Without context and consideration, numbers can mislead

There’s a common phrase that “numbers don’t lie.” This refers to the idea that statistics and data that are used to back up arguments are faultless. But even when numbers and data are correct, people and organizations with their own agendas can use them to mislead because they don’t tell the whole story on their own.

That’s why quality news organizations and researchers do more than just present data. They put it in context and explain how they collected it, analyzed it, built their database and made it verifiable. The Global Investigative Journalism Network provides some excellent examples of such work.

SAS, a pioneer in the data management and analytics field, helped us explain how we can transform data into intelligence and why numbers can sometimes mislead.

When we use numbers to represent the world around us, those numbers are almost always an estimate. We don’t know the exact number of people in the world at any given time, or the exact amount of carbon emissions, or how much money is being spent. Though it is theoretically possible to get exactly accurate values for these, the practicalities of our world mean we must rely on estimates instead.

And some issues can’t be quantified. For example, people’s preferences, health or behaviors are hard to boil down to a single number or value. How much do you like dogs? Do you eat healthfully? Is there a single value that can accurately capture the wide range of people’s answers to these questions? No.

That is why it is always important to understand the context in which data is collected and presented. What do the values you see truly represent? What do they tell you and what don’t they tell you? What is the person using the data trying to convey? Does the data support their argument?

Engaging in critical thinking around these questions will help you to be a better consumer of data. All kinds of information — including statistics, charts and graphs — can be presented in ways that mislead. That’s why you must evaluate them critically.

Data and numbers are powerful tools for building arguments. They add credibility and can help prove a particular point. They can provide insights into the world around us and help us better understand an issue. But the idea that numbers don’t lie is false.

So remember to evaluate data critically and pose questions of the information that could help you better understand what is presented, and lead you to wonder about the questions the data doesn’t answer.

Think hard before becoming a co-conspirator

To be human is to see patterns in the world around us. And although making sense of them is how we have thrived and evolved, sometimes we contort facts into patterns that don’t really exist. Such mangled thinking can turn a set of discrete facts into a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories are tough to untangle, both because of the cognitive reasoning that leads people there and because of the very nature of such theories.  

Why our brains fall for conspiracy theories is complex. But in general, it’s based on confirmation bias — the practice of focusing on facts that support our existing ideas and overlooking or ignoring facts that contradict those ideas. 

Also playing a role is “proportionality bias” — the belief that a huge event (such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) was caused by something equally huge.

As for the nature of conspiracy theories, here’s one expert’s view: “The genius of conspiracy theories is that you can’t prove them wrong,” says Peter Ellerton, founder of the Critical Thinking Project at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

Conspiracy theories, he says, are based on fear and on people’s personal values, not facts. For example, that means that when someone is convinced that vaccinations cause autism, any specifics used in a counterargument can equally be used — erroneously, of course — to strengthen the conspiracy theory. 

Like it or not, it seems that everyone is prone to falling for a conspiracy theory: We all see patterns. We all have cognitive biases. And sometimes it’s even true that twisted, unfair actions are behind certain events. 

How not to fall into the abyss of non-sense?

Being aware that we might fall into the trap can help. And a 2017 study links news literacy practices with the steady thinking that keeps people from believing conspiracy theories. 

In other words: To step away from the darkest, weirdest ideas, apply critical-thinking skills and research credible sources. And don’t believe a wild idea just because it seemingly cannot be disproved. That could be your cognitive biases blinding you to the facts.

Public service, not ad dollars, are at the heart of good journalism

Good ethics make for good journalism.

The Society of Professional Journalists publishes ethics codes from news outlets and journalism organizations around the world — and it has its own, too. These are principles meant to guide journalists as they report on events in the public interest. Running like a thread through all the entries is the idea that good journalists are loyal first and foremost to the public — and therefore to the truth.

Such loyalty requires, above all, an independence from influence and pressures that might shade how a journalist sees or reports the facts.

For example, if readers thought that a reporter was doing a favor for an advertiser by highlighting positive aspects of a service or product, or they suspected that a reporter was trying to support the editorial board’s stance on a contentious issue, such doubts would damage the credibility of both the reporter and the institution.

That’s why, at news outlets that adhere to the highest standards of journalism, reporters and editors do not work directly with the advertising staff and are completely separate from the opinion section (which typically includes the editorial board). Indeed, these outlets protect the independence of their reporters with policies that insulate newsrooms from the influence of advertisers, the editorial board and other opinion writers.

