Why Business Researchers Should Be Skeptical

cynthia leskyCynthia Lesky, CEO of Theshold Information, gave a great webinar entitled, “Business Research in the Age of Truthiness” to the Competitive Intelligence division of the SLA.

Cynthia extrapolates truthiness from Stephen Colbert, “Truthiness is what you want the facts to be as opposed to what the facts are.” Those reporting news want to build and keep a loyal following, so they take advantage of confirmation bias, which is a tendency for people to look for and believe information that confirms their prejudices.

Cynthia recommends three ways to improve your research skills in today’s hyper-mediated truth-challenged world:

  1.  Have a skeptical mindset as you are researching and reading articles.
  2.  Develop a strong source literacy skill. Learn which are more trustworthy. Gain industry expertise and learn to trust your intuition when something doesn’t look right.
  3. Put together a rich report at the conclusion of your research which provides as direct a response as possible to your client’s questions. Point out reporting errors and inconsistencies you discovered in your research, and new questions your research uncovered that were not answered.

Press ReleasesYou should be skeptical about the accuracy of the information you find through digital media and traditional media sources, since so much of it comes from press releases and is regurgitated more or less at face value by general news aggregators, industry aggregators and often enough by API, the source of many articles we read in newspapers these days. This information is used by bloggers, Tweeters and other digital media authors who may embellish on the press release, and sometimes do additional research to include facts that the original press release left out, or maybe not.

According to Jim O’Shea, former Senior Editor of the Star Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, most reporting today is churnalism. The story is not being reported: it’s being repeated. Newspaper staffs have been drastically cut and many papers have ceased operations or have moved to digital formatting. In The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols report that as of 2008, there were .90 PR people to 100,000 versus .25 journalists, a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped and financed.

Remember press releases are carefully crafted to further the interests of the originating organization, whether a company, government organization, trade association or other special interest group. News aggregators, industry aggregators, newspapers, bloggers and social media writers share one thing in common: they write for a targeted (think truthiness) readership and want to increase the number of eyeballs who look at their publication. So they include data that supports their agenda within an article, especially the headline, even if it might distort the facts. The right headline helps them get found on the Internet.

Here is a blatant example of how bias distorts facts. API and Life Goes Strong, (NBC Digital Networks and Procter & Gamble Productions network of websites targeting baby boomers and promoting P&G products), conducted a poll of older workers. They both reported from the same set of results, but notice that the headlines have a different spin.

  • Poll Exposes Age Discrimination in Today’s Workforce (LifeGoesStrong.com)
  • Working Boomers Say Age is a Plus at Office (API)

So who is telling the truth? A skeptical, informed person recognizes that news contains some bias, distortion and misinformation. You also know you can’t rely on a single news source, and if the same news is repeated by many sources, it’s good idea to find the original source, so you can check its veracity and the content that JDLR (just don’t look right).

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One Response

  1. Good article for folks doing secondary research (tactical CI) not Strategic Intel -ie providing SEWS/HUMINT to enable proactive planning.

    With that in mind, most Strategic intelligence folks have been trained to recognize propaganda (and oh boy it’s deep right now); and to always consider why a,b or c have a vested interest in putting forth a particular point of view. This of course necessitates understanding the opposing point of view thoroughly as well for requisite comparison and contrast.

    The problem with that today since the grand failure of financialization and bailout after bailout is oft deciphering the interconnected, convoluted web of interests (ie; bizarre holding company structures, disguised contributions or funding/subsidies, behind the scenes backdoor arrangements, etc) and how all this is resulting in favorable policy and unfair advantage for some industries and players.

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