Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: The Media (page 2 of 6)

Political science versus political journalism

The world of sports is in the latter stages of a revolution of data-driven analysis. The ultimate question in sports analysis is, what determines whether a team wins or loses? Traditionally, most people believed that the determining factors were those that sports journalists liked to write about and that coaches felt like they could control.

Back in the day, everyone talked about leadership, and chemistry, and clutch hitting, and all sorts of other human factors that were unquantifiable. The numbers show that the truth is more boring than that — once you learn how to properly measure player performance, statistics show that teams with better players usually win. When teams underperform or outperform their statistical predictions, more often than not it’s due to luck.

A classic example of received wisdom from the institutions of sport is that great teams win most close games. What data analysis teaches us is that performance in close games is essentially random, and that great teams don’t play in as many close games — they tend to beat inferior teams badly. That’s what makes them great.

The new insights that quantitative analysis has brought to sports are applicable to many fields, including politics. That is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Nate Silver, once known to baseball fans as creator of the PECOTA system for forecasting the performance of baseball players, has become famous as a political analyst, specializing in breaking down polling data and using it to make predictions.

The adjustment to a more data-driven approach to analyzing sports has been tough on sports journalists, because increasingly they are being forced to acknowledge that their impressionistic analysis of sports may be entertaining, but isn’t very informative. Political journalists are just starting to face the same challenge to their positions of authority. As political scientists have improved their data-driven analysis, it has become increasingly clear that most of the things that political writers (and indeed, politicians) think are are important, really aren’t.

This was all a very long segue into a link to an article about the tension between political scientists and political journalists in the Columbia Journalism Review, Embrace the Wonk. Here’s the crux:

That perspective differs from the standard journalistic point of view in emphasizing structural, rather than personality-based, explanations for political outcomes. The rise of partisan polarization in Congress is often explained, in the press, as a consequence of a decline in civility. But there are reasons for it—such as the increasing ideological coherence of the two parties, and procedural changes that create new incentives to band together—that have nothing to do with manners. Or consider the president. In press accounts, he comes across as alternately a tragic or a heroic figure, his stock fluctuating almost daily depending on his ability to “connect” with voters. But political-science research, while not questioning that a president’s effectiveness matters, suggests that the occupant of the Oval Office is, in many ways, a prisoner of circumstance. His approval ratings—and re-election prospects—rise and fall with the economy. His agenda lives or dies on Capitol Hill. And his ability to move Congress, or the public, with a good speech or a savvy messaging strategy is, while not nonexistent, sharply constrained.

The important take away for people who are consumers of political news is that press coverage of politics on a day to day basis is at best useless and at worst pernicious. What really matters is that there is a blowout spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and that it probably won’t be fixed until August. The degree to which President Obama seems to be upset about it doesn’t matter. What really matters is that the unemployment rate is right around 10%. What doesn’t matter is that Congress is holding votes on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell rather than doing things that create the appearance that they’re working on the economy.

I try to pay attention to what our actual problems are and the degree to which we’re making progress in solving them. It turns out that not only is this what’s important in our day to day lives, but it’s what’s important politically as well.

Chiquita, Gizmodo, and the wages of sin in journalism

I’ve been following the ongoing saga of Gizmodo’s publishing photos of the lost iPhone prototype. The latest is that the San Mateo police served a search warrant on Gizmodo editor Jason Chen, broke into his house, and confiscated his computers. There are two arguments about this, the first is whether Gizmodo is protected by shield laws for journalists, being a blog and all. That’s not a very interesting argument — of course it is. If you want to argue about that, argue with someone else.

The second argument is that Gizmodo is suspected of engaging in criminal activity to obtain the iPhone prototype, thereby rendering the shield laws inapplicable. Eugene Volokh makes that point. The EFF disagrees. That’s the discussion that interests me.

The consequences of reporters using illegal methods to break news reminds me of a dispute between Chiquita (the banana company) and the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1998. On May 3, 1998, the Enquirer published 18 pages of investigative pieces on Chiquita’s business practices. Two months later, the Enquirer renounced the stories on its front page and agreed to pay Chiquita a settlement of more than $10 million. The reporter who wrote the story was fired immediately and the editor responsible was reassigned.

There’s little argument that the stories were accurate, but the reporter had obtained some of the details by accessing Chiquita’s voice mail system without permission. You can read a detailed account of what happened in the American Journalism Review and the paper’s apology is still available on the Cincinnati Enquirer Web site.

In September 1998, the reporter, Michael Gallagher pleaded guilty to two felony charges related to accessing the voice mail system. In 2007, Chiquita paid a $25 million fine for payments it made to paramilitary groups in Colombia. The company has also been recently accused of mistreating its workers in exactly the same ways as were alleged in the original series.

The articles were an important act of public service journalism, exposing a broad pattern of malfeasance by the most powerful company in Cincinnati, but the fact that the reporter cut corners blew the whole thing up. If illegal access to voice mail by a reporter was enough to cost a newspaper $10 million and discredit a thoroughly researched, important investigative series, what’s going to be the end result of Gizmodo purchasing stolen goods to share pictures of a cool new phone with the world?

