Monday, September 15, 2008

Drowning in a roiling sea of bad journalism.

Few episodes better epitomize the so-called New Journalism or the (often subtle) damage it has wreaked on the delivery of actual information than Geraldo Rivera's overwrought, cringe-worthy star turn on that coastal Texas beach the night of Hurricane Ike's arrival. (Rivera has always had a reputation for sensationalism, but in recent years has tried to rehabilitate his image through his more sedate, sometimes even scholarly work on FOX.) Nominally Ike was the story, or so one would have thought. But clearly to Geraldo the real story was, well, Geraldo, and his epic battle against the elements. Over a period of some minutes he mugged for the camera while being pelted by heavy rain, buffeted by strong winds, and conked on the head by flying debris (and then making major theater out of the latter in an almost Three Stooges-like way).

Think about it. A Cat-3 hurricane is bearing down on the nation's fourth-largest city. The NWS takes the unprecedented step of promising "certain death" to any foolhardy coastal residents who intend to brave the storm. And Geraldo makes the story about him.It is for similar reasons that if you pick up almost any major magazine nowadays, the opening of almost every feature story (what is known in my world as the "lede") spends less time setting the scene of the actual story than establishing the writer's place in the narrative and/or his feelings about it. To wit: "I'm sitting in Donald Trump's office, and my agitation grows as The Donald takes phone call after phone call while I tap my note pad with my pen..."

But you know what? It's worse than that. Because Geraldo's mere presence on that beach represented another crippling flaw of modern journalismone that came to a head in the embedded reporting that, with Iraq, became the de rigueur method of providing war coverage. Again, think about it: Is the best sense of something always gathered by getting as close to it as possible? Or does proximity, beyond a certain point, entail a grave risk of missing the forest in the trees, thus yielding a myopic (and skewed) perspective on the story and its meaning (if any)? A reporter attached to a unit that gets caught in a few scary ambushes may well conclude that that's what's going on all over Iraq: scary ambushes. Our troops are sitting ducks.* That, in turn, becomes "the war" in the eyes of American viewers: Our brave but helpless GIs go out each day and get picked off by sniper fire and IEDs. A correspondent who stumbles upon an atrocity that appears to have been committed by U.S. forces may assume that U.S. forces everywhere are committing atrocities. Even if he doesn't make that assumption himself, the mere reporting of that storythe prominence it attains just by virtue of being included in the 22 minutes of events that were judged worthy of becoming The Nightly Newsgives it an impact on viewers that may be far out of proportion to its overall significance.

Tight-focus reporting has a disturbing tendency to create what epidemiologists call the "Texas sharpshooter" effect, described by Jonathan Harr in his masterful and absorbing work, A Civil Action. The book* deals with a sensational lawsuit stemming from an apparent outbreak of childhood leukemia in one section of a Massachusetts town called Woburn:
"...[A] man shoots at the side of a barn and then proceeds to draw targets around the holes. He makes every shot into a bull's-eye. If an epidemiologist were to draw a circle around, say, the greater Boston area, he would find an incidence of leukemia comparable with the rest of the United States. Draw a circle around Woburn and he'd find a worrisome elevation. Draw a circle around the Pine Street neighborhood and he'd find an alarming cluster. Was it a real cluster? Or was he just drawing bull's-eyes where he found bullet holes?"
To stay with Harr's example for a moment, let's say a TV reporter hears of a street, Arbor Lane, in a subdivision called The Willows, in a town we'll call Deer Run, where four families out of 20 who live on that street have kids who've contracted Lyme Disease. He then hears of another street in another development in Deer Run where five families have kids with Lyme Disease. It's all too easy to conclude (or to give viewers the impression) that suddenly everybody's getting Lyme Disease. Lyme Disease Terrorizes City! Pull back a bit, though, and include the rest of the respective subdivisions, and perhaps there are just two or three more families in each development with kids who have Lyme Diseaseout of 250 families, now. Pull back a bit more, and maybe there are just one or two more families with Lyme Disease in the whole of Deer Run. And before long, you discover that the overall incidence of Lyme Disease in Deer Run is actually lower than the national average. Who'd a thunk?

Aside from its prominent role in Disease-of-the-Month reportage, the sharpshooter effect also turns up in the alarmist coverage of all sorts of random events that may have no meaning beyond the fact that "such-and-such happened today": plane crashes, product safety defects, prescription drug side effects, surgical risks, etc. Random events don't always occur in random-looking distributions. An uneven/unexpected distribution skew doesn't mean that "something is going on here." And it certainly shouldn't provoke a rush to judgment on the media's part.

* Even if the journalist doesn't actually believe that, he almost has to take that tone in order to justify presenting his report that night. After all, if he treats the episode as marginalia, then his editors and viewers will wonder, Why report this at all if it's "just one of those things"?
** and later, a flawed albeit entertaining film starring John Travolta and a pre-Sopranos (but just as riveting) James Gandolfini.


Anonymous said...

I think the best writing is objective writing where the author can take him or her out of the mix. I think this is true in fiction and non-fiction. Being too close to anything, gives one a lopsided view that actually can alienate the audience (reader).

Media journalism these days seems to take one angle and run with it. NBC does the same thing with “To Catch a Predator.” The word “predator” has been hijacked, because of its overuse and misuse. If you watch that or “America’s Most Wanted,” you would think there are child molesters, rapists, and crooks wherever you look. Was there ever a time when the whole story was looked at?

