Friday, March 04, 2005

Two Obvious Questions that the AFR Didn't Ask

I can't post a link to the story, because the Australian Financial Review is one of those odious subscription-only publications. Well, it's got a rich readership, I suppose...

So instead, I'll give you the gist: private investigators in Australia are complaining that privacy laws are making it hard to collect debts.

This got a bit of discussion on the Link newsgroup, which represents some really good brains, and it became clear that this was an example of lazy reporting.

The nature of the reporting is that given a survey and a spokesperson, you don't need to question the content. Hence two howlers made it to print which really should have been caught.

The first is this:
"As a result [of new privacy laws], millions of dollars in fraud and bad debt are going
unchecked. In the six years to 2002, $22.4billion was written off in bad
debt by companies."

Wrong. As was pointed out by Electronic Frontiers Australia's Irene Graham, there's no difference in bad debt written off by business before and after the passage of Australia's Privacy Act. Looking up the numbers would have taken the journalist a moment, but why bother when it's given out for free in the survey?

But the screaming howler came when a private investigator said he "used to pay $5 to do a "rego check with the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority to confirm the residential address of a "target". Under the Privacy Act, this data can no longer be disclosed."

Roger Clarke - a prominent privacy researcher at the Australian National University - pointed me to this link. It's a directory of reports by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, and among the publications, you'll find the "report on unauthorised release of government information".

The PI was right. Investigators used to be able to get "rego checks" (for readers outside Australia, getting the name and address to which a car is registered) for $5.

It was not, however, an RTA service. It was a rort which went on from at least 1984 to 1991. And it was eventually found to be corrupt under the laws of the time.

Here's a quick pullout from the ICAC report:
"Mr James paid Constable Watharow. Initially payment was on a fee for service basis, with motor traffic information at the rate of $5 per inquiry, and criminal history information $20 per inquiry. Later a retainer was substituted. This grew from $100 to $500 per month." (Chapter 2).

The "rego checks for a fiver" trade died out not because of the Privacy Act, but because 13 years ago it was exposed as corrupt, and a whole host of government agencies had to rework their procedures to stop it happening.

The AFR story rested entirely on two premises: first, that bad debt is rising because PIs can't collect debts; and second, that the Privacy Act is what stops PIs from finding debtors. Both assumptions were wrong.

The journalist need only have asked: "Can you show me the before and after numbers?" and "When were rego checks legal in NSW?" and the PI industry's PR would have been unspun.

I wish I had a silver cup to send the AFR: this could be the howler of the year...

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Objectivity or Scepticism?

To continue the thoughts from my last post about the bad science of the Global Consciousness Project, the question is: "why does bad science journalism matter?"

The reasons are many, but I'm going to stick to a few, which cluster around one key issue: the public can't make good decisions on bad information.

Who are the heralds of that information? The journalists. But we keep reporting on things we don't understand, pretending that we do understand them, and indulging ourselves in the belief that expertise is not necessary to technical reporting.

Some journalists are disciplined enough not to make fools of themselves.

Some are not: they repeatedly get into deep water because they can't distinguish between fact and hype.

The worst journalists are knaves. They know they lack the skill to assess the facts of a technical story, but they don't care. The GCP story is a case in point: it doesn't matter that the "science" has been repeatedly debunked, the journalist is writing entertainment dressed up as science.

Why worry? Because people then treat the semi-fact as fact, and make decisions based on it.

Why did people believe in the "new economy" for example? Because journalists repeated its tenets so often, even though the balance sheet evidence showed it to be a nonsense from the start.

Often, a journalist's response to being challenged over this kind of story will be to talk about "objectivity", but frankly, objectivity is a crock. Give me, in all kinds of reporting, the position of sceptic: the journalist who demands more than a string of quotes to make a story.