Why don't we have a better press corps?

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Commenting on our posts about Business Week's credulous coverage of the SpinSpotter software release, Trent defended his former profession:

When we are knowledgeable in a particular field, we notice errors made by outsiders. […] Because the typical journalist at a newspaper is a generalist, and because he or she may have to write 10 column inches within 20 minutes about something unfamiliar, there are bound to be errors — some substantive, some not so. […] Demanding that a newspaper hire experts in all fields is just … unreasonable. Demanding that a journalist spend hours researching the material — well, you can get it perfectly accurate, or you can get it fast. Newspapers are in the business of being fast. Journals are in the business of being rigorous.

I've heard versions of this excuse many times over the years. And with respect, I believe that it's irrelevant to the case under discussion, and largely nonsense in general.

First, a word on the specialist/generalist business. You don't need to be a computational linguist to discover that a new company's text-analysis software doesn't even try to do what its founder claims it does. The problem isn't that SpinSpotter's algorithms don't work well enough — the problem is that they don't exist, at least in the product as released. With respect to the claim that the product "scans Web pages and spots certain potential indicators of bias", the company is shipping an empty box. (Or rather, they're transmitting an empty FireFox plug-in…)

So what about the time-pressure argument?

The problem is surely not sheer volume of writing. If you wrote 10 column inches per 20 minutes, eight hours a day, that would be 8*60*10/20 = 240 column-inches per day. If an average story is 30 column-inches, this would be eight stories a day, each and every day.

But of course this is not even close to what happens. Instead, at least in terms of the amount of text attributed to a given reporter's byline in a daily newspaper, I'm used to seeing roughly one story per week, on average, from the most prominent and productive reporters. As is right and proper, this actually gives them quite a bit of time per story to figure out what's going on, especially for stories that are not "breaking news".

And Jon Fine, whose credulous column about SpinSpotter started this all off, is the media columnist for Business Week, a weekly magazine. According to the magazine's "author info" page for him, he normally writes one column per week, typically 600-900 words, or about 20-30 column inches. (The SpinSpotter column was about 800 words.) And again, this should leave him enough time to familiarize himself with the topics that he covers.

There's another kind of time-pressure argument that might apply in this case — Fine's column on SpinSpotter was dated September 8, the same day that the software was launched, so that he probably had to write it before he could have downloaded his own copy from the company's site. As a result, he worked from the company's press materials and from interviews.

But anyone with a general sense of the state of the art ought to have been at least a bit skeptical about this company's claims. (In fact, anyone with any sense at all ought to be at least a bit skeptical about any high-tech start-up's claims.) While Fine is not mainly a technology writer, his topics often include (the business implications of) new media technology, e.g. here and here and here. He's had plenty of time over the past decade to learn about the underlying technologies, including the state of the art in automated text analysis; and he's got easy access to hundreds of experts who would be happy to explain and discuss such things with him at arbitrary length. And for a prominent mention in Business Week, I'd imagine that the SpinSpotter people would be willing to give him early access to the software, or at least an individual demo.

If I were a business columnist asked to puff a technology start-up, I'd certainly want to kick the tires before re-writing their press release for them. And if they refused to let me, I'd say so in my column, or write about something else that week.

While every case is different, the general pattern here is similar to what I see in other examples of bad press coverage of science and technology.

Another recent LL complaint about science journalism dealt with the association of AVPR1a with pair-bonding in humans. The Washington Post's article (to pick one at random) was E.J. Mundell, "'Bonding Gene' Could Help Men Stay Married", reprinted from the ScoutNews news service. This ran about 850 words, as the WaPo printed it. Searches in various news archives indicate that Mundell is a specialist in the life sciences ("Scientists Spot New Twist in HIV Infection", "Tools Test Debunks 'Dumb Neanderthals' Theory", "Alzheimer's Patients React Poorly to 'Elderspeak'") who produces roughly one piece a week.

