Privileging the Story // Do I Trust Journalism?

My friend Jack Newshama reporter on The Boston Globe, asked a good question on Facebook the other day:

Question for my non-journalist friends: why don’t you trust us? (“Us” being journalists in general. Because poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of you don’t.)

My answer turned out long enough for a blog post.

I trust journalists. That is, I trust most people, and I don’t see journalists as being very different from most people on average. I would trust a journalist to watch my laptop in a cafe while I used the bathroom or water my plants when I went on vacation.

Journalism isn’t a person. It is a product, produced by journalists. And as it is practiced, I only half-trust journalism.

On the trusting side, I think that most journalists are hardworking professionals who get almost all of their facts right most of the time. This means that most journalism gives me true information about the world.

On the distrusting side, I think that most journalism fails to tell me about the most “important” issues in the world (those that affect large numbers of people to a large extent), and instead asks me to pay attention to random issues that may or may not be important. And even when important issues are addressed, journalism tends to simplify the world, accidentally or intentionally hiding information that would help me better understand reality.

 

Privileging the Story

Qiaochu Yuan writes about the tendency of media outlets to “privilege the question”. They’ll be thoughtful and careful when they answer questions (more or less), but not especially thoughtful or careful in choosing the questions they want to answer.

Here are some political questions that seem to commonly get discussed in US media: should gay marriage be legal? Should Congress pass stricter gun control laws? Should immigration policy be tightened or relaxed?

These are all examples of what I’ll call privileged questions: questions that someone has unjustifiably brought to your attention […] The questions above are probably not the most important questions we could be answering right now, even in politics.

I’m a big fan of this concept, but not all privileged issues happen in the form of questions. So I’ll refer to the media’s behavior as “privileging the story”: Devoting enormous amounts of attention to stories that aren’t very “important” in the “has a large impact on many people” sense of the word.

Why does this happen?

 

1) The Pile-On Effect

It seems as thought much published journalism (including essays published in “journalistic” outlets like The Atlantic or The Wall Street Journal) is written in response to other journalism. One outlet will publish a controversial take on a recent event, and a dozen other outlets will publish “response pieces”. Before long, that event — however unimportant, in the grand scheme of things — has become a privileged story.

What’s more, once a privileged story takes root in the American consciousness, any other event that relates to the story is more likely to catch on with the media.

For example, enough Ebola stories have been printed in every major publication that the publications know people will read about Ebola. So lots of Ebola stories get printed instead of stories about new issues that wouldn’t necessarily catch on. (Not that Ebola isn’t important — I just picked a story that was in the news a lot this year.)

 

2) Important Things Are Boring

It’s a cliche that people would rather read about simple, flashy, unimportant issues than complicated, boring, important issues. This is only half-true: Many popular issues are very important and affect a lot of people. Just looking at the front page of The Atlantic, I see stories about gay rights, race relations, national elections, and the Greek economic crisis.

It’s easy to see why these issues get covered: They’re all interesting to certain large groups of people (though I don’t know which people read about Greece). They involve love, violence, and ideological battles where most Americans have already picked a side.

Here are some issues that don’t get covered very often (as far as I’ve seen):

  • Social welfare reform (with the exception of health care)
  • Health conditions outside of the U.S. (e.g. stories on rising obesity in China, or malaria prevention in Ghana)
  • Global catastrophic risk (e.g. efforts to reduce the risk of a global pandemic or a major asteroid impact)
  • The scientific replication crisis
  • The tens of billions of animals slaughtered every year so that humans can eat meat, and whether we should keep slaughtering so many animals
  • The civil rights of people who aren’t very intelligent or attractive
  • The results of major public-policy decisions (Nevada just started a voucher system for its public schools; in ten years, when we have enough data to judge the program’s outcome, will we see many stories on the result?)

None of these things are boring, exactly, but they aren’t as exciting as gay marriage or Democrats versus Republicans. Americans don’t want to read news about most things outside of America. People who took no science classes after high school probably don’t have much of a stake in the scientific replication crisis. And even if people are against intelligence discrimination, unintelligent people don’t have powerful interest groups watching out for them and issuing press releases. This may be part of why these issues don’t show up in the media.

