21 March 2009

The Fortune-Teller's Credibility

I am not comfortable with linking the rise of journalistic objectivity that began in the early 1900s to a desire for journalism with predictive intelligence measured by a predictive accuracy. This is a fool's errand and an infantilization of the news consumer.

Andy Cline at Rhetorica quotes Dan Conover at Xark!:

Predictive Intelligence. Modern journalism is based on the idea that impartially telling “both sides” of a story is more useful than “taking sides.” This approach has limited value in an information-rich environment where the goal is finding the signal in the noise. Credibility, therefore, is likely to move toward information sources that demonstrate their understanding of events and situations via predictive accuracy rather than claims of non-predictive objectivity.
I would prefer to see fewer claims of omniscience in journalism, not more, and certainly not some mystical ability of foresight.

Journalistic objectivity was based on the witness role of journalists. It was a concept that journalist should be able to "stand back" and "objectively" - "accurately" - "factually" - report events without a partisan's or participant's bias, which leads to "fairly report" being added to the list. It gained traction during a time when there was a desire for more "realism" in the news versus politically partisan views and mass media commercialization of news, including muckraking and yellow journalism. It was the rise of objectivity that separated the "news" section (objective) from "news analysis" and "op-ed" (interpreting news and predicting impacts).

The acceptance of "objectivity" as a standard in news journalism has lead to criticisms such as "He Said, She Said, We Said" and "The View from Nowhere" (see also "The Abyss of Observation Alone").

To provide a non-political analogy, consider "objective" reporting of a basketball game, the subsequent "analysis" of the players/coaches/owners/league, and predicting who will be in the Final Four based on [fill in the blank]. Reporting events as they happen, or recently took place, in a basketball game has very different requirements from the decision-making required to decide which team(s) will defeat the other team(s) for any specific game or over a period of weeks (March 17 - April 6, 2009). You can "take sides" on who will win before or during a game based on any number of factors and how you weigh the importance of each factor.

A couple of years ago, Dan Conover participated in a Pressthink comment thread discussing the reporting of the Sago Mine collapse. Here's an excerpt:
Breaking news. Fog of war. Write-throughs. Incomplete information. Competition. Pressure. Unreliable sources, official and otherwise. That's just the reality of reporting. Reporters and editors can couch it, hedge it, but it's still incomplete information.

I don't fault journalism for that. As a consumer, if I have to choose between incomplete information and a blackout, I'll often choose the incomplete version.

Where I think we should improve is in communicating the level of confidence we have in our information. American newswriting style tends to confer the illusion of godlike authority even when we're hedging our bets. Same with some broadcast media (but not all).

The language of breaking news is a code (passive voice, "in connection with," "including," etc.), and journalists recognize that those vauge terms signal the lack of comprehensive information. Readers/viewers/listeners may not speak that code. So either we have to teach it to them, or -- gasp! -- we could try being more blunt about how we evaluate the information we're passing along.

What happened in West Virginia was a double tragedy: First, all those workers were killed; and second, the misunderstanding spread from the rescue effort to the company men to the families so fast that nobody ever got any control over it. It took on a life of its own, and thanks to instant global media, it was everywhere all at once. A nightmare, but a reality. If you think ANYONE has the power to cap such things with just the right combination of tough policies and brains, I suggest you re-examine your concept of modern media. It's bigger than the people in it. It's ultimately beyond the control of its controllers. That's why it's such a fascinating subject. It's so big, nobody can even see all of it in real time.
Dan is addressing criticism over how accurately journalists reported an event and the limitations on the journalists to get it right. Now let's tack on the criticism that holds journalism accountable for accurately interpreting events or predicting future events. Why did journalism fail to interpret what was happening at the mine in 2004 and 2005 and then fail to predict the disaster in 2006?

This is a game that can be, and has been, applied to any number of past and future events. Consider the failure to predict 9/11 and WMD in Iraq, WorldCom and Enron, or the current economic recession. (I'd like to see an update to Howard Owen's post on that.)

Journalism is systematically biased and regulary suffers scandals. I tend to categorize journalistic scandals into:
  1. Failed to catch/see that coming.

  2. Two wrongs don't make a right.

  3. Publicly persecuted the wrong (person/organization).

The first is the least egregious of the three and the last the most.

This is not just an "academic" distinction. There is a "so what" here. Predictive accuracy is an important measure of a scientific model's usefulness or a person's wisdom and expertise. There is an easy temptation to apply this metric to any business that provides information, as a tool to measure its usefulness. There is also a "bad news bias" toward labeling news journalists, analysts, Op-Ed columnists and the experts they rely on (and quote) as notoriously poor interpreters and predictors. Finally, the news industry is going through precarious times which creates a greater sense of opportunity for advocates to influence it.

Perhaps this (unrealistic) call for journalism to more accurately predict the future, is really a desire for more predictability in the critic's own life and not a prescription for what ails the news industry. Perhaps, a way to assign blame for events that impact you, but you do not control, is to accuse the media of not being enough of a muckraking watchdog or fortune-teller.

Only you can answer that - after honest, careful introspection. Want to understand why the problems with news journalism might be in your head?

Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear
Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs (pdf)
The Political Brain
You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read (pdf)

Learning How to Think
Tell Us the Future. Then Again, Don’t.

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