I have noticed we have gotten to a point that even questioning something puts you in the “bad camp.” I was discussing “To Catch a Predator” with someone and she accused me of being a molester for pointing out the “predators” were suspects until they were tried. That conversation really scared me, because I think it reflects quite a good portion of the way people think.

Steven Sashen said...

In a similar vein, the stock trader Chuck Lebeau used to get daily phone calls from the press asking for his explanation about that day's market moves.

If the question was about the market going up, he'd reach into that day's stack of "good news" press releases and read one of them to the reporter.

If the reporter wanted to know why the market tanked, Chuck would reach into the "bad news" pile of press releases and "explain" the reason.

Because, clearly, international tension about China's use of oil directly causes a 2% move in Starbucks stock.

Cal said...

I'm curious if you also feel this way about economic/financial coverage. The subprime mortgage crisis started the financial distress in the U.S. economy, but from my understanding even if 50% of subprime borrowers are behind in their payments that shouldn't have caused such a calamity. Subprime borrowers are a small portion of the total mortgage market.

But, then again, if houses were being sold way above what should their "real" values (and I know that why we have markets -- to determine these values) then I know any markdown will be painful. The dot-com wasn't so long ago.

My point is that most people are paying their mortgages, credit cards, car payments, etc. on time.

Steve Salerno said...

Financial journalism is often terrible, Cal. That's a whole other can of worms that I'll get into someday (or at least my view of it; nothing says my view is necessarily the be-all-and-end-all). But this whole syndrome of instant analysis--"the market fell today on fears of Iran getting nuclear weapons"--and then tomorrow it jumps 300 points. What happened to those fears? They went away overnight?

Anonymous said...

I don’t think journalism and financial news go hand in hand.

To answer Cal’s question: The subprime mortgage debalacle is bigger than just not paying mortgages on time. It involves bundling those bad mortgages and selling them to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These bundles go onto bond markets and get sold again in auctions. It is like gangrene starting out in a toe and creeping up the leg. The leg will have to come off. Economists saw this coming along time ago.

Steve Salerno said...

I agree with Anon in the sense that I took a rather indirect path to the linkage between financial journalism and the actual economy. As is always the case when you're dealing with national finances, this is a very complex topic with multiple causes and interrelated variables that probably can't be regressed to a coherent timeline or a specific series of antecedent events.

Elizabeth said...

a very complex topic with multiple causes and interrelated variables that probably can't be regressed to a coherent timeline or a specific series of antecedent events.

You are probably right, Steve. Most likely you are. But as I listen to the experts trying to explain today's Lehmann Bros et al. debacle, I hear that it is difficult to pinpoint its root cause. I'm no financial expert, by any means, but I would say that the root cause is glaringly obvious and staring us in our faces. It's called greed.

Steve Salerno said...

Having written extensively about the first S&L meltdown--including a lengthy investigative piece for the Los Angeles Times Magazine that dissected the failures of two of the nation's (then) top-10 savings banks--I can agree with Eliz that greed is surely part of it. So are stupidity, lack of proper management controls, and a certain "vision" that goes, more or less, "as long as we all keep believing, hey, let the good times roll..." Well, no. There is such a thing as Greenspan's (in)famous "irrational exuberance," and eventually the piper will demand to be paid.

Which is why I say: Don't ever tell me that unreasoned optimism and "positivity" have no downside.

ellen said...

Steve, I am definitely in agreement with regard to the way anything is reported today. I noticed this first during the first war outing in the gulf when the managed reporting of war was presented as a kind of entertaining video game. I stayed up all night riveted to my TV screen and appalled at the same time--it was so easy to ignore in all the talk of surgical strikes and unmanned patriot missiles that carnage was happening just out of shot.
Since then we have had increasingly close-up views of combat and carnage--there must be an appetite for it--just so long as it happens in a land that is far, far away we can dismiss it as having the same kind of reality as the movies.
There's a very good book out by Jane Mayer called The Dark Side that says the TV show '24' was funded and promoted in order to soften up the public to be more accepting of the principle of torture as legitimate.
I think something is afoot, all these changes taken piecemeal seem not too serious but this cultural dumbing down is dehumanising when viewed over time

Stever Robbins said...

Let's not forget that Anderson Cooper shot to the big-time by steadfastly reporting from New Orleans while being drenched by Katrina.

Anderson, barely braced against the wind, chisled jaw clenched tight in his battle against the elements, stood up to Mother Nature and took us fearlessly to those places we would fear to go.

At the end of the day, drama can be a real career-making move. As the watchers care less and less about substance and more and more about entertainment value, what actually gets rewarded (drama, gossip) starts to drive out what we might actually want from journalism (good reporting).

I flamed on my blog just last night about my frustration with election coverage. I wish in the hour after hour after hour of commentary, they'd tell me something about an issue. Research a policy. Give me a clue about the implication of something.

Instead, they just tell me that the mention of a topic cause so-and-so to slip X% in the polls.

I often wonder if, back when Al Gore was saying "the tax cuts will only benefit the top 1%," it would have made a difference to his chances if some intrepid journalist had actually figured out what that meant: "Only people making over $365,000 will benefit from the tax cuts. People less than that could get hit with higher municipal, state, and city taxes and fees as the federal tax dollars available for necessary services dry up."

(Here in Boston, our local property taxes and fees for various things skyrocketed. A friend of mine on the city council told me it was a direct result of losing federal dollars in several categories.)

Viva la journalism!