Accuracy, Verification, Credibility, and Blogs
I believe that some small but useful lessons in journalism, expectations, and the nature of truth can be garnered by an examination of the 8 August 2007 Heck of a Guy entry, Blue Alert Featured In Old Navy New Denim Jeans Ad, and the readers’ responses to that post.
First, some background is necessary.
The Heck of a Guy Blog
Blue Alert Featured In Old Navy New Denim Jeans Ad was an atypical entry for this blog.
While its content, the use of a portion of the lyrics of Blue Alert in the new TV ad for Old Navy’s line of New Denim jeans, could hardly be accounted breaking news,1 it was an event that was taking place more or less contemporaneously with the publication of the post itself. Consequently, there was paucity of information then available about the ad.
The usual Heck of a Guy topics are typically less acute matters,2 episodes from my own life,3, and or random subjects that have, for one reason or another, grabbed my interest over a period of time and thus become well known to me.4 It is instructive to note that the Old Navy post was preceded by The Great Ozark Folk Festival Flood of 1973: Mountain View and followed by The Great Ozark Folk Festival Flood of 1973: The Finale, parts 2 and 3, respectively, of a three-part description of an event that was part of my own life 34 years ago and the classic type of essay populating this site.
Examples of posts about “new” events or items at 1HeckOfAGuy.com are difficult to find and even those that might technically qualify5 derive from raw material appearing in other, usually online sources.
The only entries other than the Old Navy post featuring genuinely new events that occurred concurrently with the publication of the posts that come to mind are those covering the Anjani Thomas Warsaw Concert.
The Old Navy Ad Music Post
The Heck of a Guy Old Navy post, on the other hand, was one of the first online entries about the music of that ad.6 That distinction is important to this discussion not, alas, because it buffs Heck of a Guy’s reputation as a source of entertainment news but because it explains why more information about the ad was not available and provides a clue to the expectations of many readers of that entry and, in turn, their reaction to it. More about that in moment.
Given that I had heard Madeleine Peyroux’s cover of Blue Alert, the song playing throughout almost all of the 30 second Old Navy commercial, on a minimum of 20 occasions prior to seeing that ad and listened to Anjani’s original rendition many, many more times than that, it is probably not surprising that I was certain the lyrics were from Blue Alert nor that I believed Madeleine Peyroux was the vocalist for the advertisement.
This is the point at which my thinking and that of many who wrote and the handful who commented on this post chose different paths.
That, as far as I knew, Peyroux and Anjani were the only singers who had released recordings of Blue Alert made it more likely that I was correct but also raised the possibility that perhaps I was responding primarily to my realization that the voice did not belong to Anjani, i.e., I “heard” the voice as Peyroux’s because, by eliminating Anjani, I already assumed that Peyroux was necessarily the singer.
That may sound persnickety, but unintentional bias is frequently the source of error in medical research. In all too many studies, it turns out that the answer the researchers expected is indeed the answer they found while a neutral interpretation of the same data indicated something quite different. In the case of the ad, alternative explanations existed, including the possibility that Old Navy could have hired another, less less well known and less expensive musician for the commercial.
In addition, I could not then find any source anywhere that named the performer – or even the song.7
Most significantly, in my mind, the intriguing issue in this situation was that music produced in part by Leonard Cohen, whose songs have rarely been released for use in advertisements, was now part of a national ad campaign for jeans – regardless of who sang the words. The prototypal reader of the post, in my mind, would be someone interested primarily in Leonard Cohen, Anjani, and the implications of permitting their work to be used commercially rather than someone who, seeing the Old Navy ad, became curious about the names of the song and the singer.
In any case, the singer’s name was, I assumed, somewhere a matter of record that would surface linked to an authoritative source in a day or two.
Consequently, I decided to publish the piece with only the notation that I could not obtain confirmation of the identity of the performer instead of offering my tentative assumption, nurturing the fantasy that readers would understand that there was a reason I had deliberately written that I was “unable to obtain confirmation of the identity of the singer” rather than I was “unable to identify the singer.”
Soon after the that post went online, I received a few emails and a comment or two pointing to Madeleine Peyroux as the singer, based on the the similarity the writers noted between the music on the ad and the Blue Alert track on Ms Peyroux’s album, Half The Perfect World.
In the next day or two, however – after the consensus of opinion on the Internet had identified the singer as Madeleine Peyroux – a determination I had also incorporated as a revision to the original post,8 I received another handful of comments but lots-o-emails with the same content (i.e., “It’s Madeleine Peyroux”) but conveyed in a range of tones from appreciation for identifying Blue Alert as the song in the ad to condescension and worse, apparently in the belief that I somehow guessed the name of the song but wasn’t quite bright enough to figure out how to compare the Peyroux version on iTunes to the ad’s music.
And there were a few emails that informed me not only that the singer was Madeleine Peyroux, which, by this time, the revised post had listed as the consensus choice, but also that the song was Blue Alert, which was, of course, the crux of my original post as indicated by the subliminal cue in the post’s title, “Blue Alert Featured In Old Navy New Denim Jeans Ad.”
Lesson #1: The value of content (AKA Truth) is determined by the reader’s expectations and needs rather than the accuracy or quality of the writing.