I don't mean to pick on Fine and Mundell — for all I know, most of what they write is insightful and well researched. But in the stories under discussion, they joined many of their colleagues in uncritical reproduction of the contents of a press release, with results in both cases that were somewhere between quite misleading and a total crock. Fine didn't try the SpinSpotter software and ask pointed questions about what it does and how it does it; and Mundell (apparently) didn't read the PNAS paper on AVPR1a in a critical way against the background of previous research on the topic, and didn't go very far to warn readers about the small size of the effects or the marginal quality of the evidence supporting them. But this wasn't because they were too busy writing copy to find the time, or because they were writing about something that they (ought to have) lacked the background to understand.

So, Trent, stop whining and making excuses. At least with respect to coverage of science and technology, and from the point of view of public understanding as opposed to public relations, the evolved ecosystem of  flacks, hacks, editors, publishers and readers is working very badly. (I gather that it's not working very well from the point of view of return on investment either, but that's another story.)

This is not the fault of specific individuals, and it can't be fixed by beating up on individual reporters and editors, even though that's the natural thing to do. In fact, I'll freely admit that I have no idea how to fix it, other than the nutty idea of raising standards by lowering them.

But let's not kid ourselves that the problem is that reporters need to write about too many different things that they can't possibly understand, or are too busy writing copy to have the time to figure out what's going on.

Speaking for myself, I'm going to try to stop complaining about the media — I've been resisting the temptation to write about the rhetorical history of lipstick, for example — and start writing some posts about interesting linguistic research.


  1. Bobbie said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 8:48 am

    Recently I called the local newspaper's Entertainment Desk to complain about multiple errors in one day's (on-line) releases. The person who answered the phone told me that since they were only entertainment items that were misspelled or that had grammatical errors it really didn't matter very much if there were mistakes. Great attitude! (Whateverrrr….)

  2. Mark P said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 8:54 am

    In 1999 the Atlanta Journal and Constitution assigned a reporter and carried regular stories about the upcoming Y2K catastrophe. Some stories were fairly conservative but editorials mentioned things like airliners falling from the sky. When I emailed the reporter stating my belief that some Y2K fears were pretty much unfounded (I actually called it a hoax), she defended her stories by saying that the heads of major corporations thought it was serious. In a later piece on the editorial pages, writing about her Y2K coverage, she said that reporters didn't really know anything and were not educated in anything. OK, I exaggerate somewhat, but not much. Basically, what she said is that reporters in general, or at least general reporters, are trained only to ask questions and look up documents. In her defense, she was not specifically a science and technology reporter, but that's no defense of the newspapers themselves. It confirmed my belief that reporters are the least well educated of all professionals. They learn the nuts and bolts of journalism, if they are lucky, but can be completely ignorant of virtually every other aspect of human life. And then they are assigned to write stories about every aspect of human life except journalism.

    I am not even considering the pure sloppiness I saw, even among the national media who occasionally lit up our little city.

    I left journalism and went back to school to learn something.

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 9:02 am

    I've been resisting the temptation to write about the rhetorical history of lipstick, for example

    OK stop teasing and give us the quiz answers.

    As a symbol of an easily applied cosmetic change 'lipstick' is a rather obvious candidate. I have limited resources so the earliest example I can find is from the Time Corpus in an article describing Eisenhower's holiday retreat in Las Vegas which had the unmistakable patina of Hollywood plastered like lipstick on the desert.

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    Regarding Y2K, the problem was nobody would know what would happen if embedded chips froze up. The most likely answer was not much, and that they probably wouldn't freeze up to start with but ………..

    I had a colleague teaching EFL in a camp in the desert in Saudi who, desperate to have some money left over after paying alimony and child support, decided to take advantage of his all too frequent empty hours and learn COBOL so he could get rich out of fixing Y2K bugs. He finished learning COBOL sometime in 2001!

  5. John Cowan said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 9:46 am

    I realize this is peripheral to your argument, but counting bylines isn't at all a reliable metric of stories published. Most of the stories written by a given reporter who gets bylines at all (most don't) aren't bylined.

