Friday, May 3, 2013

Sleazy but not atypical

More on bad narratives and the lengths some journalists will go to cling to them.

To talk about bad journalistic narratives implies that there are good ones out there. What would a good journalistic narrative look like? This is a complicated question -- narrative is a complex and elusive concept -- but there is one important aspect that we (being a statistically inclined crowd) should be able to get a handle on. A journalistic narrative is a hypothesis.

What do we ask of a hypothesis?

1. It should fit the facts;

2. The likelihood  given our hypothesis of what happened should be greater than the likelihood given the previous hypothesis (the one most readers would reach given the facts);

3. There is not an obvious simpler hypothesis that meets conditions 1. and 2. as well as the new hypothesis does (personally, I like certain 700-year-old quotes but that is, perhaps, a topic for another post);

and if possible

4. It should have predictive value, provide insights and/or suggest interesting questions.

I got to thinking about this due to a post by David Silbey (via Thoma, of course) that addresses a repugnant piece by Jason Zengerle entitled How Savvy Jenny Sanford Sabotaged Ex-Husband Mark’s Political Comeback. Zengerle's title is, from the standpoint of grabbing attention, a good headline but it is also a bad narrative given the rules above.

Here's the previous hypothesis: Jenny Sanford has been open about her low opinion of her husband and this campaign but is not getting involved in this campaign.

And here's Zengerle's hypothesis: "Indeed, while Jenny has never come out and publicly opposed Mark’s congressional candidacy — choosing to remain officially neutral — she’s waged a brutally effective passive-aggressive campaign against it."

Zengerle then lists various events that are as or more consistent with the previous hypothesis than they are with his. Perfectly natural choices like bringing charges when you catch an ex-spouse sneaking out of your house are spun as part of a devious plot.

Zengerle gives us no reason to believe Jenny Sanford is being in any way dishonest or inconsistent; he just assumes we'd rather believe something sleazy.

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