Balance Blocks News Info

When reporters are assigned to write articles on controversial topics, how much readers can learn from their articles depends on how much those reporter learn when investigating their topics.

Now on most controversies readers expect to see two main sides, each easily predicted from standard social divisions like left vs. right, male vs. female, etc.  So if a reporter interviews a random set of smart folks knowledgeable on a topic, they are likely to hear a wide range of complex opinions and arguments, and so they risk appearing confusing and unbalanced by giving too little coverage to one of the two main sides.

So busy reporters take an easier approach: they keep a stable of standard sources who are clearly identified with some side of a standard division, e.g., left or right, and can be relied on to take predictable positions associated with that side.  That is, they interview ideologues.

Ideologues allow reporters to quickly collect quotes to fill out a standard story format, listing some arguments from each of the two expected sides.  If reporters instead interviewed generally smart thoughtful people, they’d get more and more complex positions.  These would be harder to explain, and risk the article seeming unfairly balanced.

There are three kinds of info one might learn about any controversy:

  1. What are the various positions taken
  2. Which folks take what positions
  3. What arguments are offered for and against each position

What we learn from the usual reporter process is mainly the arguments offered by ideologues trying to support the expected two sides.  We don’t learn about arguments that don’t clearly support an expected side, nor about the wider space of positions taken, nor about the distribution of opinions on the topic.

From Alex Tabarrok explaining why he gets interviewed more often than Nobel prize winners.

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  • http://metanomics.net Robert Bloomfield

    Absolutely true. You could transform this post from a blog piece to a newspaper article with about 15 minutes of work. Look at the statements you already make, and look in your list of contacts to find someone who will predictably say some of them. Replace your own opinions (which you pretend you don’t have) with quotes from others, and voila–reportage.

  • Constant

    You might be right. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a newspaper or watched news on television, so my memory is fading. While we’re on the subject of historical topics, what do you think of vinyl records versus cassette tapes? My own practice was to buy vinyl and make my own tape of it, rather than buy the tape.

    • Robert Koslover

      Indeed. Heh.

    • Jess Riedel

      This applies equally to online journalism as to print.

      • Constant

        The occasion of Robin Hanson’s entry is the fact that Alex Tabarrok gets interviewed a lot by journalists. I read Alex Tabarrok’s blog. I don’t feel a pressing need for journalists to tell me what Alex Tabarrok thinks. As you say: this applies equally to online journalists as to print journalists.

        I do get that there just aren’t the hours in a day for an individual to wade through the world of information. However, the newspapers – whether print or online – aren’t the only way to deal with the information overload. Journalism came into being in an age when the primary function of the paper wasn’t to filter information, but to make it available at all. Today the papers are no longer needed for this. The classifieds are an example of this shift: the newspaper carried the classifieds because there was no other way the classifieds were going to get out to a large audience. But now the classifieds can bypass the paper entirely by going through Craigslist. And similarly with press releases – which make up a significant chunk of reporting. The newspapers were a solution to a problem: moving information around. But now we are faced with something almost like the opposite problem: filtering and organizing a flood of information. It is not at all obvious to me that journalism as we understand it now is the solution to this new problem.

      • http://williambswift.blogspot.com/ billswift

        But now we are faced with something almost like the opposite problem: filtering and organizing a flood of information. It is not at all obvious to me that journalism as we understand it now is the solution to this new problem.

        In fact, filtering has been a problem for some time. Even before I was on-line I rarely read newspapers or news magazines. I listened to the radio news, 10 minutes at the head of the hour (WMAL in Washington, DC), to get a rough idea of what was currently happening in the world. But most of my information, I waited until it was published in books on subjects I was interested in. Book writers, publishers, and editors are those with experience at organizing and filtering.

      • Jess Riedel

        It is not at all obvious to me that journalism as we understand it now is the solution to this new problem.

        Blogs can bypass the delivery of *arguments* to the consumer (although finding a good selection of blogs still requires much more time/effort than reading a newspaper article, and some people aren’t willing to put in the time/effort). But nothing has come close to replacing news agencies for the delivery of facts. Furthermore, most large newspapers retain some semblance neutrality. They may be lazy about presenting the controversy, but they still present it. Blogs, on the other hand, are almost exclusively editorials.

        Which isn’t to say that newspapers aren’t horrible. There just isn’t a replacement yet.