As anyone paying attention to news knows, news organizations are facing financial pressures as never before. That has, in recent years, led some journalists to urge other reporters to at least be more familiar with practices on the business side that keep the newsroom afloat.

In its 2014 innovation report (PDF), an internal committee at The New York Times wrote: “The wall dividing the newsroom and business side has served The Times well for decades, allowing one side to focus on readers and the other to focus on advertisers. But the growth in our subscription revenue and the steady decline in advertising — as well as the changing nature of our digital operation — now require us to work together.” Emphasizing different parts of the “business side,” the report goes on: “We still have a large and vital advertising arm that should remain walled off.” But there is now room at the Times — and elsewhere — to determine whether marketing efforts can build from reporting in ways not previously considered.

And while some lines are gray, the bright line of independence of reporters doing their jobs stays true, enshrined in ethics guidelines that remind readers and reporters alike that  journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, and its first loyalty is to citizens.

How to speak up without starting a showdown

Misinformation is always problematic, but when it appears alongside pet photos and family updates on social media, it can be especially frustrating and unwelcome. It’s one thing if a stranger spreads falsehoods online. But what should we do when we see misinformation shared by family and friends?

Stepping into the role of fact-checker when it comes to loved ones can be tricky and stir strong emotions, so it’s worth preparing for — especially as more falsehoods seep across social media and into family and friend group chats.

While every scenario is different, following some general best practices can help keep the conversation civil and make the interaction worthwhile. Use these six tips — with some helpful phrases for getting started — as a guide on how to speak up without starting a showdown. It may not be easy, but talking to loved ones about false or misleading content can help them think twice about what to share in the future.

Click here to download the poster (PDF).

Practice good information hygiene: Sanitize before you share

Misinformation swirling around the COVID-19 outbreak underscores the importance of consuming and sharing online content with care.

Public health officials are urging us to practice good hygiene to help stop the spread of this virus — by washing our hands thoroughly and frequently, staying home as much as possible, and keeping a safe distance from others when we do go out.

We can also practice good information hygiene. Just adopt the four quick and easy steps below to help stop the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. If we sanitize the process around our information habits, we can prevent misleading and false content — some of which is hazardous to our health — from being widely shared and potentially doing harm.

Sanitize before you share graphic

Take 20 seconds for good information hygiene

Take 20 seconds good information hygiene

It took the COVID-19 pandemic to get most people to adopt the hand-washing guidelines that health experts — like those at the World Health Organization — have recommended for years. (Studies from the mid-19th century showed that good hand washing could help stop the spread of disease.)

To kill germs, like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, experts advise that you wash your hands for 20 seconds. That doesn’t mean limply running them under the faucet. You must use soap and water, scrub under your nails, between your fingers and on the backs of your hands. To be sure that you do this for 20 seconds, sing “Happy Birthday” twice.

This public health message has been repeated countless times during the COVID-19 crisis, including in videos showing various celebrities washing up.

Advice for good  information hygiene

This guidance serves as an apt metaphor for practicing good information hygiene. Peter Adams, the News Literacy Project’s senior vice president of education, made the connection during a March 14 segment of NPR’s All Things Considered.  Here is how Peter described it: “The equivalent of taking 20 seconds and washing your hands is very much the same in the information space. If everyone can take 20 seconds, investigate the source, do a quick Google search, stay skeptical, we can eliminate a great deal of the confusion and misinformation out there.”

Doing so is an important step in practicing good information hygiene and helping to stop misinformation’s viral spread. This is critically important during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a public health crisis, consuming and sharing false or misleading information can be a matter of life and death. And to help stop the spread of misinformation, pausing before you share content online is always important.

Learn more

For additional guidance on good information hygiene, check out NLP’s infographic Sanitize before you share

Look: The steps of sleuthing for accuracy

How do you know that the image you’re seeing online is truly what someone says it is? There are ways to suss out the facts.

  • Look.
  • Look again, more closely.
  • Look at its origins.
  • Look at it from a big-picture perspective.

Taking those four steps can help you discover whether an image is what someone says it is — so you’re not fooled into believing or sharing misinformation.