On one hand, the stakes are lower. Apple’s brand is not damaged by Gizmodo’s reporting on the prototype, so while it may want to discourage people from stealing their property and discourage journalists from buying it, they don’t have any incentive to knock down the story Gizmodo published. On the other, with millions of dollars and its own prestige on the line, the Cincinnati Enquirer was forced to capitulate completely to Chiquita. In the end, I guess Gizmodo has to hope that Apple isn’t as angry as Chiquita was.

The two ways to break news

Matthew Yglesias on the two ways to break news:

But there are really two ways to break news. A Type 1 scoop is a story that if you don’t break, just won’t be broken. A Type 2 scoop is a pure race for priority. You get Type 2 scoops by becoming the favored destination for deliberate leaks, or by ferreting out information that will be officially announced soon enough (Joe Biden will be Obama’s VP pick!), or by chasing down an obvious-but-arduous-to-follow lead. These Type 2 scoops are structurally similar to “breaking news” but they don’t have any real value.

There is a huge focus on Type 2 news not only in political journalism, but also in tech journalism, and it’s totally worthless. You see popular Web sites racing to have the most detailed live coverage of a keynote address by Steve Jobs, even though the video will be online shortly thereafter, and the key points from the event will be capably summarized everywhere. You see it when pundits predict what Steve Jobs is going to announce in a keynote the day before the keynote.

The fact that journalists care at all about breaking stories in the Type 2 fashion is at the heart of the decay of the profession.

The ugly side of aggregation

Michael Wolff’s new publication, Newser, is probably the best example yet that aggregation-oriented startups have taken the wrong lessons from weblogs. Andrew Leonard reviews the site:

But what takes Newser beyond countless other similar sites is a truly precious degree of shamelessness. All of the above stories — even the slide shows — are repackaged, rewritten and abbreviated versions of content originated by other publications. When your pursuit of traffic leads you to the point of ripping off a Fox News Lindsay Lohan/Britney slide show, you have stooped so low you can’t even reach up to the lowest common denominator.

Some people never forget a face — I never forget a name, and one thing I appreciate is that Andrew Leonard doesn’t either. In his blog post he makes sure to remind people who may not remember that Michael Wolff is the same guy who tried to write a book damning the insanity of the dot com era and wound up exposing his own sleaziness instead.

The problems with hiring a fabulist

I was just reading an old issue of National Geographic and came across a story about the Hadza people of Tanzania, one of the last groups of true hunter-gatherers left on earth. Before I started reading the article, I noticed the byline — Michael Finkel.

Finkel is a freelance journalist who was famously busted in 2001 for fabricating large parts of a story about a young worker on a cocoa plantation in the Ivory Coast. In 2007, Slate media critic Jack Shafer wrote about Finkel’s past in the context of his having written the July, 2007 National Geographic cover story. Shafer questions the judgement of the editors:

If murderers can be rehabilitated, surely one-time fabricators like Finkel should not be irredeemable. (The Times Magazine rechecked his other features and found nothing improper.) Obviously the Times can never employ Finkel again because doing so would make the paper look cavalier about accuracy. The circumstances of his deception, his statements to the press, and the account published in his book argue strongly against allowing Finkel back into the fold. While I can forgive Finkel personally and wish him no unhappiness, I bear him a grudge for the damage he’s done to his profession and for the reader trust he’s violated. I wouldn’t give him an assignment.

I first became aware of Finkel’s work through some stories he wrote while on assignment in Afghanistan after 9/11. One that he wrote, Naji’s Taliban Phase, really struck me at the time. When I read that Finkel made up the details in the Ivory Coast story, I very much felt burned. Later, the Times went back and checked into all of his other articles, and an editor’s note now appended to the article says that the story checks out with only one minor factual error. I don’t really believe it.

Here’s what makes me sad. The Hadza are fascinating, the article is really interesting, and there’s no disputing that Finkel is a gifted writer. However, this story is about his living with a remote tribe for two weeks. The Hadza are difficult to catch up with and there are only a few people in the world who can translate from the Hadza language to English. Parts of the story take place in situations where not even his interpreter is present. It may not be fair, but I doubt pretty much everything interesting or surprising that I read in the story.

Finkel has demonstrated his willingness to spice up his stories with fiction in the past in order to make them more entertaining to read, and National Geographic put him in a situation where his account is almost impossible to confirm. Assigning such a story to someone with Finkel’s past is irresponsible, and reflects poorly on the magazine.

At least now when people search for Michael Finkel or his article on the Hadza, there will be something out there that explains why they may not want to believe everything they read.

Needed perspective on iPad hype

I’m excited about the iPad. Not enough to have pre-ordered one or anything, but I think it’s going to be a cool device, and I find it easy to imagine myself reading stuff on one during a flight or using it to post to Twitter while I’m watching TV. It’d be nice to have a device for surfing the Web with a decent-sized screen that doesn’t get hot enough to fry an egg.