  6. Bea said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    I find the "SpinSpotter" promise impossible to be realized today. With some commonsense and intuitive logic, it's not difficult to come to this conclusion. To recognize what is genuine spin, the inspected statement needs to be verified with a verified fact, which has to come from somewhere outside of the inspected piece — attempting to verify the truthfulness of a claim by checking it against the claim itself is like hoping that a liar would tell you he's lying while he's lying; good luck on that — which means there has to be a constantly updated, high-accuracy database of verified facts to be used as a reliable verification tool, which is simply impossible with today's technology.

    Regardless, I find Mr. Fine's gullibility admirable — such optimism and such faith in technology and human knowledge. Wish I had that.

  7. Bea said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    Mmm, instead of saying that such a comprehensive, always up-to-date facts database is impossible today, I should have said that it's not here yet nor is it here anytime soon. It's doable, but such mighty endeaver is beyond the means of a single boutique startup.

  8. Word Lily said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    I don't work in the newspaper business any more. At the small newspaper where I was a reporter, however, the average wasn't 1 story per week. I averaged about 5 articles per week, plus all the stuff I put together (taking all my own photos, community announcements, weddings, births, and obits), and this while I was also wearing an editor's hat. We published twice per week, and the paper had two news reporters, an editor, and a sports person.

    Journalism school does espouse this generalist philosophy, and to some extent it may be true. But it also may not be all that horrible, either. Sure, reporters screw up sometimes. It's not fun for all of a person's mistakes to be made in the public eye. Newspapers do exist where a reporter is expected to have 1 story published each week, true. And those should be accurate and well-reported and -written.

    You admit that attacking the individual reporters is not beneficial, and yet it seems that you have done just that. Applying a blanket criticism of the industry is surely even less constructive.

  9. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:14 am

    After 15 years in the newspaper business, I left mainly because I didn't like the direction it was taking. One of the problems I saw was the proliferation of journalism school graduates. When I got into the business after college, most journalists had liberal arts backgrounds. They were generalists, broadly read and broadly knowledgeable. By contrast, the j-school people were narrowly educated (and even much of what they had learned was at odds with the reality of the business). I think that's precisely what the reporter from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution was saying: J-school graduates don't really know much of anything because they haven't been taught much of anything.

  10. On the rebound « Word Lily said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    […] media, mistakes in print, newspapering, reporting Once again someone (intelligent) is attacking reporters. This time it's Mark Liberman of Language […]

  11. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:40 am

    It would seem that almost any substantive major that required a lot of writing would be better for a future journalist than journalism itself.

  12. Sili said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    Speaking for myself, I'm going to try to stop complaining about the media [&helip;] and start writing some posts about interesting linguistic research.

    Can't fault you on that, but I do appreciate it when you tear into poor reporting. You're certainly doing a great public service, and it's a pity you won't get paid for it.

    I think Ben Goldacre is right in his call for less journos and more editors when it comes to science reporting. Plenty of researches – ph.d.-students included – must be dying to get to see science reported properly, they just need help to get their message across.

    Ah well – 'old media' are dying and this is likely just an example of their deathrattle.

  13. Trent said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    Whining? Excuses? Really? Would you say this to someone in a face-to-face conservation? To someone not ranting or raving, but just describing things as he sees it?

    At any rate, you've stopped my whining and excuses, because I have much better things to do than deal with assholes.

    [(myl) Well, if you're ever in Philadelphia, I'll be happy to buy you dinner and explain to your face why I was whining and complaining about the fact that you were whining and making excuses. Meanwhile, don't forget that the Language Log public relations department will cheerfully refund double your subscription fees in case of less than full satisfaction.]

  14. Nathan said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    The excuses of time pressures and lack of expertise might have flown 15 years ago, but in the Internet age I don't see the justification for so much sloppy reporting. Forget about "spending hours researching the material"; too many newspaper stories show a lack of even the superficial kind of research you can now do in a few minutes on Wikipedia. What was the excuse for the reviewers of SpinSpotter not even installing and trying it?

