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From guess to fact: birth of a factoid

I’m writing a book chapter at the moment about the use of “user generated content” by journalists from the traditional media and to justify why I concentrate on the traditional media I thought I’d dig up a statistic or two about how dependent the public remains on traditional media for its news. I went looking for an update of Robert W. McChesney’s “The Titanic Sails On: Why the Internet won’t sink the media giants” written in 2000 and found his 2011 updated book The Death and Life of American Journalism. On page 17 I found this striking statement, “Harvard’s Alex S Jones estimates that 85% of all professionally reported news originates with daily newspapers and that he has seen credible sources place that figure closer to 95%”. Thinking this sounded like an interesting study I looked up the source and found Alex Jones’ book Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy. On page 4 he says, “my own estimate is that 85% of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95%” (emphases mine). In other words either Jones has failed to cite his own research or (more probably) McChesney is reporting second hand and third hand guesswork.

This kind of thing really annoys me particularly when it takes me several minutes to get to the bottom of what turns out to be nothing more than a guess, and particularly when I know that there are a number of studies that discuss the sources of news with a greater deal of rigour. For example, there is How News Happens which argues that in Baltimore in 2009 95% of original news stories came from traditional news outlets, particularly newspapers (although its methodology has come under fire), or Paterson’s fascinating 2007 study showing that the leading online news sources (and to a lesser extent newspapers) are heavily dependent on news agency copy.