Gadget afficionados are licking their chops, but what shocks me is the degree to which media businesses are head over heels over the iPad, thinking that somehow a new form factor is going to reinvigorate their business. News Corp is going to charge more for an iPad subscription to the Wall Street Journal than they charge for a Web-only subscription, more than they charge to deliver the paper to your house, and even more than a subscription that includes both.

Scott Rosenberg compares the media’s reaction to the iPad to its obsession with CD-ROMS back in 1994. Media businesses want a ticket back to the good old days, and the iPad, purely through the virtue of being something untried, looks like that ticket. These guys are drunk on the possibilities of the iPad today, but the hangover is going to be a miserable thing to see. If I were more clever, I’d have already learned to program for that platform, and now I would be out charging insane hourly rates to build doomed apps for desperate publishers. Maybe next time.

The impotence of political journalism

I have never agreed with anything so wholeheartedly as I do with this Matt Welch piece calling the media out for its obsession with “narratives”.

Creating a true impression

For one thing, newspapers work very hard to report things that are true, but they are less concerned with whether the overall impression from their reporting is a true impression. Shark attacks, for instance, happen very rarely. But if you report excitedly on every shark attack that happens, people will think they happen quite a bit. You haven’t told anyone any lies, but your stories aren’t leaving your readers with a true impression of the world.

Ezra Klein in The media’s Sarah Palin problem — and ours.

Nearly all political journalism is worthless

Ezra Klein’s list of reasons why most political journalism has very little value:

  1. Campaigns don’t really matter. Elections are largely decided by the fundamentals of the economy. The graphs in this article would’ve done more to predict the 2008 election than reading Politico every day.
  2. Presidential speeches don’t matter much, either.
  3. Nor does the executive’s legislative strategy, come to think of it. Politics is much more interesting when it’s told as the story of the executive, but in fact, the rules and composition of the Congress decide 80 percent of everything — including the president’s legislative priorities and strategy.
  4. Polls are useful for measuring impressions but very bad for measuring beliefs.
  5. The media is a political actor, not an observer.
  6. Pretty much no one watches cable news.
  7. What you emphasize is a lot more important than what you report. People don’t read you closely.

I’d say that coverage that explains the implications of policy choices is important, but that coverage of why it’s happening is almost always wrong, and nearly worthless even when it’s right. People in general prefer a dramatic, personal narrative that describes day to day events, but most of the time events are dictated by broad trends and path dependence. Those stories aren’t very interesting to write or read, so the market dictates that journalists make up a narrative to describe events instead.

Which analysis is worth paying for?

Last night offered a perfect illustration of one of the many reasons newspaper journalism is in trouble. In last night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots, the Patriots, up 6 points, went for it on fourth and 2 with 2:08 left in the game. They failed to make the first down, and Peyton Manning took the Colts in for the score, winning the game 35-34.

Let’s look at the analysis offered by a major metropolitan daily, the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s their NFL reporter, John McClain:

I still can’t believe what I just witnessed. Belichick is getting ripped because of his clock management and his unbelievable decision to go for a first down when he should have punted. They didn’t make it, and they gave Peyton Manning the ball at their 29 trailing by six.

And here’s Jerome Solomon:

There won’t be a much more exciting finish than this year’s Colts-Patriots. Of course, there won’t be a much more idiotic call than Bill Belichick electing to go for a fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line despite his team holding a six-point lead. There is no legitimate excuse for such a move. It wasn’t gutsy, and even if it had worked, it just wasn’t smart. Is the pressure of not winning a Super Bowl in five years starting to wear on the Hooded One?

So, according to them, Belichick is “idiotic” and his decision was “unbelievable,” but neither of those adjectives are accompanied by any analysis whatsoever. On the other hand, here’s some quick postgame analysis from a couple of blogs. First, Smart Football, which analyzed the decision without crunching the numbers:

The goal is, obviously, to maximize your chance of winning. If you punt, your chances of winning are your odds of stopping a streaking Manning who has just torched your defense the whole fourth quarter. He will have to drive about 70 yards. Because of his excellence in clock management, the two-minute warning, and their timeout, time was not really a factor. (The analysis would be much different if there was only, say, a minute left.)

If you go for it, your chance of winning hinges on two outcomes: (a) if you get the first down, you win the game; and (b) if you don’t get it, you still have a chance to stop Manning. So your chance of winning if you go for it is the sum of (a) your chance of converting; and (b) your chance of stopping Manning from the 30 yard line.

Here’s Advanced NFL Stats with the numbers:

Statistically, the better decision would be to go for it, and by a good amount. However, these numbers are baselines for the league as a whole. You’d have to expect the Colts had a better than a 30% chance of scoring from their 34, and an accordingly higher chance to score from the Pats’ 28. But any adjustment in their likelihood of scoring from either field position increases the advantage of going for it. You can play with the numbers any way you like, but it’s pretty hard to come up with a realistic combination of numbers that make punting the better option. At best, you could make it a wash.

Are we really going to miss those guys I quoted at the top?

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