15. Public Policing of Published Materials

A legally empowered government agency should be responsible for imposing fines on people and entities using a mass communications medium and that have approved the intentional or accidental publication of inaccurate, false or misleading information (information that while technically true, misleads a significant portion of the population to which it was targeted). Regardless of what was said in the ‘fine print’, or not said due to omissions, the impression given by a publication (advertisement, news story, etc.) must be accurate. Members of the mass media should not be allowed to disseminate factually wrong information without sufficient penalties applied to each instance. This agency would also require that the responsible parties publish clear, complete apologies and corrections such that the original audience (or as close to it as possible) would definitely know not just about the occurrence of the error, but also about all relevant details (including perhaps a republication of the original section containing the error) concerning the exact nature of the error (such as when the story containing the error was originally broadcast, as well as other significantly relevant identifying information concerning the original story). Front page errors should require front page corrections, etc. The idea is to encourage the development of more reliable verification processes within the individual disseminators of information. This system of enforcement would be applied to all kinds of media including broadcast, print, advertisements, food labels, instruction manuals and any other means through which any sort of information is transmitted, whether from an original source or from any other entity that duplicates, restates, or paraphrases this information. This proposed agency should also maintain a publicly accessible database that keeps track of the ‘error rates’ of each entity.

This agency would rely upon public policing as the primary means of identifying potentially incorrect information circulating anywhere around society. The incentive for members of the public to participate would be the certainty of receiving a percentage of the fine levied by this agency against the originator and/or subsequent transmitters of such incorrect information, if it turns out that there, indeed, was an error, and they were one of the first to bring it to the agency’s attention.

For example, an amateur chemist would be able to measure the amount of any or all ingredients in a food product to determine if the labels accurately reflect what is actually in the product. If there is a discrepancy, this amateur chemist would be able to notify this government agency and inform them of his results. The agency would review it, conduct further tests if necessary, and make a final determination. If it turns out that the findings of the amateur chemist were in fact based in fact, that amateur chemist would be entitled to receive his reward in the form of a percentage of the financial penalties imposed on the original disseminator of this false information (the food company, in this case). This same process of public policing could be adapted and used for the public policing of virtually all disseminated information (advertisements, news stories, etc). Advertisements or other information suspected of being misleading should be brought to the attention of this agency which could then conduct a study involving either experts and/or a representative sample of people from the area in which the ad or questionable information was or is being distributed to determine if there is a misleading nature to the questionable information. Ads must not just be legally and technically accurate as a result of things that were said in the ‘fine print’ or because of certain omissions, they must also give reasonably accurate impressions. People who find such errors should make sure they are right and notify this agency. Everyone who submits a report of an error should be required to pay a small fee which would be refundable if it turns out that they were right in identifying an error. Perhaps the first person or, better yet, the first few people (maybe 3-4 people) who report the same error should be entitled to receive a portion of the fine levied with the first informant receiving the largest share and each succeeding informant receiving progressively decreasing shares. For news organizations, such apologies and corrections should appear in portions of their media (same timeslots for TV/radio broadcasts or same section in newspapers/magazines, etc.) that would reach an equivalent number of people as the original story that contained the error and be almost as visible (at least for significant corrections). Furthermore, these corrections should cite the title and date of the story containing the error, quote the actual error and then print the corrected version of the passage. This system would help reduce the transmission of erroneous information ranging from misspelled words or simple, undisputed facts to biased reporting.

The amount of the fine would be based on the severity of the mistake or error and the estimated number of people exposed to (who actually heard or read) the mistake. For example, if the fine for a minor spelling error in a book is one cent ($0.01) and 10,000 copies of that book was sold, than the total fine to be paid by the author would be $100. To help ensure accuracy in historical recordings, authors/publishers should be fined for statements/views that turn out to be significantly inaccurate or misleading. If a statement about the Holocaust not occurring during WW II is published, then the fine could be around $5 or $10 per book sold (retail sales). This could also apply to news publishing or broadcasting. If a news story states that four people were confirmed dead in an auto accident, for example, but only two people actually died, then the news outlet should be fined. Likewise, if a reporter uses bias in reporting by taking someone’s quote out of context by only quoting a portion of what an individual said during an interview resulting in the creation of an inaccurate news story, the reporter and/or the news organization he/she works for would be fined. The actual amount of a fine would naturally be determined by the particular facts of each case as decided by either this organization or the courts.

Ideally, for each information disseminator in existence (or at least about which complaints of inaccuracies have surfaced), especially those dealing with news and information, should be given a rating (that is continuously updated) indicating the general reliability of that source. This measure should be based on some sort of ratio which measures and compares the number of inaccuracies, or stories with inaccuracies (whether they be due to factual errors, omissions, ambiguity, etc.) to the total number of stories or total amount of information published. The total number of errors could be divided into categories, such as 1) factual errors, 2) unclear/incomplete/ambiguous errors, and 3) misleading errors, etc. These figures should all be listed on a single website so everyone has a centralized place to check on that media’s accuracy in the reporting and transmitting of information.

Once an error has been officially identified, it is incumbent on the originator of that false information to correct the error immediately. Otherwise, a daily fine amounting to 1% of the total fine should accrue on that originator.

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