(These are just random examples — I could be wrong about causation. But it’s clear that some stories get more attention than others for reasons outside of sheer importance.)

I think of myself as a utilitarian with a global focus: I care about people everywhere, and I’m interested in issues that connect in some way to the welfare of huge numbers of people. Most journalism isn’t concerned with issues that fulfill my “importance” criteria. I love a good story, but I read stories about unimportant issues as though they were interesting fiction: I don’t need to trust those stories, because I’m not invested in whether they are true.

 

Anyway, that’s one of my issues with journalism: It tends to privilege unimportant stories. If I want to know which important things are happening in the world, I can’t rely on the most popular journalistic outlets to tell me.

 

The World Is Complicated

But what about stories about issues I think are important? Do I trust the journalists who write important stories to tell the truth?

Sometimes.

I was a journalist for a few years in college. I wrote maybe a dozen substantial stories on events or policy or other topics that are sometimes important. I’ve edited many other stories, and I’m friends with lots of journalists in college and at major publications. To some extent, I know how the sausage is made.

Here’s how the sausage was made for a story I wrote about colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious ailment that is killing lots of bees and making it hard to grow lots of important crops.

  1. I knew very little about the topic. So I began by reading lots of other stories about CCD, trying to find multiple points of view on a major question: Why are so many bees dying? I also read many scientific papers, though I didn’t understand those as well as any biologist or beekeeper would have.
  2. I did my best to find contact information on the people quoted in these stories: Scientists, activists, employees at pesticide companies, and so on. I emailed all those people, and a few other people I thought might have interesting opinions.
  3. Most people didn’t get back to me, or couldn’t schedule an interview before my final draft was due. I wound up with seven interviews: two academic researchers, two casual beekeepers, one government official, and two leaders of beekeepers’ associations.
  4. I never heard back from some scientists whose views diverged with those of the scientists I did interview. I never heard back from anyone at the two chemical companies I contacted. I didn’t even attempt to contact any non-English-speakers, even though CCD is happening in many non-English-speaking countries.
  5. I wrote a rough draft that was too long to publish. My editor was a great writer, but she knew nothing about CCD. She tried to help me find areas to cut words, and most of the important information was preserved. In the end, four or five of the people I spoke with were actually quoted in the article. I fact-checked my interview notes with my interview subjects, but I got no feedback on the final draft from any expert sources, so error may have crept in.

I sounded fairly authoritative by the end, despite my shallow investigation into a very deep subject. If I hadn’t written the article, I might have read it and thought the author knew a lot about his topic. And I did know a lot, by layperson standards — but I knew very little compared to any true expert. Writing about an issue as complicated as CCD, I was bound to get something wrong.

The same is true for every story I’ve written in college, and — I imagine — for most stories ever written by a journalist. There’s always a fact you leave out, a person you fail to quote, an entire viewpoint you fail to consider. Remember that the next time you read a news story on any major issue: Something is missing.

 

My story for the Globalist is comparable (in its level of detail) to something that would show up in the science section of the New York Times. The Times reporter would work faster, and write more smoothly, but they wouldn’t necessarily interview more people or know more about the topic (“science reporter” =/= “expert on all sciences”). This means that they will often make mistakes.

And I’m talking about science journalism here. Science is pretty simple to report: You talk to the scientists who know their stuff, fact-check them with other scientists, and try not to transcribe anything wrong. But reporting on matters of public policy, where two or more opposing sides are giving you different stories, is more difficult. So is writing about any kind of fast-changing issue (like a war), writing about people who speak a different language, and so on. The more complicated a story gets, the tougher it is to talk about it without leaving out something important.

 

(Note: I’m not too confident in my knowledge of how professional journalists operate; this section is based largely on things I’ve read on journalism blogs or talked about with journalists.)

 

Journalists try to tell the truth, but they’re also pretty good at covering up things they don’t know. And even an honest statement like “so-and-so declined to comment” could hide important facts that, for whatever reason, are only known to someone who doesn’t feel like talking to the press.

