Tag Archives: news

Why There’s No Good News

Discussing briefly a key tenet from his latest book, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley looks at how and why pressure groups limit the amount of good news reaching the general public and those in decision-making positions:

There are huge vested interests trying to prevent good news reaching the public. That is to say, in the ruthless free-market struggle that goes on between pressure groups for media attention and funds, nobody likes to have it said that ‘their’ problem is not urgent and getting worse. […]

This is wrong on all sorts of levels. First, because it shows a staggering arrogance among pressure groups about who should be allowed to know the facts — almost amounting to attempted fraud. Second, because the way to encourage people to fund projects is to show evidence that they work, not that they are futile and ineffective.

Ridley also puts blame on the journalists for their unquestioning belief of claims of urgency and deterioration: “the two things that get editors’ attention”.

The End of the Inverted Pyramid

The inverted pyramid style of reportage is broken, believes Jason Fry, and it is time to reinvent contextless reporting into a more reader-friendly style.

Fry points to an essential Nieman Reports essay that suggests how context-central reporting could be the future of reporting and a reason why Wikipedia is becoming the destination of choice for those wanting to be informed on current events.

Ed Yong provides a good summary, introducing it with:

News journalism relies on a tried-and-tested model of inverted storytelling. Contrary to the introduction-middle-end style of writing that pervades school essays and scientific papers, most news stories shove all the key facts into the first paragraphs, leaving the rest of the prose to present background, details and other paraphernalia in descending order of importance. The idea behind this inverted pyramid is that a story can be shortened by whatever degree without losing what are presumed to be the key facts.

But recently, several writers have argued that this model is outdated and needs to give way to a new system where context is king.

via @siibo

The Over-Estimation of Sampling Errors

Fairly obvious, but something I haven’t previously given much consideration to:

Sampling errors mean that initial figures are equally as likely to be under-estimates as over-estimates but [in media stories where figures for a disease or condition are quoted] we only ever seem to be told that the condition is under-detected.

That’s from a short post from Mind Hacks looking at the proliferation of the phrase, “the true number may be higher”.

For any individual study you can validly say that you think the estimate is too low, or indeed, too high, and give reasons for that. For instance, you might say that your sample was mainly young people who tend to be healthier than the general public, or maybe that the diagnostic tools are known to miss some true cases.

But when we look at reporting as a whole, it almost always says the condition is likely to be much more common than the estimate.

For example, have a look at the results of this Google search:

“the true number may be higher” 20,300 hits
“the true number may be lower” 3 hits

The Ideal News/Media Outlet

Describing his new rules of news, Dan Gillmore provides 22 rules that he would insist upon if he ran a news/media outlet (and, in turn, describes what many would believe to be the ideal news organisation).

This particularly caught my eye:

We would replace PR-speak and certain Orwellian words and expressions with more neutral, precise language. If someone we interview misused language, we would paraphrase instead of using direct quotations. (Examples, among many others: The activity that takes place in casinos is gambling, not gaming. There is no death tax, there can be inheritance or estate tax. Piracy does not describe what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing networks.)

I also second the comment on ensuring journalists have at least a “basic grasp of mathematics and statistics”. A later comment frames this as, “all articles concerning science should involve input and final review by at least one journalist qualified in a relevant scientific field”.

Reporting and the Internet

It seems you can’t spend five minutes on the Internet without coming across an opinion piece on the end of traditional media or an article riffing on the age of the blog. I’ve so far refrained from noting (m)any of these articles, mainly because the argument is becoming stale and the articles are so widespread.

Michael Massing‘s latest for The New York Review of Books is one worth your time, however: it’s a balanced, detailed view on the new landscape of reporting—that of a symbiosis between blogs, online media outlets, and traditional national and international newspapers. (It also serves as a good resource to some of the best blogs around.)

This, in response to David Simon (he of Baltimore Sun and The Wire fame) likening the Internet to a parasite “slowly killing the host”:

This image of the Internet as parasite has some foundation. Without the vital news-gathering performed by established institutions, many Web sites would sputter and die. In their sweep and scorn, however, such statements seem as outdated as they are defensive. Over the past few months alone, a remarkable amount of original, exciting, and creative (if also chaotic and maddening) material has appeared on the Internet. The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news.