  1. Look. Observe the details. If the caption says that the event depicted is happening in Miami, you shouldn’t see heavy winter coats. If you’re told that the building you’re seeing is in London, there shouldn’t be cars with license plates from U.S. states.
  2. Look again. Take one of those details you’ve spied — a store name or a street sign — and search online to confirm its location. There may even be elements in the image — for example, a state flag in the distance — that you can zoom in on to nail down the location.
  3. Think backward. Conduct a reverse search. It’s particularly easy if you’re using the Chrome browser: Simply right-click on the image and choose “Search Google for Image.” If you’re using another browser, you can upload the image (or copy its URL) into TinEye. You might find dozens of webpages that include the image and confirm its origin (for example, a news service photo published by credible news outlets).
  4. Geolocate! You can also use Google Street View, a photographic feature that lets you virtually stroll much of the world. To learn more about this, use First Draft’s resource on geolocation, for that is what you’re doing: figuring out, or verifying, where on Earth the image you see posted online was taken.

First Draft, an international nonprofit addressing issues of truth and trust in the digital age, also has an overall primer that lets you hone your powers of observation by giving you the opportunity to practice your online sleuthing skills.

The most important step to take to know what’s real, of course, is the one that leads you to these investigative tools to start with. It’s taking the time to ask: Is that for real?

When correcting the record, make a ‘truth sandwich’

To err is human, to correct is divinely human. But in correcting the record, some ways are more divine than others. 

Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society lays out the basics of how to correct the record, whether you’re an individual or a news outlet: Begin and conclude with the correct information, sandwiching the wrong information between. As Berkman puts it, “Make the truth, not the falsehood, the most vivid take-away.”

That’s because repeated information sticks with us, whether the information is accurate or not. We rely on repetition. The more something is heard, the more it’s believed.

Sandwiching errors also is a good approach because of how we respond to information. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert contends, when something is said, people comprehend in two steps. First, we hold the idea in our mind. Then, we decide whether it’s factual. That means when we hear or read something new, we consider the  morsel of information, using it as the frame of reference for what comes next. By accepting it, even momentarily, we’ve started to digest it. Gilbert hypothesizes that the second step — of considering whether something is to be believed — is harder to do. Often, we simply skip this step unconsciously.

So what may sound like an interesting bit of trivia is important when it comes to crafting a correction. 

Some researchers also urge those who write corrections to focus on simple, accurate statements (the correct information first), to clear up the misinformation.

And yes, corrections matter. A 2016 study suggests that even people with strongly held beliefs will change their minds when presented with facts that contradict those beliefs.

To repeat (because repetition is effective): Get your facts straight! When correcting a falsehood, state the fact first and last. 

Citizens, like reporters, can be watchdogs guarding integrity and truth

One of the most significant, and most tragic, examples of a citizen acting as a watchdog of those in power occurred on July 6, 2016, when Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter were in the car as Castile, who was driving, was pulled over.

After a brief conversation with Castile, the officer shot him seven times — and within seconds of the final shot, Reynolds began recording and livestreaming the events on Facebook. “In doing so,” reporter Julie Bosman wrote in The New York Times, “she became not only a poised and influential witness, but a teller in real time of her own treatment by the police.” She also became part of a national effort to document police officers’ treatment of ordinary people, especially Black Americans.

Watchdog reporting is its own category of journalism, referring to scrutiny given to the actions of those who hold power and influence. These efforts to hold such forces accountable, when carried out by news outlets, include follow-up research and verification of facts to build a comprehensive report.

But ordinary people can witness and record incidents, too, and the point is the same: to bring troubling incidents to light by providing evidence, be it a photograph, a video or notes of a transaction or encounter that someone meant to keep secret.

When local newspapers close, journalistic oversight decreases, so the need grows even greater for coverage of parts of the community that might operate under the radar — for example, operations of businesses or activities of elected officials or others in positions of authority. For instance, area residents taking notes and asking questions at town meetings can help, as a columnist wrote in 2018 in the politics news outlet NJInsider: “My hunch long has been that local town and school board officials love opening a meeting and seeing no reporters or citizen watchdogs in the audience.”

Expand your view with lateral reading

What do you do when you encounter information that leaves you scratching your head — wondering whether it’s a credible news report, a subtly disguised advertisement or a provocative piece of propaganda?

If you simply go down the rabbit hole of the site that posted or created it, you likely won’t get the clarity or context you need to make an informed decision.

So instead of going deep, go wide: Employ lateral reading.

