Lots of Twitter and blog activity in response to NYT article about Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff research paper on effects of teachers on students’ lives.
No small amount of the commentary is about how when journalists pick “interesting” bits out of research reports to construct a “story” they often create big distortions in the social knowledge-base.
So what can reporters do when trying to explain the significance of new research, without getting trapped by a poorly-supported sound bite?
Sherman Dorn has an excellent post on the case, “When reporters use (s)extrapolation as sound bites,” that ends with some advice:
- “If a claim could be removed from the paper without affecting the other parts, it is more likely to be a poorly-justified (s)implification/(s)extrapolation than something that connects tightly with the rest of the paper.”
- “If a claim is several orders of magnitude larger than the data used for the paper (e.g., taking data on a few schools or a district to make claims about state policy or lifetime income), don’t just reprint it. Give readers a way to understand the likelihood of that claim being unjustified (s)extrapolation.”
- “More generally, if a claim sounds like something from Freakonomics, hunt for a researcher who has a critical view before putting it in a story.”
See also Matthew Di Carlo on ShankerBlog, Bruce Baker on SchoolFinance 101, and Cedar Reiner on Cedar’s Digest
In the NYT, Alan Cowell wrote today about reactions among diplomats to the WikiLeaks leaks. In the middle of the story we read:
A Chinese intellectual, who spoke in return for customary anonymity, said the disclosures had left those like him who had contact with United States diplomats “nervous” about the possibility of exposure and persecution by authorities who have already blocked access in China to the WikiLeaks Web site.
I don’t want to equate journalistic secrecy with government secrecy, but I’m surprised, as I suggested in a previous post, that there’s been no commentary (or at least none I’ve seen — anyone have a reference?) on the irony of the secrecy and confidentiality given sources (as above) by the media vs. the ones revealed in the leaks.
NOTE: it appears that in a lot of the material that’s been put online by media organizations some redaction of source information has been carried out.
While I work on more extended analysis of the WikiLeaks situation (among other things the obvious connection to my work on how geometries of information sharing are co-constitutive of social relationships and statuses), a small irony must be noted.
Apparently, several news organizations have had the material recently made public since August. Editors and reporters have been meeting in secret to develop protocols about what would be reported, when, and how. Fortunately for their work, it appears that these journalists managed to do all of this while maintaining the kind of secrecy necessary for them to be able to process the information and to consider its meaning and its implications out of public view. The public, media, and official reaction of the last few days make clear why this secrecy was necessary.
One thing that would be interesting to hear a story on would be what measures were taken to ensure the security of the process. What sorts of technological tools were employed? What sorts of social tools? Did participants have to sign confidentiality agreements? What prevented a rogue reporter from reporting on the reporters reporting?
In recent weeks we’ve read of the demise of several major newspapers. Most of the analytical conversation about these events suggests that newspapers are getting throttled by new technology. The internet is changing their operating environment and the newspaper companies have not succeeded at changing their business model to succeed in the new environment. There have been shifts in the world out there and so media institutions need to adjust.
But I wonder if this obvious explanation doesn’t obscure things a bit. By keeping the focus on technology, we avoid asking hard questions about the product and practice of journalism. Could it be that the changes that the environment is “calling for” include new ways of producing information as well as new ways of delivering information produced using conventional practices?
I put this out there because I’ve noticed that the two most obvious “initiatives” carried out by media organizations are (1) delivering the same old stuff over new media and (2) spicing up delivery to make it more entertaining. I have not, though, noticed any fundamental changes in the production of information. Have journalists taken up any new analytical tools? Do we see a move toward journalists developing new levels of substantive expertise?
In the wake of the financial crisis there’s been lots of “why didn’t anyone see this coming?” hand wringing. Of course, if you look closely, you’ll see that there WERE lots of pieces out there giving us a warning. But a big piece of our after-the-fact-wisdom is that things were just too complex for observers to decipher. So, is there any chance that this experience will provide an incentive for higher degrees of expertise among journalists? Or will we stick with the “find a source who will tell you what to write” approach (often enough balanced by some other expert who is willing to claim something to the contrary)?