Mark Goldberg


Don’t trust the headlines

Charles Spurgeon (in a quote often mis-attributed to Mark Twain) was somewhat prescient in saying “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

More than a few years ago, when I did my graduate work in Ottawa, I would frequently have lunch on Parliament Hill. My room mate did part time work for a Member of Parliament and the cafeteria on the Hill was heavily subsidized back then, making it one of the best places for a student to have a more balanced meal (for less than $2, including dessert!) than you could get from a box of mac and cheese.

Afterwards, I liked to catch Question Period and then watch the media scrum before heading back to the National Archives to do some of my research. At night, it was always entertaining to see how a seemingly innocuous statement by a Cabinet member would become the lead story, ignoring the context in which it was said.

That was before social media amplified polarities in opinion.

A recent study produced by the Colorado Media Project found that nearly 60% only read the headlines or brief summaries of stories, while 34% say they prefer full-length articles. Only 5% reported they regularly dig into long-form journalism. The study matches other reports that indicate the vast majority of online users only read headlines before commenting on or sharing articles.

That is why I found it disturbing to read a post by a University of Ottawa professor entitled “CRTC Chair Opens the Door to Weakening Canadian Net Neutrality Rules.” In his post, Michael Geist claims “CRTC Chair Ian Scott used a keynote speech last week to open the door to watering down Canadian net neutrality rules, noting his desire for ‘flexibility’ with the legislation.”

But in reality, his speech didn’t call for “watering down Canadian net neutrality rules.” As Professor Geist wrote later in the article, what the CRTC Chair actually said [November 1 at the IIC] was:

The Telecommunications Act provides the CRTC with the tools and flexibility to establish and enforce a net neutrality framework. The framework we have built over the past 10 years will likely be tested as needs and technology continue to evolve. There may indeed be situations relating to public safety or security, telemedicine or self-driving cars where a certain flexibility will be required and should therefore be maintained in the legislation.

Parse that carefully and you will see that it is simply not accurate to say that the CRTC Chair called for any kind of loosening or “watering down” of net neutrality. “The Act provides flexibility” and “flexibility will be required and should therefore be maintained”.

Yet the professor writes in terms of “watering down Canadian net neutrality rules” and refers to a non-existent “call for greater net neutrality flexibility.” Let’s be clear: calling for maintaining flexibility is not calling for greater flexibility.

But as a result of the misleading headline, many disciples are tweeting links to the professor’s article and spreading allusions about the Chair and ‘incumbent talking points’, having never read the actual speech or even seeing the contradictions in the blog post itself.

Science Post recently had an article saying “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.” Be sure to read the full article.

There is an important lesson to be learned. Don’t trust headlines. Other than my headlines, of course.

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