      • Constant

        Jess,

        The world isn’t blogs versus newspapers. I’ve already suggested this by pointing out that Craigslist (which is not a blog) has bypassed the newspapers. There other ways that the information stream has bypassed the newspaper apart from opinionated blogs. I also mentioned press releases. If you go look at Google News, you may notice that many reports are near-duplicates of each other. How are all these newspapers duplicating each other? Are they really all doing independent work and just happening to independently discover exactly the same things? Or are they being prompted by some common element behind the scenes – a common element which could simply bypass them, given today’s technology? A common element such as a press release? Once we’ve eliminated the press-release-based news, once we’ve eliminated the newsmakers (not the journalists but the people actually doing the things being reported) seeking publicity (the companies or universities seeking to announce that they’ve developed something news, the politicians seeking to let people know this or that) who could now just as easily post their news directly online, blog it or twitter it directly to their followers, what’s left?

        Weather doesn’t need to go through the local or a national paper or evening news hour any more. Centralized weather organizations are now delivering weather directly to the customer.

        Traffic is decreasingly dependent on the local news hour. Now traffic is being delivered to GPS devices.

        Comics and horoscopes have gone online. I can read Dilbert whenever I want and I don’t need to visit any newspaper’s website.

        What’s left? All I can think of is investigative news: journalists who go poking their noses where they’re not welcome. And how many journalists really do that? How many journalists really live the exciting life of the private eye, the secret meetings with Deep Throat? I’m sure that every journalist fancies himself Bob Woodward, but how many really are? That’s a very small part of journalism, it seems to me.

      • Jess Riedel

        I’m not questioning that many of the former roles of the newspaper (classified, weather, etc.) are no longer necessary. That much is clear. I’m question what I interpreted you to mean in your original comment: that the issues Robin bring up are not important because newspaper journalism is no longer necessary.

        Constant, you seem to dismiss investigative journalism as a tiny part of newspaper journalism, but I think this comes from confusing two different ideas of investigative journalism. Yes, deepthroat-style investigative journalism is rare (though important). But ho-hum, everyday investigative journalism is still very important and makes up a substantial fraction of newspaper journalism.

        Who is going to conduct interviews with witnesses? Who is going to document when a major corporation goes to trial? Who is going publish that a public official is being investigate for misconduct? Are you going to rely on blogs, press releases, and tweats for this?

      • Constant

        your original comment: that the issues Robin bring up are not important because newspaper journalism is no longer necessary.

        May be becoming obsolete. But the issue that Robin brought up specifically concerns argumentation, which you’ve already given up to the blogs.

        Yes, deepthroat-style investigative journalism is rare (though important).

        By this I mean poking your nose where it’s not welcome. Off the top of my head, I can think of two interesting bits of poking one’s nose where it’s not welcome: the ACORN videos and the climategate letters. Both of these were done by people not employed by newspapers and facilitated by new technology. The rapid spread and analysis of the emails was facilitated by the Internet, and the videos reached a wide audience through the internet. This points to the possibility that the Internet is making the investigative role of newspapers obsolete.

        Who is going to conduct interviews with witnesses?

        The police?

        Also, video is increasingly making the witness obsolete, and Youtube is making television obsolete as a broadcast medium for video.

        Who is going to document when a major corporation goes to trial?

        I’m not sure that this is a case of even mundane getting off one’s ass investigation. It seems more likely that newspapers learn of these things from others. Here, I googled “lawsuit” and found the first link that provides early information about a lawsuit. Here it is. We read for example:

        Shanda, whose total yearly losses from piracy could be as high as 1 billion yuan (US$146 million), will seek damages from Baidu in the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars, it said.

        It seems to me to be likely that Shanda announced this. How else are newspapers going to learn about a planned lawsuit?

        Who is going publish that a public official is being investigate for misconduct?

        This seems similar to the lawsuit case above. I don’t see papers actively going out and finding this stuff out by themselves; it seems more likely that the government is making an announcement and the papers are conveying the news.

        Are you going to rely on blogs, press releases, and tweats for this?

        Let me repeat what I wrote. I wrote:

        But now we are faced with something almost like the opposite problem: filtering and organizing a flood of information. It is not at all obvious to me that journalism as we understand it now is the solution to this new problem.

        That is not a statement about things as they stand now. That is a statement about the possible direction of things. As they stand now, people who have things to announce are still announcing them to papers in the form of press releases. My point isn’t that this has already been scrapped, or that we can scrap this today. Time is needed for adjustment. My point is that the fundamental problem has changed and, in response, we can see that people are changing with it (we see, for example, that newspapers are losing their circulation). I am not saying that this has already happened or that it will happen in the next 24 hours. I’m saying there’s a change going on and I’m speculating that the endpoint of the change may not involve the familiar institutions.

      • Constant

        On a lighter note, twitter- and twitpic-using celebrities are scooping paparazzi. I don’t know where this is going to go, but photos taken by celebrities themselves and broadcast within seconds makes paparazzi photos seem much less immediate and much less compelling.

        As above, I’m not saying paparazzi are out of a job today. I’m saying, here’s a taste of things to come.

