Thursday, May 19, 2005

Echo chamber, or just good work?

Interesting discussion by the fine Virginia Postrel on press bias and a Harvard study suggesting that a rejection of the objective journalism model might be good business for publishers.

This is reminscent of Cass Sunstein’s echo chamber argument, that we’ll all end up reading only stuff that we agree with. Sunstein argues this is a bad thing, because it’ll undermine some sort of common fabric of communication. Put another way, we need that objective mediator out there to provide us with a baseline truth, keeping the wild extremists at bay.

Postrel’s story notes the Harvard study’s odd modeling of the problem, trying to capture the idea of bias by noting that, for example, if an unemployment figure is 6 percent, a publisher biased one way might report the rate at 5 percent, while a publisher biased the other way might report the rate as 7 percent.

Oddly, and unsatisfyingly, Postrel leaves the discussion there, noting only the Harvard economist’s comment that sometimes models are too simplified for the real world.

This doesn’t quite capture the point. Her discussion earlier in the article is much better, where the example is an increase of unemployment from 6.1 percent to 6.3 percent. A “negative” story would say, 200,000 more people are unemployed, implying or even stating how terrible that is. A “positive” story would say, that’s a relatively small number with positive implications for the economy. The underlying facts are not in dispute, but the view of them certainly is.

The real issue here is framing, not facts. The simplified (and so erroneous as to be fatally flawed) model posits open misreporting of facts, but this is neither important nor interesting. It’s simple reporting error, or a lie.

The more important questions are, what are the divergent views that are of interest (which is to say, who is interested in writing the “positive” story and who is interested in the “negative” story, with the additional complication that there may be more than two views of interest), and how well are those divergent views expressed?

The better model is captured by a piece from Roger Simon on the UN food for oil scandal. Simon straightforwardly presents the factual issue (a letter from a partisan raising explicit and implicit allegations about the investigators), with a link to the full letter so that readers can judge whether Simon is fair in his post.

Simon notes a developing Pajamas Media policy of posting full documents so that readers can make independent judgments of the quality and fairness of postings. Postrel strongly implies a similar idea, in that “wide ranging” readers can look at both the positively and negatively spun stories and come up with a more complete view than reading just one or the other.

In other words, a robust set of links showing many relevant documents, quotes and other relevant postings gives a pretty darned complete picture, or at least relatively so. The weakness, of course, is complexity and focus, in that the more extensive the information set, the less our ability to render a clear statement or judgment.

All in all, Simon’s model is the good one: 1) facts are the meat of the process and are not negotiable; they may be hard to come by and they may be disputed, but they are nonetheless facts from which all starts and there is probably much less doubt about those facts than the various views which attach to them. 2) Simon’s model refute’s Sunstein’s nightmare, by providing a mechanism in which competing views will indeed be negotiated.

Bad reporters and publishers will tend to be driven out by good ones, who will not deliberately misreport facts or deliberately, ignorantly or carelessly suppress viewpoints, but who will identify the most important facts and views and present them fairly and concisely. Sunstein’s problem is he wants to assert an authority to do this, and unsurprisingly he seems to favor the Manhattan media; Simon’s advantage is actual and transparent analysis that is self-validating.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's still a problem that no one, Simon or Sunstein, can't get around. Most people are lazy and ill-informed, and nothing will change that.

12:47 PM, May 19, 2005  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Nah, they're just rationally ignorant. Maybe I can make a name for myself by promoting rational laziness.

3:08 PM, May 19, 2005  
Blogger Skip James said...

I rarely have subscribed to traditional media over several years. I still get lots of exposure to it. It is most often the quoted (if criticized) source on many blogs and both conservative and liberal magazines(& websites.) Moreover, the idea that even a rabidly conservative website like FreeRepublic is uniform in its thinking is a very inaccurate myth. My reading takes me to many different viewpoints and websites, some times I agree in general (ends) and disagee very much in the specifics (means). Even when I agree completely, the writer of the piece is often commenting on something said by another. I have to give that something some consideration to even decide if I agree or disagree.
In summary, the worry [that a huge avalanche of people debating and commenting on the news all with huge access to the widest variety of information & opinion ever published] is patently ridiculous.

6:43 AM, May 20, 2005  
Blogger Skip James said...

Correction of prev post: The worry that wildly informed people will have no exposure to "balance" and therefore become unbalanced, is patently ridiculous.

Those who choose to remain lazy and ill informed are the very ones who will be MOST influenced by the MSM as it is the saturating media. They still will not agree with all of it, on its face. And some of the blogosphere will break through.

6:48 AM, May 20, 2005  
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