    The uncritical way in which so many news outlets pass on unfiltered press releases reminds me of the recent discussions of bullshit here. Far too often, the media just don't even seem to care whether or not what they're publishing is true.

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:50 am

    The papers I read have reporters specifically identified in their bylines as science, medical, religious etc.

    Nevertheless, in most cases where I have any first-hand knowledge of the subject the article contains bizarre errors – not recherche obscure stuff, but basic things that would (you would have thought) be almost trivially checkable, if not common knowledge among those claiming a particular interest in the field in question.

    Reporters I have met do not strike me as stupid. The conclusion seems inescapable that factual accuracy is just not their first priority.

    In fairness to reporters as a group, I think part of this reflects a much more widespread problem in our whole society; we live in a world surrounded by the products of a sophisticated high-tech culture, yet the principles behind this are not generally thought to be part of the necessary mental equipment of a typical citizen, administrator or politician. This has numerous bad consequences as important political decisions are made on the basis of a view of science and medicine which is essentially magical or folkloric.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

    So it's being an 'arsehole to point out that getting it wrong fast because you're too lazy to check up a PR release is not what people are buying newspapers for?

    Go make up some more news stories, dickhead. At least we've got the consolation that you're rapidly lying yourselves out of a job.

  17. TootsNYC said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    I know Jon Fine. He moves pretty fast through life, and through most of the jobs I've seen him do, which probably explains why he didn't stop to think much about how sensible this "software" could possibly be.

    Some of that hurry is the volume of stuff he was expected to *investigate* (even if he didn't write about it eventually).

    But also, knowing him, I'd have thought he'd have been more skeptical of this, given that it's pretty impossible to spot bias without pretty complex thought.

  18. jk said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

    No, the most productive writers do not have just one byline per week. The most productive are often sports writers, who flood the readers with bylines during their busiest seasons. And at any paper beyond the few biggest, only a handful of reporters are allowed to survive on that level of production.

    Neither is it true that most of a reporter's work is unbylined; bylines long ago became standard on any story longer than a brief. Wire service reporters may suffer the indignity of having their bylines neglected by the papers that run their copy, but in general, if they do original reporting, their name was on the story when it was sent.

    So, one big overgeneralization in the blog item and one outdated, at best, assertion in the comments. See how difficult it is to get everything right — or at least, to get it right to the satisfaction of someone who's truly experienced in what you're talking about?

    This doesn't excuse a whopper like the SpinSpotter story. But consider: What would have been the proper response to that news release? To not cover it at all, I'd suggest. And how many reporters and columnists looked at it, chuckled at its ludicrous claims, and went on to something more worthwhile? And that lack of coverage makes the Business Week report stand out all the more. Yet it's one instance, however egregious, against likely hundreds of others where journalists made the right call.

    Still, you say, what can we do to stop even a few stories with such glaring problems from getting through? Um, change the world. Because sloppiness, laziness and resistance to critical thinking are all around us. Every worker in a large company that I know has a slew of complaints about co-workers and bosses who ignore obvious facts, who disdain those who dare to challenge a decision that's already rolling down the track.

    Having said all that: The attempted defense of the Business Week article that you quote is ridiculous.

  19. Stephen Jones said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    OK, journalists are generalists not specialists, but how is it that Mark, who is a computational linguist, or me, an EFL lecturer who majored in English Literature, are perpetually finding faults in newspaper reports on current affairs, science, economics, energy policy, and a long etc. Surely if we can spend a few minutes checking things up on the internet a professional journalist who is paid to produce a story can do the same.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

    One reason I suspect journalists don't check their facts as often as they should do is that they feel trust for their sources.

    Possibly there ought to be psychological profiling before journalists are allowed to enter the field and only paranoid sociopaths allowed to practise.

  21. Mark P said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    It is expectable that few mainstream media outlets carried the SpinSpotter story, since the very large majority of news outlets cover local business stories if they cover business stories at all. But Business Week is a business journal; that's one of the kinds of stories they do.