Almost all those who emailed me about the Old Navy ad were unknown to me. In retrospect, it is clear that this group was composed primarily of folks searching for the answer to two simple questions, “What is the name of the song on the new Old Navy ad?” and “Who sings it?” It seems likely that they gave not one hoot let alone the proverbial two hoots about the rarity with which Leonard Cohen’s songs appear in ads, the way Blue Alert’s lyrics are aligned with the ad’s visuals, or any of the other material I included in my post. For these viewers, the ideal post might well have been “Old Navy New Denim Ad Music: Blue Alert. Madeleine Peyroux.” My blog entry, however concise by Heck of a Guy standards, must have seemed bloated and irrelevant to many.
Conversely, while I remain vague on some goals I hold for this blog, I’m relatively certain that being perceived as an almanac of facts is not one of them. I suspect the audience most important to me probably has little overlap with those looking up names of singers on jeans ads.9
Lesson #2: The blogosphere’s reputation of shooting (opinions) first and asking the pertinent questions later appears to be well-earned and in some respects a trait reinforced by the demands of readers. That same characteristic puts the Internet at risk of becoming a Petri dish for rumor preservation and propagation
If there is a demand for quick answers unhampered by annoying qualifications – and there is – those sites that provide easy access to that information will thrive. When those answers are accurate, the only downside is the opportunity cost of not exploring a topic further than the bare facts.
When an incorrect answer contaminate the system, however, the Internet’s exponential powers of information dissemination can overwhelm its capacity for self-correction.
Consider this example of an error of less than monumental but by no means trivial importance that abounds in cyberspace although it is a matter of fact, not judgment, and a fact that could be readily referenced. I was interested in the musicians responsible for Woke Up This Morning, the theme that opens episodes of The Sopranos. A routine Google search for “Woke Up This Morning” and “lyrics,” produced not only the correct answer, Alabama Three but also a huge number of sites that attributed the song to one Leonard Cohen.10 Surprised to find such a well known song listed in Leonard Cohen’s repertoire that as on none of his albums I owned, I investigated a bit farther and discovered that the Cohen attribution was fallacious.
I suspect that the original error may have been as simple as someone automatically associating the deep, growling vocals of Woke Up This Morning with Cohen’s voice and consequently listing him as the artist. Others looking for the answer to “Who sang Woke Up This Morning?” found that response, proffered unencumbered by doubt, and not only accepted but also spread it. Now the mistake is so widespread to so many independent sites that eradicating it may be impossible.
Lesson #3: The degree of confidence expressed by unknown individuals in their own, unsubstantiated opinions is not equivalent to the degree of accuracy of those opinions.
Certainly, plenty of folks with full pundit credentials evidenced by their access to a computer and the Internet, have no qualms or hesitation about describing the intrapsychological mechanisms of world leaders, let alone the identification of a singer on an ad based solely on their own judgments and assumptions with nary a disclaimer or admission of doubt. The two or three folks I noticed who mistakenly named Anjani as the vocalist were equally confident as those who selected Peyroux. Doubt and caution are, it seems, anathema to the Internet.
So, I stand by my original judgment that providing my best guess for the name of the singer in the ad without confirmation or consensus support would have been misleading to readers.
The counter-argument, of course, is that it’s only a matter of the name of the singer on a jeans ad so what’s the worst that could happen if the answer is wrong?
I was impressed to discover as a teenager that ethics guidelines and internal policies of institutions such as The Associated Press; the Society of Professional Journalists; the Washington Post; Philadelphia Inquirer; New York Times; The Radio and Television News Directors’ Foundation; Media General Broadcast Group; etc. maintained criteria re the source of news that had to be met before a given story, regardless of its importance, was printed. And, later on, I was equally impressed by the safeguards implemented by competent medical researchers to prevent errors of bias and interpretation.
Implicit in these and similar rules governing other fields is the conviction that if an news item is important enough to be in the paper or a clinical issue is important enough to perform the research then it’s important enough to do whatever necessary to reach an accurate conclusion.
That seems like a good idea for blogs as well.
I further submit that while unalloyed confidence may be an effective sales technique, a blogger’s perpetual concern to write precisely what he or she means, occasional confession of fallibility, regular use of the subjunctive mood, and quick admission and correction of errors are also good ideas, benefiting the blogger as well as the reader.
- The definition of “breaking news” in Wikipedia is representative of that term’s current meaning: Breaking news a current event that broadcasters feel warrants the interruption of scheduled programming in order to report its details. Its use is often loosely assigned to the most significant story of the moment or a story that is being covered live. [↩]
- E.g., videos of 40 year old Leonard Cohen interviews or my acquisition of a Leonard Cohen song last released for sale 40 years ago [↩]
- E.g., falling in love with Julie or the more recent and more mundane report of my hip pinning [↩]
- E.g., Allan Truax and Patient Compliance [↩]
- E.g., the impending release of Jennifer Warnes’ 20th Anniversary Edition of Famous Blue Raincoat or annotated links to recommended entries on other blogs or web sites. [↩]
- I’ve since discovered that identifying the pop songs used by Old Navy, Gap, and other companies in their marketing is an ongoing sport, sparking much discussion with each new ad that appears. [↩]
- At the time, I also did not know that such confirmation might never be available because Old Navy as well as many other companies frequently do not officially list the singers and bands responsible for the music used in their commercials. [↩]
- This change was, of course, footnoted to indicate that it was a revision. [↩]
- On the other hand, addressing my preferred audience does not necessarily exclude other groups in every instance. In this case, given that I aspire to be a courteous, kind, and helpful heck of a guy, I should have anticipated that a number of viewers would indeed be looking for the facts and provided those at the first of the post and then rambled on for my regular readers. [↩]
- A Google search for “Woke Up This Morning” “Leonard Cohen,” and “lyrics” and check the more than 18,000 hits. [↩]