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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wireless news

There is this childish game called "cordless phone", which funny enough is older than any possible concept of wireless telephony, where in a large group of people a message is sent to someone else by whispering it to your neighbour. Since humans are not network routers, small mistakes creep up in the message as it is copied and resent (hmm, there should be a genetic reference here somewhere as well).

The point is that, given enough people with their own imperfections and/or agendas, a message gets distorted as the number of middle men increases. It also happens in the world of news. Some news company invests in news by paying investigative reporters. The news is created by a human interpreting things from eye witness accounts to scientific papers, but then it is reported by other news agencies, where the original information is not the main source, but the previous news report. Then marketing shows its ugly head, as the titles need to be shockier, more impressive, forcing the hapless reader to open that link, pick up that paper, etc. Occasionally there are translations errors, but mostly it is about idiots who don't and can't understand what they are reporting on, so the original message gets massacred!

So here is one of the news of today, re-reported by Romanian media, after translation and obfuscation and marketization (and retranslation by me, sorry): "Einstein was wrong? A particle that is travelling at more than the speed of light has been discovered". In the body, written a little better, "Elementary subatomic particle" got translated as "Elementary particle of matter". Dear "science" reporters, the neutrino is not a particle that needed discovering and it is not part of normal matter, with which it interacts very little. What is new is just the strange behaviour of the faster than light travel, which is only hinted by some data that may be or not be correct and refuted by some other, like supernova explosions, information that you haven't even bothered to copy paste into your article. And, as if this was not enough, the comments of the readers, kind of like myself ranting here probably, are making the reporter seem brilliant in comparison.

Is there a solution? Not really. People should try to find the original source of messages as much as possible, or at least a reporting source that is professional enough to not skew the information too much when summarizing it for the general public. A technical solution could work that would analyse news reports, group them per topic, then remove copies and translations, red flag emotional language or hidden divergent messages and ignore the titles altogether, maybe generate new ones. And while I know this is possible to do, it would be very difficult (but possibly rewarding) as software goes. One thing is for certain: reading the titles and assuming that they correctly summarize the complete articles is a terrible mistake, alas, one that is very common.

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