  22. John McIntyre said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    It is unfortunately true that many journalists are not thoroughly educated, and weaknesses in knowledge of mathematics and the sciences are evident. (For that matter, many are not particularly skilled in writing.) It is also unfortunately true that not only errors but also exaggerations, fabrications and outright frauds wind up published through a failure of reporters and editors to exercise skepticism. This is not to disparage the work of the knowledgeable and responsible journalists I've worked with in more than twenty-eight years at metropolitan dailies, but the regrettable quality of much published work cannot be ignored or explained away by mention of deadline pressure.

  23. jamessal said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    Hey Mark,

    I'm like thirty minutes from Philadelphia, and I'm a big fan. If I talk a little shit, will you buy me dinner?

  24. Jahi Chappell said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    Good point @jk — we don't know how any reporters passed on this story, an essential element of evaluating the quality of journalism at large. Of course, it was covered in several major news outlets, who are indisputably valid picking-on targets who should've known better, so I disagree with jk that the only way to improve this type of thing is for universal changes in the nature of the human endeavor such that sloppiness and lack of critical thinking are no longer going concerns. If this was reported only in the Nashville Post-Intelligencer or the San Luis Obispo Weekly or Marstown Bits & Bobs (not their real names) we'd hardly be talking about it here. But it made it to the Big Leagues, and while that may mean something primarily about the Big League papers and not all journalists generally (something I suspect may be true — that the vanguards are the heart of the rot in the system), it does certainly Mean Something, and calling it out and addressing it is, while a big task, less a hopeless Quest for the Grail than jk implies, imho.

  25. Timothy Martin said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

    Prof. Liberman talks about "raising standards by lowering them," but perhaps our standards are too high to begin with? Think about it from the perspective of a newspaper – their goal is probably to be a source of reporting that the masses are going to be happy with and buy. And I assume that most newspapers that are still in existence today are good enough for a majority of people and those people are buying the newspapers. Meanwhile, many of the people who commented on this post (myself included) are looking for a higher standard of reporting thoroughness and accuracy, but is that what newspapers are committed to providing in the first place? Perhaps we're telling them that they should be producing a product of the kind that they never intended on producing. And if that's the case, why would they change to address the demands of what is probably a very small percentage of their readership?

  26. Maria said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    jamessal beat me to that question…

    I don't think the "generalist" defense is any good, frankly. Journalists should know who to talk to when researching their stories. In this case, he could have at least interviewed a linguist to see how this could work, instead of regurgitating a press release. I expect journalists to get subtleties wrong (or ignore them altogether), but if they get the big picture wrong, then they are spreading misinformation. If their "generalism" prevents them from being informative, they should choose a different profession.

  27. Mark F. said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 2:52 pm

    My take on all this is that, if journalism were that easy, then people would be better at it. I know that I'm giving the profession too much slack, in that whole fields can in fact be pushed by circumstances to higher standards. Still, if an entire field of endeavor, rather than just a subset of practitioners, is perceived to perform poorly, I start to suspect that the endeavor may be harder than it looks.

  28. Trent said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

    Eh, and here I was going to stop commenting. But I like this blog, so what the heck.

    A couple of things in my defense and then I will let it go: 1) I was speaking of a very narrow subset of the media — newspapers, and really, the few newspapers I worked at in the '80s — and not online magazines or broadcast news or anything else; 2) I did not intend to imply I condoned careless errors in any media; 3) journalists in my experience are very busy; and 4) I think we do have to consider selection bias. It's the errors that are glaring.

    Furthermore, if a particular journalist is making mistakes frequently, he or she should be fired.

    In my admittedly limited experience, my colleagues and I got far more right than wrong, but we _did_ get more wrong than 1) experts in the field, and 2) those who had more time. There's the old bit: you can get something cheap, you can get something fast, you can get something good — pick any two.

    For my part, Mark, I regret snapping at you.

