Thursday, May 04, 2006

On the news

Joel Mathis, international man of mystery, has an important reminder: Skewering the news not the same as gathering it:
Now, I don’t deny the influence of comedians on the one side and political bloggers on the other — and I don’t even deny that each has a useful (if often exhaustingly shrill) role to play in our national dialogue. But none of them could do their jobs without the efforts of everyday reporters and editors whose work is so constantly derided.
What is derided is not the work that reporters and editors do, so much as what isn't done. When Watergate broke, the revelation that the President was secretly and illegally spying on American citizens generated torrents of press. Multiple articles in the same paper analyzed the story from different angles.

When the Times revealed that the president was secretly and illegally spying on American citizens in 2005, it generated much less press. There was less analysis of the state of the law, and no demands by the press for real answers on who was being spied on and with what authority. There are plenty of other examples of big stories which seem to have been set aside because it was hard to get to the bottom of them.

And having tried to get some simple answers about them, I agree that it is hard work. No diggity.

And Joel is 100% right that the Daily Show and the blogosphere are parasitic on conventional newsgatherers. I say that upfront to every reporter I talk to, and I've heard Jon Stewart say the same. Blog readers and Daily Show viewers are better informed about events because they don't bother with blogs or the Daily Show if they aren't well-informed.

But I think it's too dismissive to say that "mocking the news is not news gathering. Having an opinion about the news is not news gathering. News gathering is news gathering."

I'd add to that "News gathering isn't news reporting." Most of the media was aware in 2002 that invading Iraq was a done deal, and that Iraq had no connection to al Qaeda. But that piece of gathered news didn't manage to get to the public. Shame. Getting that out more widely might just have saved a few thousand soldiers' lives. But this is all besides the point.

My point is that gathering news and presenting it are not the same thing. Consider this example via Brad DeLong, quoting a professional financial reporter:

THE POWER OF ONE, which means reducing everything to $1 or to percent. Everyone, everyone gets 22-cents on the dollar; but hardly anyone grasps that $3.33 billion is 22 percent of $15.15 billion.

Million, billion, trillion -- they are all just meaningless to most people.... The journalist's job is to translate complex numbers into simple English and concepts easily grasped. Best to turn things into so many cents out of each dollar, or into dollars per hour or week or, if the numbers are small enough, per year. Then most people get it
The point being, a journalist describing some key financial argument must first understand it, and have the requisite talent to translate his sophisticated understanding of the situation to someone who doesn't intuitively appreciate the relationships between numbers, let alone how those abstract quantities relate to real world events.

In reporting on the alleged thimerosal/autism link, Scott Rothschild did excellent news gathering. He interviewed all the key players, and accurately passed on what they said. The problem is, he has no background in epidemiology, let alone in the discussion about thimerosal or autism, and his news reporting showed it. I had slightly more background, and recognized that his article, which appeared on its face to be balanced, was in fact not. It treated unproven speculation and fear-mongering as equivalent to numerous scientific studies. And that isn't Rothschild's fault. How could he know?

He gathered the information needed for a great article, but couldn't convey the real news because he didn't have the requisite background to report it.

DeLong has another great example from the immigration battles.

It's been years since some group of two or more people were spreading the identity of a covert agent around the DC press corps. Most of the major reporters in DC know who was making those calls. They gathered a fascinating piece of information – the White House was trying to discredit a critic by revealing the identity of a covert agent! No one wrote that article until they were forced to testify before a grand jury. They gathered the news, but didn't report it.

The same thing is a major part of the ongoing creationism battles. A good reporter with a background in science would not feel obliged to go to a scientist and get a quote to balance a story about creationists. Nor would such a reporter feel obliged to troll the waters for some bottom-feeding creationist to "balance" some claim about actual science.

But that's what many reporters do. And if they fail to do so, some hard-working editor will send them off to call the ID Network or the Discovery Institute. Science reporters and science editors don't do that, but political reporters, or overworked local news reporters who have to cover a couple of events every day, don't have time to be keeping track of the latest state of science. We're lucky if they have more than a high school biology class from 30 years ago. The same goes for political reporters covering economic issues with a good high school algebra class, and a vague memory of trig.

This isn't a dig at reporters. Like I say, they work hard and often do get the story. And I dismiss with prejudice the buffoonish attempts by the right to spin the whole thing as an issue of political bias. Beyond a vague corporatist bias driven by a fondness for the status quo (a natural human conditions, probably unavoidable) I don't think there's a political agenda behind the failings I might find in the media. It's hard to see liberl bias in the failure to adequately dismiss the Swift Boat Liars or to accurately report the fact that the case for invading Iraq was based on nonsense, any more than their obsession with everything Bill Clinton's penis did was an example of liberal bias.

Reporters serve a valuable and a vital role. The problem is that spinmongers and PR flacks have found the cheat codes for modern journalism. Whine and send press releases if your side of every inane issue isn't given equal weight with the other side, no matter whether it deserves equal footing. Treat professionals as no more consequential than non-experts with an axe to grind. Leave it to the public to sort out the difference. Teach the controversy.

No one eats raw wheat. Someone gathers it, someone else crushes it up into a useable form, and in time, someone bakes it into bread that we buy and use as consumers of wheat products. Traditionally, the news media is much more integrated. One person gathers information, processes it and presents it. What we'd like to have is a media capable not simply of stenographically conveying what two sides of an issue think, but of integrating data and presenting some sort of analytical conclusion. And that's why blogs and the Daily Show are so popular. The Daily Show assumes its viewers saw the News at 9, and tries to link events into a broader framework. For instance, today's show linked the incompetence in planning for avian flu with the incompetence of Katrina, a fairly obvious linkage likely to occur in exactly zero articles in tomorrow's newspapers. TfK assumes you're keeping up with events, and highlights stories that haven't gotten the attention they deserve, and connects events which might seem disparate, hopefully for the benefit of all.

I've known enough reporters that I know such analytical writing is within their capabilities. It may not be what publishers and advertisers think people want, but the success of blogs and phenomena like the Daily Show suggests that there's a hunger for exactly such writing.

Joel Mathis (Arlo sez: remember Joel? This is a response to Joel's article) wrote a great example of exactly such an article. His response to the movie about United 93 integrated current events, historical review and personal reflection to give a picture of where we are as a society 4 years after United 93 and three other airplanes were destroyed in an unforgettable morning. It's a perfect example of why newspapers exist and why smart people who know how to write get jobs with them.