  • http://www.takeonit.com Ben Albahari

    I completely agree. Standard journalism does a poor job at presenting the full range of opinions and arguments around a controversy. Ideally I’d like to see a sort of transparent prediction market for controversial issues. You could see the bets the key players were making, grouped by the arguments they were aligning themselves with. Now *that* would be informative. This however only works to the extent that a given position on an issue is falsifiable – many controversial issues are not. However, a more passive approach is still useful, where even if no-one is making bets, you can at least see the full range of positions of the key players and intellectuals in a controversial debate. That’s what I’ve tried to achieve with the takeonit website. For example:

    http://www.takeonit.com/question/5.aspx (global warming debate)
    http://www.takeonit.com/question/264.aspx (recessionary spending debate)

  • http://bizop.ca michael webster

    I am required by your thesis to completely disagree, but provide only bluster for my position.

  • Jef Allbright

    This blog post makes some good points. Related, and more consequential, is the tendency toward dichotomization of nearly any position, from any particular (necessarily subjective) point of view. We see this kind of highly probable simplification, from a complex multi-dimensional landscape down to a simple v-shaped trough, often exacerbated by heuristics of affiliation or identification, least-action or effort, tending toward shallow, binary, judgments (solutions) applied to a problem-space of inherently greater complexity.

    Politics subsumes complex issues, eventually amounting to simple in/out-group distinctions–are you for us or against us? Issues involving values, almost always hierarchical and fine-grained, become issues of identity–just tell me, are you gay, transhumanist, …? And even in (reasoned) discussion, we find a strong tendency for one to attack the “obviously” incorrect points of another as if they were independent, with no thought or unease about being unable to coherently model the likely source of the whole–”he’s obviously wrong; I don’t need to explain /why/ he said it.”

    There’s nothing wrong with /ultimate/ simplification of complex problems; indeed, examples abound of homeostasis in biological systems seeking a set point, complex feedback loops in electronic and electromechanical systems seeking a null, and even the expression of our own morality in terms of reducing the perceived difference between a future state and our present values.

    But for each of these examples, it’s effectiveness entails complex “intelligence” built-in to the process. Can we say the same for the process by which which we ultimately arrive at and apply our news?

  • Ted Craig

    As the editor of a publication that’s interviewed Alex before, I can tell you why he gets quoted more – he talks more. Many of these smart people of which you speak won’t answer phone calls from reporters, expect possibly from the NYT or WSJ. “Ideologues” will.

  • Eric Johnson

    I still see left and right in things. But less so, the more I learn about reality, regardless of the fact that I’d be called right, on balance.

  • Bill

    That comment does not represent a piece of investigative journalism–does it– or is it more of a commentary of what the writer believes.

    If the comment is from an investigation, please provide the sources.

  • Millian

    Perhaps media coverage, including the necessary simplification of one’s argument, is good for the status of ideologues (pretty certain) but bad for the status of most Nobel laureates (not so certain).

    Perhaps ideologues have a relative advantage at communicating (social activity) and Nobel laureates have a relative advantage at original theorising (anti-social activity).

  • Blunt

    Where is the obstacle in overcoming this tendency? Is it the writer/journalist’s job to find a way to present something more complex and utilize the smart, thoughtful sources? Or does the marketplace for his/her work simply not pay for such pieces because they don’t fit the prescibed mold of what can ‘sell’?

  • Jake

    It really is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” argument, isn’t it? Is the the medias fault for simplifying the arguments to absolutes, or is it the public’s fault for rewarding media agencies which do that by giving them increased attention?

    I feel like at some level and on most issues, a degree of simplifying is necessary: for example, I’m not expert at marine biology, if there is an argument going on about the effects of off shore drilling, i wouldn’t be able to sift through all the opinions that exist on this matter. Media by nature deals with a large audience, and thus has to deal with a wide range of knowledge, and simplification is the safest, and in the end most necessary, route when covering an issue.

    However, i feel the way in which the media presents these simplified viewpoints is the issue: as though they are the ONLY sides, or as though nearly everyone believes one or the other, or when a view point is chosen not based on a person’s qualification but based on how many people know them (a good example is how, during the elections, i noticed multiple news agencies asking famous athletes who they were voting for and presenting it as support for that candidate).

    But maybe a larger problem is the general populace doesn’t question it. They accept the media as fact, they follow it nigh religiously, and if the media says there are only two sides to an issue, well gosh darn it, there must only be two sides, right? I think its this mentality which represents the largest problem.

  • Doug S.

    The other problem with “balanced journalism”:

    http://www.idrewthis.org/d/20040825.html

    • Constant

      But if the journalist is among those who believe that broccoli is part of an evil plot to put a lawn gnome in the White House, then I want the journalist to report “all sides” rather than picking what the journalist thinks is the correct side.

      And that’s how things actually are. So, “all sides” it is.

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