  29. Lisa said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    You know what good I see out of all this though? I like that this list of spin-spotting criteria has been identified and publicized. So many people I encounter just take in what they hear from the media and assume it is true, and really allow it to shape their thinking, their politics, religious philosophies and so forth. Maybe the software sucks, and the press release was full of the spin that the software was purporting to be able to spot, but that list of criteria is good. A human can use it, even if a piece of software can't.

  30. Stephen Jones said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

    Oh dear, Trent, you're starting to appear a nice guy. Won't leave anybody to be nasty to; even Mcyntire's being reasonable.

    I suspect the problem may lie in recruitment. In the old days in the UK journalists started out on the local papers at the age of sixteen or eighteen, moved down to London in the twenties, and slowly made their way up. There was never any suggestion they should have any particular expertise.

    Nowadays a lot come with degrees in journalism or media studies, or get in as unpaid interns because Daddy or Mummy already works there. Still no suggestion they should actually know anything.

    And contempt for science and technology seems almost a requirement for entry. The Guardian runs possibly the largest and most important online political discussion site on the internet. When the commissioning editor found she didn't have time to run the online site as well as do the commissioning she appointed somebody else to oversee the online site; the cycling editor (though for once today he has done something right and corrected what we've been complaining about for six months).

  31. jk said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

    @Mark F: Is journalism harder than it looks? Yes; then again, all communication is harder than it looks. In the long-ago when I took linguistics classes — because even us journalism school students do take classes outside our major, just like real scholars — we studied Reddy's paper on the conduit metaphor and toolmaker paradigm. What I took away, in part, was that we presume language to have powers it does not, and we are often blind to the importance of context.

    As journalists, we're expected to be good at ferreting out facts, at reconciling conflicting accounts, at turning those facts and varying accounts into one coherent story, at writing that story in a way that hews to the truth and is understandable to a wide audience, and at presenting those stories in such a way that the stories attract a wide audience in the first place. And each of those tasks looks deceptively simple because, after all, people tell each other stories every day — how tough is that?

    But our stories are not just those we run across, but ones we must dig up. And they are not just those we're familiar with or were involved in, but ones that in most cases we come to as second-hand observers at best. And our stories are presented to an unseen audience; we can't readjust our words in response to the blank stares or puzzled frowns of our readers and viewers. And, finally, our errors, bungles and complete failures are stuck out there forever, or as long as ink and pixels endure.

    Now: Do all of that with a staff of uneven quality — because this isn't Major League Baseball, where the salaries make it likely the very best potential ballplayers will actually choose to play ball, and this isn't like being a linguistics prof at a major school, where the jobs are so relatively few and the hurdles to getting them so high that the chances of losers slipping in are, let us presume, very slim. Do all of that on deadlines, made more hectic in today's newsrooms by the Internet's challenge. Do all of that when stories have to not only be written by reporters but also run through editors, who may work wonders but also may work blunders.

    Yes, indeed, journalism is hard, if you're trying to do it properly. And it can be very sloppy. It's been ever thus. Don't try to tell me that in the days before journalism schools, the yellow press of a century ago was a paragon of precision and accuracy.

    @everyone: There's a saying that came out of Chicago's City News Bureau: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Meaning, verify everything and trust no one. But there's another saying too: It's too good a story to risk messing up with the facts. Meaning, well, you can guess.

    I'm not saying that the Biz Week columnist deliberately decided not to check into the SpinSpotter. But hey, if it were true, that would be cool, wouldn't it? And if it were true, he'd want to be the first one to report it, right? And if it were truly a breakthrough, who else but the inventors themselves would be experts in it?

    So you jump on the news release. The people who talk to you sound reasonable — and, ideals aside, a lot of time in journalism it comes down to trusting your sources on gut instinct. And there are so many other wacky Web apps out there — why not?

    Is this right? No. Again, no: Bad Business Week, bad! A magazine story so bad it deserves to be slapped in the face with a rolled-up version of itself.

