Friday, September 14, 2012

A culture of bad journalism

Eight years ago, in the bastions of the "liberal media" that were supposed to love Gore—The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, CNN—he was variously described as "repellent," "delusional," a vote-rigger, a man who "lies like a rug," "Pinocchio." Eric Pooley, who covered him for Time magazine, says, "He brought out the creative-writing student in so many reporters.… Everybody kind of let loose on the guy."

Evgenia Peretz

A bit more on Gore and the press. In the last post discussed the press's treatment of Gore, the way various forces caused many (if not most) of the country's most respected and best paid journalists to converge on a set of highly biased and unprofessional actions. I still think that's a good way to approach the story (and I wish someone who actually knew something about social psych would pick this up and run with it), but there were at least a couple of other factors that acerbated the situation.
On Hardball, Chris Matthews stated: "Al Gore, he's the one who said he created the Internet. He's the one who put out the word that he was the subject or the role model for Love Story, that he pointed the country's attention to Love Canal. He stuck himself into that story." Matthews concluded: "Gore got himself in those problem areas by vanity and showing off and trying to make himself cool."
from Media Matters 2007

These three points were probably the most frequently cited examples of Gore's flawed character. They were also all false. Moreover, they had been debunked almost immediately. And yet they proved impervious to repeated attempts at correction.

The problem was partly that many of the journalists wanted to believe the story, but there was also a larger shift in the culture of journalism away from factual accuracy. This shift has continued and, if anything, gotten worse. My favorite recent example is the spendthrift Spaniards.

From an earlier post:

In yesterday's NYT, Rachel Donadio had a report on Italy that included this sentence:
Germany has adamantly opposed what it sees as rewarding the bad behavior of southern rim countries like Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal, which amassed high public debts and where tax evasion is rampant.
Except, of course, they didn't. Dean Baker (who first caught this) debunks:
Actually, of this group only Greece was consistently experiencing a rise in its debt to GDP ratio. In Portugal there was some increase in the debt to GDP ratio in the years prior to the recession, but Italy's debt to GDP ratio actually had been trending downward since 2000. Spain was running budget surpluses and had a considerably lower debt to GDP ratio than Germany.
It's not just that the NYT didn't bother to check these facts; it's that they had been debunked repeatedly in numerous places including this column printed less than a month ago in, you guessed it, the New York Times.
For various reasons, accuracy is simply not a priority.

Now add in the embrace of memes and collective narrative. Narratives are useful for organizing ideas but they're dangerous as well. As Steven Kloves put it in Wonder Boys, narratives are about what you leave out, in other words, they are built on confirmation bias. By accepting the idea that the press can and should converge on a collective narrative, we are giving journalists permission to leave out important fact. We're also making it easier for interested parties to manipulate the news.

Put these three together, an easily manipulated press corps, a disinterest in factual accuracy and an acceptance of convergent and bad journalism becomes almost inevitable.

(Just to be clear, I'm not saying there aren't any good journalists out there; I'm saying that they're good despite the culture of their profession.)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr Mark and Mr Joseph

    I believe my request is somewhat linked to this post.

    My name is Katja Prevodnik and I am a PhD Student of Social Sciences Methodology at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia).

    Based on your blog activities, I address you as one of most active experts in the field of presenting statistics to various target groups. In my PhD project, I am dealing with perceptions of simple statistical measures. As we cannot meet in person to conduct a face-to-face interview, I have prepared a very “open” online questionnaire on issues I am interested in. This short questionnaire is an important part of my research project. The results will be used to better develop and improve frameworks for analysis and interpretation of certain data to avoid misleading or incorrect conclusions. I believe that the cooperation of experts is crucial to give trustworthy and valid conclusions.

    The core questionnaire will only take about 10 minutes. Your answers will be handled with extreme confidentiality and the results will only serve for the scientific purposes. As one of the respondents of my research, you will also be notified on the results of the project (in case you wish to be, please send me an e-mail with the subject FEEDBACK).

    You can access the questionnaire at the link (just click on the link or type this into the web browser).

    If any additional information regarding your engagement is needed, please, do not hesitate to contact me directly ( or leave comments at the end of the online questionnaire (for anonymity purposes).

    Katja Prevodnik (Research Assistant at UL, Slovenia)