Author Archives: Paul Bradshaw

How Wayback Machine and a sitemap file was used to factcheck Dominic Cummmings

Before and after images of Cummings' blog post text

Among the many claims made by UK Government adviser Dominic Cummings in his press conference on Monday was one that could be easily checked.

As evidence that he took the threat from coronavirus seriously he said that he’d written about the danger of coronaviruses last year.

“For years I’ve warned of the dangers of pandemics. Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning.”

Before the press conference was over, that claim had already been proven to be false, thanks to some underused journalistic tools of verification: the Wayback Machine and sitemap.

Here’s how it was done — and how journalists can use the same tools in their work, whether it’s to verify a claim made about the past, a claim about what was not said in the past, or to uncover details that may have been unwittingly revealed in earlier versions of webpages. Continue reading

Coronavirus: 3 ways journalists need to get to grips with uncertainty during the pandemic

R number ranges in different UK regions

R number ranges shown by the FT

Journalism doesn’t like uncertainty: editors are trained to cut out vagueness and journalists taught to be as concrete as possible in their reporting. In most cases it compels reporters to ensure they have a firm grip on the details and are confident in the story they are reporting.

But with coronavirus, this discipline becomes a systemic blind spot.

From prevalence to testing, and from deaths to infection rates, the story of this pandemic is full of uncertainty. Here, then, are 3 ways that journalists need to understand — and better communicate — the things that we don’t know, and won’t know, about it. Continue reading

How to brainstorm COVID-19 data story ideas

Reporting beyond the case numbers: How to brainstorm COVID-19 data story ideas

I’ve written a piece for DataJournalism.com on covering the societal impact of a pandemic with data — it covers:

  • Stories to report in the short term
  • Moving beyond health stories
  • Looking for stories about changing behaviour
  • Thinking creatively about data
  • Stories from historical data
  • Interactivity as a data angle
  • Looking and planning ahead

How should journalists report “fiddling the figures” on coronavirus tests?

The BBC’s live stream included an alert that 122,347 tests had been “carried out” yesterday. In fact 40,000 of those had merely been sent out.

When a prominent UK politician announced on live TV that the Government had hit its target of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April, on the very last day of that month no less, journalists faced a challenge.

Two hours earlier, specialist publication Health Service Journal had revealed that the figures had been fudged: instead of counting the numbers of tests that had been conducted on samples, a source informed them, the Government had quietly changed its own metric so that a test that had been sent out in the post — and not returned or tested — could now be added to the figures.

40,000 tests were then sent out in one day.

By any reasonable understanding, a test sent was not the same thing as a test done, as a raft of jokes — from people saying they had marked their students’ homework by sticking it in the mail, or paid their tax by receiving a letter from the taxman — pointed out.

And yet there was the Government making its claim — at length and without question, on the national broadcaster, and on the websites of national news organisations.

It was 20 minutes before the claim was queried by a reporter, by which time many viewers had switched off.

How journalists responded to this announcement — in different ways, at different times, and in different places — provides a valuable case study for anyone dealing with numbers and the claims that politicans make about them. Continue reading

FAQ: Data journalism and gatekeeping

The latest frequently asked questions post comes in response to a PhD student looking at data journalism and gatekeeping. Here are the questions and my answers:

How do you think the role of journalists has changed during the 21st century, especially with the data explosion and the rise of misinformation and disinformation?

Journalists and news organisations have both been forced to adapt by the increased competition, and the changing nature of the world that we report on (i.e. the fact that it is more data-driven).

Many publishers tell me they want to give their journalists data skills because they feel that they need to ‘up their game’ in order to compete with new entrants to the sector, and to create distinctive content in an environment where celebrities, politicians, sportspeople etc. all publish direct to audiences rather than via media. Continue reading

How to prevent confirmation bias affecting your journalism

If one becomes aware of confirmation bias do they get confirmation bias confirmation bias

A couple weeks ago I published a guide to cognitive biases for journalists. I saved perhaps the biggest one of all — confirmation bias — for a post all of its own. It might be one of the best-known biases, but for that very reason it can be easy to underestimate. Here, then, is what you need to know — and what to do to reduce it.

What is confirmation bias — and how does it affect journalism?

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out — or more easily believe or recall — information that confirms our existing beliefs.

It leads us to make judgements that are not based on an equal assessment of all the evidence, but only that evidence we have cherry picked, remembered or attributed more credibility to.

Confirmation bias affects journalists in at least three ways: Continue reading

A journalist’s guide to cognitive bias (and how to avoid it)

For the last few years I’ve been teaching my journalism students a dedicated class on cognitive bias — common ways of thinking that lead journalists (and audiences and sources) to make avoidable mistakes.

Journalism is particularly vulnerable to cognitive bias: we regularly make decisions at speed; we have to deal with too much information — or extract meaning where there isn’t enough of it. Each of those situations makes us vulnerable to poor decision-making — and many of the rules that we adhere to as journalists are designed to address that.

Some cognitive biases — such as groupthink, prejudice, and confirmation bias (covered in a second post here) — are well-known, but many others are not (there are over 180 of them). That includes bias blind spot: the tendency to see how biases affect other people, but not yourself.

So if you were thinking “this doesn’t apply to me”, read on for a guide to some of the cognitive biases likely to affect journalists — from being manipulated by sources to being bad editors of our own copy — and what to do to tackle them. Continue reading