    But journalism is a business, not an academic pursuit. If you're a house painter, you put down tarps and tape over the outlets, but you're not Michelangelo; the paint goes where it goes, and dries how it dries. Journalism is not about checking every fact on every story with multiple sources and consulting original documents for every number. It's about balancing accuracy, fairness, comprehensibility and speed. We call it the first, rough draft of history — and in every rough draft, there are passages you cross out and wish you'd never written.

  32. acline said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    You may be interested to know that tomorrow there will be a "technology summit" as part of the MU J-school centennial celebration. SpinSpotter will be the subject of the 9:20 session. This should be interesting. I'll be happy to report back to this thread. I'll also be covering it at rhetorica.net.

  33. Washed in the Blood of Reason « Brainbiter said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

    […] Why don't we have a better press corps? […]

  34. Jahi Chappell said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

    @jk again: Too easy. Sure, not every fact can be checked, every i dotted, but it can't have it both ways. Since press is specifically protected by the Constitution, and our press religiously cites and hews to that (not without reason), it behooves them to have *some* standards. "Rough draft of history" and all that doesn't imply any given bottom level to messiness or minimal responsibility to something other than being a business. The "4th Estate" should adhere to higher standards, or else it shouldn't really get the high protection it has.

    The real, systemic problem here I think is not simply lack of fact checking — a complex and imperfect endeavor as jk says — but the gormless use of press releases. From jk: "'If your mother says she loves you, check it out.' Meaning, verify everything and trust no one. But there's another saying too: It's too good a story to risk messing up with the facts. Meaning, well, you can guess." — but just as one can (usually) safely assume your mother loves you, you can safely assume a press release issued by a politician or business is especially likely to be self-serving and elide the truth in numerous purposeful ways. Reporting such releases as news only serves to give an imprimatur of truth to what most companies and pols these days can do themselves: get the word out. If SpinSpotter says it detects spin, everyone knows to view it as a sort of late-night add; if a new org. does it, even if they're just saying that SpinSpotter said it, well NOW, now there's perhaps something to it?

    People hardly expect — or perhaps, hardly hope — that any journalist will serve merely as a conduit for someone else's message. And I think at least *that* standard is reasonable — no reporting on something dropped in your lap by a company or pol without some due diligence.

  35. nascardaughter said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

    But in the stories under discussion, they joined many of their colleagues in uncritical reproduction of the contents of a press release, with results in both cases that were somewhere between quite misleading and a total crock.

    I'd be interested in learning what you think of this press release, on the vasopressin receptor study.

  36. jk said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 8:32 pm

    @jahi: I'd say the media can have it both ways. Indeed, I'd argue that if the media were perfectable, the constitutional protection wouldn't be nearly as necessary. Courts have recognized that journalists must be allowed the leeway to be wrong about public officials, for example, as long as they aren't wrong with malice.

    And I wouldn't be so sure that everyone agrees that journalists should not just reprint what's dumped in their laps. What fans of Fox News say is "fair and balanced" can translate into "accept the GOP line, reject all Democratic counterarguments." Many MSNBC viewers would flip that around. Question the claims of a business planning to relocate to your town, and you'll be criticized by many for looking a gift horse in the mouth. Challenge the White House's reasons for invading Iraq and … I don't like those attitudes one bit, but I'm not going to threaten to take away our right to a free press because of them.

    You write, "you can safely assume a press release issued by a politician or business is especially likely to be self-serving and elide the truth in numerous purposeful ways." Ah, and what about news releases issued by consumer activists? Ecological groups? Universities? Scientists?

    Yes, you can assume anyone issuing a news release is doing it for some reason. But that's different from assuming everyone lies.

    I used to be a business journalist. If a company sent out a release saying it had a new product, we didn't start with the assumption that it was bogus. In this particular case, the claims made were red flags that were ignored. But if you want journalists to choose between checking every claim in a news release or not printing the story at all, you're asking a lot more than most readers are willing to pay for.

    And with that, I'm done. Fascinating discussion but, if current trends continue, all of you who think the professional news media are a cesspool of gormless and gullible reporting will soon be able to see what the country's like without them.

