborate on the source they used which makes it less accurate. The second visualization, which shows the Citeology, is beautiful, but it shows too much detail. This makes the infographic less functional.

How can we make good visualizations? David McCandless suggest that the key components of a data visualization are: interestingness, integrity, form and function. What does he means with this? One the one hand, the information in the visualization needs to be interesting (meaningful & relevant) and have high integrity (accuracy & consistency). On the other hand, the design of the visual needs to have form (beauty & structure) and function (easiness & usefulness). Alberto Cairo uses similar terms; he mentions in his video presentation that many visualizations today are beautiful, and even functional, but not particularly insightful.

Albert Cairo: “It is unacceptable to sacrifice the integrity of the data just to make an infographic pretty.”

Lastly, I want to give you some tips to make your visual worth watching:

  1. Think of what your audience is seeking;
  2. Identify the story you want to tell them;
  3. Sketch before you produce your story.

On a final note: don’t get fooled by misleading visualizations, use your bullshit detector! Do you know how your bull-shit detector works?Bullshit

Caught in a frame

Please read the following headlines of a news article:

[A] Global warming Will Not Be Dangerous for a Long Time
[B] Climate Change Will Not Be Dangerous for a Long Time

Would you interpret these headlines differently? How are they different? Is it just a word or is it more than that? In today’s blogpost I will tell you something about framing in news articles.

A threesome of agenda setting, framing and priming
The basic assumption of media effects is that press and media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it. It starts with agenda setting. Agenda setting is basically the ability of news journals to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda. If a news item is covered prominently and often, news readers will perceive the issue as more important. According to Scheufele and Tewksbury, framing is a more refined version of agenda setting. Framing means making aspects of an issue more salient through different modes of presentation leading to a shift in people’s attitude. More specifically, framing constitutes of highlighting some aspects, such as an aggressive word, and excluding other elements, such as the right context. With this, framing tells us how and why to think about an issue. To complete the circle of the three media effects, there is priming. By offering your news readers a prior context – a context that can be used to interpret subsequent information – you can prime their opinions towards the positive or the negative.

Framing and its effects
I want to address the effects of framing more extensively in this blogpost because I think that framing has the largest consequences. It highlights certain aspects of an issue over other aspects resulting in strengthening or weakening pre-existing beliefs, attitudes, and opinions. Tversky and Kahneman demonstrated this with the Asian Disease Problem; in their study a significant amount of people chose the more risky option because it was framed more positively (the gain-frame).

Following Fairhurst and Sarr, there are seven framing techniques:

  • Contrast: define something in terms of what is not;
  • Metaphor: frame a conceptual idea by use of a comparison;
  • Stories: frame an issue in a vivid and memorable way via narrative;
  • Tradition: use cultural mores that pervade significance in the mundane;
  • Artefact: frame with objects that have intrinsic symbolic value and meaning;
  • Slogan, jargon, catchphrase: make use of a catchy phrase to make it more memorable;
  • Spin: present a concept in a way that has a value judgement (positive or negative) that might not be obvious immediately.


The news makes extensive usage of framing. Yesterday there was a shooting in San Bernardino, America. Concerning this topic, news reporters can choose to focus on the fourteen victims or they can choose to focus on the shooting itself. How they frame their story can influence peoples’ attitudes and behaviour. Another news report about the same topic mentioned that the shooters potentially had terroristic motivations. Even though this claim has not been proven yet, they published it. As a result, people’s negative attitude about terrorists could increase and it is likely that they will be more terrified of terrorist attacks. On the same line, the study of Cosand reported that scripted news reports involving crime affected the level of fear, anger, and empathy.

Framing: are we doing it conscious or unconscious?
Some say that news reporters frame consciously and others think it is an unconscious process. In my opinion, we are all biased by the information that is presented to us in various ways so we have a frame of reference. Because of this, it could be almost impossible to write something without using a framework. Hence, I think we usually frame unconsciously, but with some activities, such as creating catchy titles (e.g. caught in a frame), it might be conscious.

In the first section I asked you if you would interpret sentence A [Global warming Will Not Be Dangerous for a Long Time] different compared to sentence B [Climate Change Will Not Be Dangerous for a Long Time]. There is a minor variation between them, but I perceive them differently. In my opinion, climate change is a more broad and neutral term whereas global warming elicited more negative associations. So, I might be more happy/relieved to read headline [A]. What is your opinion?

P.S. When was the last time you were ‘guilty’ of framing?