“In brief, lateral reading (as opposed to vertical reading) is the act of verifying what you’re reading as you’re reading it,” writes Terry Heick in “This Is The Future And Reading Is Different Than You Remember” on TeachThought.com, a website featuring innovations in education. The lateral reading concept and the term itself developed from research conducted by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), led by Sam Wineburg, founder and executive director of SHEG.

Lateral reading helps you determine an author’s credibility, intent and biases by searching for articles on the same topic by other writers (to see how they are covering it) and for other articles by the author you’re checking on. That’s what professional fact-checkers do.

Questions you’ll want to ask include these:

  • Who funds or sponsors the site where the original piece was published? What do other authoritative sources have to say about that site?
  • When you do a search on the topic of the original piece, are the initial results from fact-checking organizations?
  • Have questions been raised about other articles the author has written?
  • Does what you’re finding elsewhere contradict the original piece?
  • Are credible news outlets reporting on (or perhaps more important, not reporting on) what you’re reading?

The book Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers sums it up this way in the chapter “What ‘Reading Laterally’ Means”:  “Lateral reading helps the reader understand both the perspective from which the site’s analyses come and if the site has an editorial process or expert reputation that would allow one to accept the truth of a site’s facts.”

If other reliable sources confirm what you’re reading, you can feel confident about its credibility.

Breaking news reports can be hit or miss, because accuracy takes time

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated many areas along the southern coast of the United States. The storm also served as a case study of the best and worst in reporting: The worst was reflected in early reporting of rumors published without verification; the best showed in some thorough follow-up coverage.

It’s not known how many people died as a result of Katrina; estimates have ranged from fewer than 1,000 to more than 1,800. The Category 5 storm slammed into the Gulf Coast and, most notoriously, New Orleans — “notoriously,” for it was that city that bore the brunt of the high winds and hard rains and that showed up most often in media reports across the country and world.

As the levees crumbled and much of the city flooded, early news reports led to what Los Angeles Times reporters described a month later as “a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans’ main evacuation shelter.” “Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy” recounted tales published during the storm that were exaggerated or just plain wrong. Some news outlets published information about rapes, robberies and drownings that later proved groundless. Even the city’s mayor and police chief were behind some of the bogus information.

The lesson here: Producing a credible report as big events unfold takes time, because verifying facts and quotations takes time.

However, given that time, news outlets can shine as they track down and report credible information that is not always available in the chaos of breaking news. One year later, in 2006, two outlets in the eye of the storm — The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Sun Herald in Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi — were honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their reports on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, including articles that examined the failures at local, regional and national levels that contributed to the devastation.

Readers, viewers and listeners craving information as major events unfold should beware: Verification takes time. Even in the rush of breaking news, look to see if an outlet has noted its efforts to verify information. Only time can tell what is true — time, and good reporters.


A healthy reaction to information is to ask ‘What’s the point of this?’

We’re all moving targets when it comes to information aimed straight at us, whether the darts headed our way are text messages, social media posts, photos, emails, longer written pieces, games, GIFs or videos. Savvy citizens of the internet know to start with one question when something whose creator they don’t know hits their screen: What is the main purpose of this information?

Especially if you first think is that what you’re seeing is news, think harder: Is it intended mainly to entertain you? Sell you something? Persuade you of something? Provoke you? Or is it information presented to document or inform? As the “InfoZones” lesson in our Checkology® virtual classroom explains, understanding the following categories of information helps you know how to process what’s coming at you:

  • News: Informs you, through objective reporting, about local, national and international events, issues and people of significance or of interest.
  • Opinion: Persuades you, ideally through the use of fact-based evidence, to adopt a specific point of view about an issue or event.
  • Advertising: Sells you a product or service.
  • Entertainment: Amuses, pleases, relaxes or distracts you.
  • Propaganda: Provokes you — often by using false or distorted information to manipulate your emotions.
  • Raw information: Documents an event or trend. It has not been analyzed, checked, edited, explained or placed in any context.

There’s nothing wrong with going online to be entertained or amazed. But to avoid being unwittingly zinged by something that you assume is verified news but is, rather, an ad or unedited video, start with this healthy question: “What is the primary objective or purpose of this piece of information?”

Once you’ve answered that, you’re prepared for what comes your way. Whether you laugh, shout, buy or cry, you’ll be in charge of your reaction — and you won’t end up spreading what you thought was truth but instead was something taken out of context or designed to manipulate.