  37. David Eddyshaw said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 10:21 pm

    It's certainly unfair to lump all journalists together, or all publications together.

    My job, as doctor dealing with various diseases which are only marginally treatable or altogether incurable, means that on an almost daily basis, I have to deal with the fallout of misleading information in the MSM which my patients have found, often causing great unhappiness to them and their relatives because of the cruelty of false hope. It's not an issue I feel dispassionate about.

    In this particular domain, there is very noticeable variation in reliability among the various media, which doesn't by any means turn up simply as lowbrow = careless, highbrow = careful. It seems to be as much a matter of a particular institution's ethos as much as individual journalistic virtue.

    It does give the lie to the notion that there's something about newspaper journalism per se that makes this sort of carelessness inevitable and thus forgivable.

    I could name names of persistent offenders, but to be more positive, I've often been impressed by the medical coverage in the Guardian (a paper, incidentally, I rarely agree with politically).

  38. fev said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

    I'm going to be a little late for dinner. Would one of you guys just order me a beer?

  39. acline said,

    September 12, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    Todd Herman gave his presentation about an hour ago. I've posted my thoughts here: http://rhetorica.net/archives/006871.html

    There will be round-table discussions later today. I'll be able to ask Herman questions about SpinSpotter at that time.

  40. The Sarah Palin Interview (Pt 1) | The Hawke and Dove Political Punditry Podcast said,

    September 13, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    […] Sarah Palin may not be ready to take on the Washington press corps, but her handlers clearly feel she is more than prepared to face Hawke and Dove. The Alaska […]

  41. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    September 13, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

    Quality in newspaper journalism is variable, but several comment writers have written good posts on this topic here already. Maybe it is time to look at journalism education.

    How many journalism programs require six-semester sequences in a science such as biology or physics? Do journalism programs require students to be proficient in a foreign language in order to graduate? Do journalism students have to take several semesters of mathematics, including courses in statistics? If not, pause to consider academia's contribution.

    At a college or university, generally a department is rewarded for the number of students enrolled in its programs. A journalism program that requires its students to be well educated outside its walls garners no additional financial support or prestige. It doesn't receive additional faculty positions and its classes aren't considered essential to basic education, so other departments do not send their students to journalism classes. There is no incentive for the journalism faculty to broaden the education of their students.

    If people doing the hiring are addicted to credentialism instead of on-the-job training, there is even more likelihood that journalists are specialists in journalism, not biology or economics or statistics or linguistics. Many ads for reporters and editors ask for bachelor's degrees in journalism or English, for instance; they don't mention statistics.

    With the decline in advertising revenue at newspapers, there's been a brain drain from newspapers as staff members are laid off or retire. While some people rejoice in the loss of these jobs (angryjournalist.com has a lot of "bwaa ha ha — you deserved it" posts), I don't think it is good for the nation to lose so many experienced reporters and editors.

    In the meantime, academics should encourage their own institutions to publish interesting, accurate articles about science, technology, polls and statistics, linguistics, social sciences and other topics. Provide photos or illustrations when appropriate and distribute the articles as press releases.

    Yes, university writers will be providing cheap fodder for newspaper, television, radio and other newsrooms. If the articles are well-written, they will also be providing science education to the public. If the stories are accessible on the Internet, any curious reader may learn more.

    A model for this already exists — it is called Cooperative Extension. Language Log is also a useful model for public education, although it doesn't reach people who prefer to read print publications. More academic disciplines should look at ways to make accurate science accessible and open to discussion by people outside of academia, who were shut out of many fields before the Internet opened the door again.

  42. John Cowan said,

    October 20, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    jk: I left Reuters in 2005, at which time it still had very stringent internal standards for what kinds of stories get bylines and what do not. I was only at AP briefly, and the matter never arose, but my subjective impression is that most of what came out of the firehose (10,000 stories a day and climbing) is unbylined.

    (Granted, I'm a computer technologist and not a reporter, but that meant I needed to deal with stories in bulk, not one at a time, giving me a better view of the forest rather than the trees.)

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