Stop Reacting and Start Doing the Process

Today’s error comes to you from a Tulsa NBC affiliate:



Of course, this was all the rage on Twitter as well, with many smart people tweeting the USA Today story directly:


It’s a good demonstration of why representativeness heuristics fail. Here’s the story everyone fell for:

usa today

So let’s go through this — good presentation, solid source. Headline actually not curiosity gap or directly emotional. Other news stories look legit. Named author. Recognizable source with a news mission.

Now the supporters of recognition approaches will point out that in the body of the article there is some weird capitalization and a punctuation mistake. That’s the clue, right!


When we look back, we can be really smart of course, saying things like “The capitalization of Kerosene and the lack of punctuation are typical mistakes of non-native speakers.” But in the moment as your mind balances these oddities against what is right on the page, what are your chances of giving that proper weight? And what would “proper weight” even mean? How much does solid page design balance out anachronistic spelling choices? Does the lack of clickbaity ads and chumbuckets forgive a missing comma? Does solid punctuation balance out clickbait stories in the sidebar?

Your chances of weighting these things correctly are pretty lousy. Your students’ chances are absolutely dismal. When actual journalists can’t keep these things straight, what chance do they have?

Take the Tulsa news site. Assuming that USA Today was probably a better authority on whether we still capitalize “kerosene” (which was once a brand name like Kleenex), the Tulsa writer rewrites the story and transcribes the misspelling faithfully while risking their entire career:


We know looking at surface features doesn’t work. Recognition for this stuff is just too prone to bias and first impressions in everyone but an extremely small number experts. And even most *experts* don’t trust recognition approaches alone — so, again, what chance do your students have?

How do our processes work, on the other hand? Really well. Here’s Check for Other Coverage, which has some debunks now but importantly shows that there is actually no USA Today article with this title (and has shown this since this was published).

And here’s Just Add Wikipedia which confirms there is no such “usatoday-go” URL associated with USA Today.

Both of these take significantly less time than judging the article’s surface features, and, importantly, result in relatively binary findings less prone to bias concerns. The story is not being covered in anything indexed by Google News. The URL is not a known USA Today URL. Match, set, point. Done.

Can they fail? Sure. But here’s the thing — they’ll actually fail less than more complex approaches, and when they do fail (for instance if the paper is not found in Wikipedia or does not have a URL) they still put you in good position for deeper study if you want it. Or, just maybe, if they don’t work in the first 30 seconds you’ll realize the retweet or news write up can wait a bit. The web is abundant with viral material, passing on one story that is not quickly verifiable won’t kill you.

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