The uncertainty of will

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

Journalists regularly make definitive statements using the word “will” such as “both teams will give their all”. This makes the sentence into a promissory statement where the author is promising an outcome. However, it amounts to a misleading statement. The event might or might not occur. The authors do not know it will. How could they? They cannot see the future.

There is in fact a high likelihood of one or other of the teams not giving their all, and hence the statement not being true. Often a team loses because it has had an off day, not fired on all cylinders or gone missing, as the journalists might say. In other words not given its all. If the reader went to the game, they would be entitled to some redress having been promised something that did not occur. In theory the reader should be able to ask for compensation for the price of the ticket. But journalism is lightly regulated, hence the phrasing is allowed and unpunished.

This appearance of certainty is damaging as it not only encourages journalists to make statements they can’t know are true but readers are given a false impression of the world. This world is much more unpredictable than the use of the word “will” would suggest.

However, investment research is tightly regulated and promissory statements are banned in research reports, at least those governed by FINRA. For example, an analyst cannot say “the stock will rise 20% over the investment horizon” without a very clear declaration that it is only an opinion. This is not only because the regulators frown on it but also in extremis the courts could decide that the reader of the report was misled and entitled to redress.

Policing this line between fact and opinion is the job of the editor and supervisory analyst, overseen by the regulators. If only journalism were held to the same standard.