Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Modern World Update (Media Division)

Could this sort of thing change the way reporters do their business?

Buzzfeed's Rebecca Elliott did a story about Barack Obama's fundraising, in which she overlooked a point that's been made before: comparing Obama's fundraising totals to the same time in 2008 ignores an important contextual point -- that Obama was running in a contested primary back then, and isn't now.

What's interesting, apart from the substance of the story, is that (political scientist) Seth Masket tweeted back:
I actually got interviewed for this one and explained the oversight. Didn't affect the article, and I didn't get quoted.
And (political scientist) Richard Skinner piled on:
I said same thing, she agreed, then I speculated a little about Pacific NW progressivism. She used the 2nd, not the 1st.
Seth wrote a short blog post about it later.

Here's thing -- can the ability of expert sources to compare notes after the interview, in full view of anyone interested, change things?

You know, lots of us (by which I mean both political scientists and anyone who has expertise and gets on reporters' dial lists) have had the experience of being interviewed as "experts", only to find that what a reporter really wanted was to find someone to say something the interviewer believed, but needed someone "objective" to say. That's a well-known phenomenon. What happens, however, when those experts choose to report on that interaction -- and have an easy way to do so that the rest of their "expert" class will see? Or perhaps not that version, but the one where the reporter calling you doesn't seem to know the basics, or the one where, as in the example above, the reporter ignores everything you said and writes the same story she intended to write.

And not only that (after all, email lists uniting expert communities go back more than 20 years), but the combination of twitter plus blogs is something that the expert community use that the reporters interested in those experts can see, too. In other words, there's now a risk that if you consult experts, you'll wind up getting a blast of negative publicity both in that expert community and among your peers in the press.

Just to be clear: there are tons of reporters out there who do their jobs extremely well, know the substance of what they're writing about, and behave responsibly when they're reporting on something new to them by reading up on it and using expert sources to help them make sense of it. Just...not all of them.

Does that matter? How will it play out? I have no idea! It just strikes me as new, and interesting.


  1. "was to find someone to say something the interviewer believed, "

    ??You almost sound like the media can be biased?

    Can I offer another scenario and then ask a question:
    "...was to find someone to say something which would create a better story with more conflict,..."

    Which scenario do you find more common: the reporter knows what they believe and wants support, or the reporter knows what will make a good story and wants support?

  2. Information flows among experts are probably overrated as a check on the mendacity of the common press; probably no better illustration of this then the Soon and Balunias component of Climategate.

    As the academics in this audience no doubt know, Soon and Balunias were Harvard Astrophysicists who wrote an incredibly shoddy, opportunistic "review" paper claiming that earth temperature changes were not due to AGW, but - wait for it - changes in the sun's activity. What made it so shoddy? There probably aren't too many Ivy-sourced review papers as widely denounced by the scientists whose data was being "interpreted" as Soon and Balunias' Climate Research effort. Among the many irritated experts were the East Anglia folks, who over email talked (understandably) about a boycott or other extreme measures in response to the opportunistic idiocy at the low-impact-rating Climate Research journal.

    We all know what happened after those East Anglia emails were hacked. We know the many pounds of flesh those East Anglia guys were forced to sacrifice in the court of public opinion; we also know that Soon and Balunias - at least in the court of public opinion - came away pretty much unscathed.

    The takeaway then: while Masket and Skinner and Bernstein are no doubt fine practitioners of the science, its a great big world out there. Who are the Soon and Baluniases (Balunii?) in poli sci? I bet enterprising reporters will find them. I further bet that no one outside the ivory tower will ever be the wiser.

  3. I wish I could say that the potential for us to catch journalists when they do this might deter them, but I see almost no chance of that happening because not enough people notice. There are two other reasons this will continue anyway, though. First, journalists are incredibly lazy, and the easiest thing to do is to disregard any "expert" commentary that they cannot fit into the story that they have already written, mentally if not literally. Second, most people who follow elections believe that they know just as much as scholars who study elections, so they feel no need to reconsider their ideas when scholars suggest that they should.

    This kind of thing has happened to me more times than I can recall. In fact, I think it even happened to me with the very same reporter once, although I cannot be certain of the name. Our press relations person doesn't understand why I don't jump up and down at the "opportunity" to talk to journalists. This incident is a pretty good demonstration of why.

    1. Yes, but your ideas are really, really stupid.

    2. Especially the ones we've co-authored.

    3. According to the anonymous reviewers: definitely those ones.

  4. I haven't seen any evidence that journalists have any accountability whatsoever, short of overtly making things up like Jason Blair.

    Everyone remembers that Judy Miller became semi-notorious, and that her eager transcriptions of false Bush administration talking points about Iraq weren't really news at all. But her co-author on those articles was Michael Gordon, who's still writing front page articles for the Times today. The Post admitted around 2006 that all its reporting in the run-up to the invasion was pretty awful, but didn't seem to impose any accountability whatsoever on anyone.

    To say nothing of pundits, to whom someone gave lifetime tenure for some reason. When's the last time anyone who knows anything about anything read Richard Cohen on purpose? And consider the record of George Will on climate change, and Robert Samuelson on economics, and Thomas Friedman's nonstop, sage-like insistence that the next six months would be the key moment in the occupation of Iraq?

    Elite journalism appears to be an accountability- and shame-free profession.

    The silver lining is, it will matter less and less.

    Newspapers used to have a lock on telling "the official story"; with the advent of blogs, that will be progressively less true. But it will admittedly still be true to an extent.

  5. Here's an alternative hypothesis, similar but crucially different from the above.

    In many fields, particularly social sciences, academic expertise is highly overrated. Journalists do not regard these "experts" as legitimate sources of truth. Therefore they get their information from what they consider to be the genuine sources. However, this information needs to be "laundered" by presenting it as the opinion of a credentialled expert. Hence the process described.


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