Once again Kelly Barner and I take on the topic of determining the trustworthiness of sources, especially when using them for key decision-making purposes. This post, appearing on Kelly’s blog, The Point, tackles “second tier” data, which presents a host of different issues than when using primary data. Here is the text, with the introduction written by Kelly:
Earlier this month we ran a collaborative piece by Jeanette Jones (Cottrill Research) and I on the alleged manipulation of agricultural data in the chicken supply chain. You can read that post here.
Right after I started researching for the chicken story, I came across yet another great example of why we all have to be so cautious when we cite the source of a piece of information – only this time the main culprit is: PEPPA PIG.
If you don’t have young children, you’re forgiven for not knowing who Peppa Pig is. This preschool-oriented show is squeaky clean (not to mention just plain squeaky) and is conspicuously animated in 2D. Little Peppa (and her Mummy and Daddy and little brother George) all have happy, educational adventures in clipped (but happy – and squeaky) British accents. It is either absolutely adorable or totally annoying depending on your point of view.
On February 20th, the Boston Herald ran a syndicated piece about the fact that a newsely.com article refers to a Harvard research study claiming to prove the watching Peppa Pig causes autism. The article does not name the researchers in the study. This is a major no-no, and apparently, it is because the study does not exist. (FYI – reach out directly if you’d like to read the Boston Herald article).
Jeanette Jones’ Perspective: Mind the Flags
The Peppa Pig Morning News USA article is worth a closer look because is a textbook example of a fake news story. Using this story helps illustrate what to look for in any story, including business news. (Note: the Peppa Pig story, which originally appeared on October 20, 2016, has since been edited to include a red “Debunked” warning and a note indicating that it was discovered to be a fake story.)
Look for these red flags:
Author Bio – The second sentence of the author’s bio in the Pippa Pig story reads: “Like a magician weaving magic with his wand, I have been dishing out word after word to form a line creating sentences, by giving wings to my imagination, creating powerful content in the process.” There is nothing about his background provided that indicates credibility on the subject, or his capabilities as a serious journalist.
Reason for the Publication of the Article – In my opinion, the Peppa Pig article was written to entice as many clicks as possible with the ultimate goal of increasing traffic to its site. The more ‘hits’ the article receives, the more likely it is to be shared and spread on social media, thus giving the website more visibility and hopefully the desired increase in traffic.
Name of the Website – Morning News USA is a classic example of fake news sites using names that purposely resemble established, credible sites or publications.
The Topic Incites Emotion – The article, when read by a mother of a young child, is meant to entice a strong emotional reaction, such as sharing the article, talking about it, or posting it on social media.
Go to the Primary Source of the Claim – In this story, there is no link to the primary source.
Check to See If Others Have Written About the Story – Using the search term “peppa pig autism fake” (without quotes) brings up a long list of articles debunking the story.
Kelly’s Perspective: Judging Peppa
The main trouble here is that people can reference the newsely.com article (referencing the nonexistent Harvard study) without accessing the study itself. Their citation – and whatever point they are using it to make – has no basis in fact, despite what the reference implies.
Primary research always goes back to the source. Anything else has to be scrutinized carefully. And just as procurement often struggles to achieve visibility at the second tier of the supply chain (and beyond), getting your hands on the facts beyond the first tier in the information supply chain can be a tricky (and time consuming) business.
In some cases it will come down to a judgement call – do you trust the citing source or not? How well do you know their work, and have you seen evidence of their journalistic standards? In other cases, the decision to cite arms-length information needs to be considered in the context of how critical that piece of data is to your thesis. If it plays a central role in the argument you are working to make, trusting anything second hand is like building a house on the sand. It is only a matter of time…
If, however, the information is being included and cited for ‘color’ or perspective, you may make the decisions to use it – albeit positioned in such a way that makes it clear you are looking at second-hand data: “In a Harvard research study not read by this author but cited by newsely.com…” It is just too important to have a solid factual basis for your writing and opinions – no matter how much you’d like that little Peppa to be to blame.