Sunday, March 16

Journalists are like academics, then

Steve Salerno writes:

...the uncomfortable but factually supported truth: ...if your child is not molested in your own home — by you, your significant other, or someone else you invited in — chances are your child will never be molested anywhere...

In truth, today’s system of news delivery is an enterprise whose procedures, protocols, and underlying assumptions all but guarantee that it cannot succeed at its self described mission. Broadcast journalism in particular is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for illuminating life, let alone interpreting it, is almost nil...

By painting life in terms of its oddities, journalism yields not a snapshot of your world, but something closer to a photographic negative.

Even when journalism isn’t plainly capsizing reality, it’s furnishing information that varies between immaterial and misleading. For all its cinema-verité panache, embedded reporting, as exemplified in Iraq and in Nightline’s recent series on “the forgotten war” in Afghanistan, shows only what’s going on in the immediate vicinity of the embedded journalist. It’s not all that useful for yielding an overarching sense of the progress of a war, and might easily be counterproductive: To interpret such field reporting as a valid microcosm is the equivalent of standing in a spot where it’s raining and assuming it’s raining everywhere.

Journalism’s paradoxes and problems come to a head in the concept of newsmagazination, pioneered on 60 Minutes and later the staple tactic of such popular clones as Dateline, 48 Hours, and 20/20. One of the more intellectually dishonest phenomena of recent vintage, newsmagazination presents the viewer with a circumstantial stew whipped up from:

  • a handful of compelling sound-bites culled from anecdotal sources,
  • public-opinion polls (which tell us nothing except what people think is true),
  • statistics that have no real evidentiary weight and/or scant relevance to the point they’re being used to “prove,”
  • crushing logical flaws such as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning,
  • faulty or, at best, unproven “expert” assumptions, or other “conventional wisdom” that has never been seriously examined,
  • a proprietary knowledge of people’s inner thoughts or motives (as when a White House correspondent discounts a president’s actual statements in order to reveal to us that president’s “true agenda”), etc...

One underlying factor here is that journalists either don’t understand the difference between random data and genuine statistical proof, or they find that distinction inconvenient for their larger purpose: to make news dramatic and accessible. The media need a story line — a coherent narrative, ideally with an identifiable hero and villain. As Tom Brokaw once put it, perhaps revealing more than he intended, “It’s all storytelling, you know. That’s what journalism is about.” The mainstream news business is so unaccustomed to dealing with issues at any level of complexity and nuance that they’re wont to oversimplify their story to the point of caricature.

The best contemporary example is the Red State/Blue State dichotomy, invoked as an easy metaphor to express the philosophical schism that supposedly divides “the two Americas.” ... Well, guess what: The dichotomy doesn’t exist — certainly not in the way journalists use the term. It’s just a handy, sexy media fiction. Although California did wind up in the Kerry column in 2004, some 5.5 million Californians voted for George W. Bush. They represented about 45 percent of the state’s total electorate and a much larger constituency in raw numbers than Bush enjoyed in any state he won, including Texas. Speaking of Texas: That unreconstituted Yankee, John Kerry, collected 2.8 million votes there. Two-point-eight million. Yet to hear the media tell it, California is deep, cool Blue, while Texas is a glaring, monolithic Red. Such fabrications aren’t just silly. They become institutionalized in the culture, and they color — in this case literally — the way Americans view the nation in which they live.

The mythical Red State/Blue State paradigm is just one of the more telling indications of a general disability the media exhibit in working with data. A cluster of random events does not a “disturbing new trend!” make — but that doesn’t stop journalists from finding patterns in happenstance...

Journalists overreact to events that fall well within the laws of probability. They treat the fact that something happened as if we never before had any reason to think it could happen — as if it were a brand-new risk with previously unforeseen causation. Did America become more vulnerable on 9/11? Or had it been vulnerable all along? Indeed, it could be argued that America today is far less vulnerable, precisely because of the added vigilance inspired by 9/11. Is that how the media play it? Similarly, a bridge collapse is no reason for journalists to assume in knee-jerk fashion that bridges overall are any less safe than they’ve been for decades. Certainly it’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that the nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, which is how several major news outlets framed the collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge this past summer. As Freud might put it, sometimes a bridge collapse is just a bridge collapse. Alas, journalism needs its story line.

For a textbook example of the intellectual barrenness of so much of what’s presented even as “headline” news, consider the Consumer Confidence Index and media coverage of same... The Board’s index is an arbitrary composite of indicators rooted in five equally arbitrary questions mailed to 5000 households...

Few reporters bother to mention that, customarily, there has been only a tenuous connection between CCI numbers and actual consumer spending or the overall health of the economy as objectively measured...

Nowhere are these foibles more noticeable — or more of a threat to journalistic integrity — than when they coalesce into a cause: so-called “advocacy” or “social” journalism. To begin with, there are legitimate questions about whether journalism should even have causes. Does the journalist alone know what’s objectively, abstractly good or evil? What deserves supporting or reforming? The moment journalists claim license to cover events sympathetically or cynically, we confront the problem of what to cover sympathetically or cynically, where to draw such lines and — above all — who gets to draw them. There are very few issues that unite the whole of mankind. Regardless, as Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism told USA Today, “News outlets have found they can create more … identity by creating franchise brands around issues or around a point of view.”

In his thinking and methodology, today’s journalist resembles the homicide cop who, having settled on a suspect, begins collecting evidence specifically against that suspect, dismissing information that counters his newfound theory of the crime. Too many journalists think in terms of buttressing a preconceived argument or fleshing out a sense of narrative gained very early in their research. This mindset is formalized in journalism’s highest award: the Pulitzer Prize. Traditionally, stories deemed worthy of Pulitzer consideration have revealed the dark (and, often as not, statistically insignificant) underbelly of American life...

The world we’re “given” has an indisputable impact on how Americans see and live their lives. (How many other events are set in motion by the “truths” people infer from the news?) Here we enter the realm of iatrogenic reporting: provable harms that didn’t exist until journalism itself got involved.

In science journalism in particular, the use of anecdotal information can have results that would be comical, were it not for the public alarm that often results in response...

To hear the media tell it, we’re under perpetual siege from some Terrifying New Disease That Threatens to End Life as We Know It...

In science reporting and everywhere else, there’s no minimizing the psychic effects of regularly consuming a world-view rooted in peculiarity, much of which is pessimistic...

Figuratively speaking, we end up drowning in the tides of a hurricane that never makes shore.

I give you, herewith, a capsule summary your world, and in far less than 22 minutes:

  • The current employment rate is 95.3 percent.
  • Out of 300 million Americans, roughly 299.999954 million were not murdered today.
  • Day after day, some 35,000 commercial flights traverse our skies without incident.
  • The vast majority of college students who got drunk last weekend did not rape anyone, or kill themselves or anyone else in a DUI or hazing incident. On Monday, they got up and went to class, bleary-eyed but otherwise okay.

It is not being a Pollyanna to state such facts, because they are facts. Next time you watch the news, keep in mind that what you’re most often seeing is trivia framed as Truth. Or as British humorist/philosopher G.K. Chesteron whimsically put it some decades ago, “Journalism consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”

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