Thursday, May 23, 2013

Scandal, metareporting and the dumber-reader theory

Everybody has heard of the greater fool theory of investing where you buy a stock not because you think its assets are undervalued or because there's a good chance that the company will make money but because you believe there is someone out there who will pay significantly more than you paid.

I've noticed a somewhat analogous trend in journalism today, particularly involving the coverage 'scandals.' I apologize for the quotes but they're there for a reason I'll get to in a bit. In the traditional model of reporting, the journalist implicitly claims that the information being reported is accurate, representative and significant enough to justify the readers' time.

Over the past few years, though, journalists seem to have gotten more likely to downplay these traditional elements (what we might call the fundamental value of the story) and focus on what the impact of the story will be if people other than the reader believe it (the dumber-reader theory). In generic form, the stories go something like this: "A made accusations against B. There is no reason to believe these accusations but if they gain traction, they could hurt B."

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the past few years was swiftboating where most of the attention was paid to how Kerry's handling of the charges would affect his campaign while relatively little was given to the charges' validity (a question that in previous times would probably have been considered a necessary condition for the story to advance).

Don't get me wrong. Coverage has always included questions about the impact of scandals, but it seems like the process before had more of a tree structure: ask question A and then, based on the answer, ask either question B or C. I'm not saying that this rose to the level of hard and fast rule, just that it was the norm. First you asked if an accusation was true. If the answer was yes you asked how serious was the offense; if the answer was no you asked if the accuser had been deliberately misleading. And so on...

I can see how moving away from that structure is a good thing for journalists. For the rest of us, however, it does not look like a good thing at all.

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