In Canada’s record breaking 78-day election that concluded last month, there was around-the-clock coverage of the candidates like we’ve never seen before. One notable difference from elections past was a greater interest in fact-checking – a trend more commonly seen south of the border. Major broadcasters and some new players in the field like Factscan.ca made a concerted effort to monitor the factual accuracy of just about every statement made by the candidates. There’s an evident connection between the rigorous fact-checking work of journalists and Certified Management Consultants (CMC) demonstrating the same standard of integrity to maintain client trust. Let’s explore this further.
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While we are sitting amongst the company of our friends and having a conversation, the soundness and validity of the “research” we cite is rarely questioned (unless you are socializing with a table brimming with seasoned debaters, academics, or friends prone to entering furious Google searches on their smartphones). However, many of us play for higher stakes in our work lives. When we are referencing information for an RFP or report, the legitimacy of our sources becomes more serious. For a client, it provides the best indicator of our ethical viewpoint and ultimately, our trustworthiness. Here’s a look at a profession that puts great stock in its sources, and provides some lessons for CMCs.
Ethics in Journalism
There is an implication that educated journalists will follow the Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ Journalists Code of Ethics:
• Seek Truth and Report it
• Minimize Harm
• Act Independently
• Be Accountable and Transparent
Fred Brown, member of the SPJ Ethics Committee understands the importance of differentiating between opinions and impartial news coverage and states, “More and more news organizations, though, seem to blur the lines between the two.”
Past studies have shown that public broadcasters, not newspapers, are seen as the most reliable source of information. Perhaps this trust is achieved through a perceived relationship developed over years of ongoing, dependable journalism from a particular broadcaster who has been “invited into your home” each night for dinner. This also can be seen as the testimonial effect - how we are more likely to purchase a product or “buy” into a story from someone we consider a trusted confidant.
Earlier this year, Brian Williams, a trusted NBC news anchor, saw his credibility crumble after he confirmed that he had exaggerated a story about coming under fire in a US military helicopter in Iraq. Williams was suspended from the network for six months without pay. Tom Brokaw, former nightly anchor at “NBC Nightly News”, commented on the seriousness of the Williams case and the importance of the processes in place for internal fact-checking. It is difficult to determine whether Williams will be able to regain public trust. Websites like Ranker remind the public of “tall tales” presented by famous reporters.
When we research a product or service we rely on consumer review guides, testimony, referrals or recommendations from people we consider trustworthy. How do we differentiate between who’s telling the truth and who is peddling a product or service? When is “testimony” in fact really an advertorial? How do we know what research is credible, particularly when our own professional reputation could be on the line surrounding what we cite and what we believe to be the truth? What is based on solid facts and what is simply a result of “spin” generated to sell a particular sponsor, politician or product?
Journalists who provide unfounded or libellous content may find themselves held accountable in court. In early 2015, The National Post was found libellous and sentenced to pay $50,000 Canadian Dollars for their damaging critique in misleading editorials about climate scientist Andrew Weaver. The judge in the case stated, “In contrast to US law, the Canadian legal standard for libel is simply that statements must be inaccurate (not "based on facts truly stated")." The judge ruled that the articles collectively had "suggestions and innuendo" implying that Weaver "engaged in wilful manipulation and distortion of scientific data for the purposes of deceiving the public in order to promote a public agenda"; "is wilfully concealing scientific climate data"; and "is untrustworthy, unscientific and incompetent."
How do we determine what stories are spin and what sources we can trust? The world of academia is known for rigorous policies and practices surrounding sourcing valid data. Journalistic best practices boast similar guidelines for leading news outlets when sourcing stories.
Evaluating sources – key considerations
Who wrote the material?
Look for websites or sources that list a credited author who is willing to stand behind their story (whether they are an academic, industry expert, blogger or news reporter). Have they completed their research? Do they pay attribution to their sources and list them so you are able to find other data that complements the arguments they have presented? Is their writing style professional or riddled with typos?
Where is the material posted?
Is there a possible agenda behind the material presented? Is the material meant to educate or is there another motive? Does the site post retractions or update information when their material is wrong or becomes out-dated? Websites that end in .edu are reserved for accredited universities and colleges, with the assumption that they are meant to educate. Websites that end in .gov belong to a specific government. Is this self-published work or something that has been peer-reviewed? While resources like Wikipedia provide an online encyclopedia of general information based on consensus, they do not provide an academic perspective of primary and secondary sources.
How recent is the information presented?
Most textbooks provide easily digested background information, however are often out-dated by the time they are published. Textbooks can be used to create a summary or basic overview, but aren’t going to have the most up-to-date research.
What does your gut say?
Is the site filled with sensational headlines and pull quotes? Is the author infamous for providing controversy over substance? Is this the only person that makes particular claims or are other reputable sites saying something similar? If you were to present this information to a trusted colleague or your dad, would they find this to be a credible argument?
Many of the above considerations for evaluating sources in a journalism context can and should be applied by CMCs as they help managers and organizations solve their business challenges. Like journalists (and academics), CMCs have a code of ethics to guide them, but this is not enough. In this day and age we are all a part of the public record. Our words and actions matter, people will comment on our professionalism and integrity. In some cases this can be detrimental to our perceived character and career (see, for example, the consequences to Canadian MP candidate Ala Buzreba when confronted by her own social media posts). Someone who would research reviews of a book they might want to read will certainly take a moment to look at the online reputation of a CMC they are considering employing. And that reputation will be greatly impacted by the accuracy of the sources that Certified Management Consultants use in their work.
Like journalists, our careers flourish when we are trusted. Adherence to a code of conduct and checking our facts provides a solid foundation for longer-term partnerships and collaborations.