These problems all apply to even the most neutral journalistic outlets. When you step into partisan waters, the world becomes less complicated and everything seems to fit into a handy political box. This is bad, because the world is complicated, which means that the partisan press is lying to you by omission. Most of the time, you aren’t going to find the whole truth of an issue in Salon, Slate, Vox, Mother Jones, Harper’s, Reason, The Weekly Standard, The Drudge Report, or The National Review

It’s very predictable that the editorial board of The New York Times will have different opinions than the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal,  even if neither publication thinks of itself as biased. They just focus on different facts and arguments. Neither has the space to fully incorporate both sides of any story.

 

The world is complicated. For many reasons, journalism struggles to portray the extent of that complication. This is another reason I only half-trust journalism.

(Here’s a great post about how even a smart reader of news can be rendered helpless by news coverage of a complicated subject full of hidden information, like the Chinese economy.)

 

How To Win My Trust

Accept that the world is complicated. Admit the limits and biases of the sources you use. Admit your own limits and biases. Tell me what you don’t yet know about the issue. Clearly distinguish between the facts and your opinions. Don’t pretend that both sides are “equally right” when they aren’t.

Write rationally and fairly. Use statistics when statistics apply to your argument (and don’t cherry-pick only the studies that support your claim). Don’t use logical fallacies. Don’t quote people out of context. Don’t insult people. Steel-man the beliefs of people who disagree with you.

Write well about things I know a lot about. I don’t know a lot about much, but I’ve read many original sources on topics like charitable giving, cognitive biases, and existential risk. When I see an article on one of those topics that seems to get it right, I gain trust in the author and the publication. When I see an article that drastically simplifies the truth or just gets something wrong, I lose trust.

(I’ve written more about this last point in my “Fallacy of Trust” post.)

 

Who Do I Trust?

Here are the sources I generally trust (more than halfway) to tell me about the world:

Long-form journalism. Basically, stories that are too long to fit inside a newspaper. Most of them do appear in mass-market publications, but they are long enough to include more of the complication of the real world. They also tend to be written by older journalists who have deeper expertise on a subject, or by people who spent months researching a single story, which makes them both more reliable and more entertaining.

Longform.org is my go-to site for mobile browsing. Longreads and Aeon are also excellent.

 

Expert blogs. Journalists are great writers who try to quickly become experts on many topics. I tend to prefer people who make the opposite journey: Experts (on one topic or many) who happen to be great writers, and who write their own blogs. “Expert” doesn’t mean “always right” (most of the time, there’s another expert who believes the opposite), but experts tend to know each other, which often leads to respectful debate and lots of cross-linking that would be difficult outside of a blog.

The Incidental Economist wins awards for healthcare blogging, with good reason. Popehat covers the law using actual (and hilarious) lawyers. Chris Blattman knows a lot about the developing world. Edge achieves the “expert effect” by interviewing lots of different experts so that you get a full view of the world’s complication. Reddit’s IAmA forum is similar, but the experts are interviewed by hundreds of amateurs who think of very creative questions.

 

Books. I read these, sometimes. Here’s a list of all the books I remember reading.

Books often have the same issues as journalism, but I try to compensate for that by reading reviews from people who hated the books I love (for an example, see the end of my post on The Better Angels of Our Nature).

 

Amateur experts. Look, a paradox! “Amateur experts” are people who spend huge amounts of time learning and writing about a variety of subjects. Some of them are even journalists, sort of. What makes them different from most journalists is that they have skills that help them write material I can trust. They are good at things like statistics or reading scientific papers or telling you what they aren’t sure about. (This last one is especially valuable.)

When I read an essay from Gwern, it often begins with a belief tag explaining how sure he is of what he’s saying, and it always contains dozens of links to primary sources. The same is true for Scott Alexander, though he scatters many statements of belief throughout each essay rather than using a single tag. Scott also gets hundreds of comments on each post, many of which add more evidence to his points or dispute them vigorously. Wait But Why uses a very broad range of sources for its news-y posts and has decent comments.

 

 

Thanks for reading!

If you know any sources or authors you think I would trust, I’d love to read them — tell me in the comments.

 

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