Julia Angwin

619. Journalists need to show their work to earn readers’ trust

The old joke that journalists are bad at, or averse to, math never met Julia Angwin, whose new nonprofit news outlet, Proof News, is inspired by the mathematical concept of showing your work. 

“Proof News is the culmination of my evolution from a math person to a journalist,” says Angwin, who originally set out to follow her parents into software development.

After growing up in Silicon Valley, Angwin was studying math and computer science at the University of Chicago when journalism found her. Initially, the college newsroom hired her because she knew the layout software, but she soon started reporting stories.

“As I got into more investigative work, I realized that they were just proofs,” she says. “They were basically (showing) what evidence do you have to support this hypothesis, and coming up with the most amount of original evidence you could come up with.” 

The guiding principle behind Proof News is for a team of researchers and analysts to explain not only their work but what they’ve learned, where there are limitations to their data and to quickly and thoroughly correct anything they got wrong. 

“Journalists have done a bad job of marketing,” Angwin says. “We just have not explained to people that we have processes and we are conscientious and we’re trying to question our own assumptions. We have a lot of norms that are in our newsrooms that we don’t write down, we don’t publish and are not universally followed. We also don’t have professional standards where we kick out journalists who don’t abide by these rules.”

Read “A Letter From Our Founder” By Julia Angwin Of Proof News

Proof News is trying to right those missteps, something Angwin explains in a letter to her readers she published shortly after Proof News launched in February. 

“We are putting methods into the story. We have an ingredients label with each story. We can see the components of it,” she says. “That’s my attempt to make it in the piece that travels itself, so it’s not something you have to go look up. It’s in there, it’s embedded in it.” 

Proof News also isn’t interested in solely publishing articles or stories.

“There are thousands and thousands of stories flooding our feeds right now,” she says. “We are drowning in narratives. I think what journalists need to do more of is basically pulling back to what you and I call the nut graph and being like, ‘How representative is this story?'”

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