Thursday, September 22, 2016

Waiter, There's False Balance In My Soup!

If you go to a restaurant and complain about a fly in your soup, the waiter quickly apologizes and corrects the situation with a fresh pour of soup in a new bowl. The waiter does not say, well, you are a customer and we find that customer's often complain without justification  -  "You see, customers have a bias they can not control."

But if you complain to the New York Times about their false balance news reporting model and false equivalence problems, the response is that you are biased and the political editor and public editor can choose to ignore the substance of your arguments.

Laboring under the false balance model, the press has a tough time depicting reality --  (The Devil Made Me Do It). Sam Wang, the neuroscientist who researches and writes about politics, asks if the "both sides do it" news template, especially if applied uncritically, is to increase ratings. Professor Wang points to the template for objective reporting developed by Barry Ritholtz.

Item 1 of the Ritzholm template is the key element – contextualize the lie, but the problem is much bigger than that. Not the lie, but the pattern of lying, really the pattern of a repeated series of separate and distinct accusations must be contextualized. Focus on process and practice is more abstract and difficult than the concrete accusations that appeal to true believers, but is the only way to reach fundamental truthfulness. Reporting with integrity means being willing to call it as you see it. “Fair and balanced” reporting for the NYT has meant not daring to report what is happening if that objective reporting could have the appearance of bias.

Context means seeing and reporting differences such as – all of the negative reporting by the media on Trump is based on a fair evaluation of his own statements or straightforward history. The negative reporting on Clinton is based on accusations made by partisans against her that are made outright or as the product of a string of otherwise unrelated investigations into the possibility of wrongdoing. As an example from another field, researchers using statistical tools to investigate whether a drug is effective against disease or an effect is statistically significant for purposes of drawing a causal inference need to preregister the study details in order for results to be credible. Otherwise the study data can be sifted for the purpose of finding results in a way that discredits the research. For example, the purpose of the study may be find out if Drug A is an effective treatment for psoriasis, but Drug A is tested for that and 20 other diseases. Drug A may be found effective against Disease 19 of 20, but that result may just be noise in the numbers. If a committee dedicated to collecting data on Benghazi is used to scrutinize a previously unknown email server, the same principles should apply.

Context also includes what is not happening. If Biden were running instead of Clinton, would we be talking about the Clinton emails? No, we would be chasing down a series of accusations about him. Of course, a nonevent is not something to report, but just try to imagine what the first 1/3rd of Matt Lauer’s “Town Meeting” would have been like. “Vice President Biden, how are we supposed to trust a man who, by all accounts, is a serial plagiarist?” After all, a good journalist must be “hard-hitting”, right? Because that demonstrates balance.  Why must the same accusation(s) be repeated over and over again at the expense of discussion of issues. Well, issues are complicated. Actually running a country is complicated.

The New York Times has difficulty adjusting to the new reality, but this phenomenon is not new with Trump. This has been going on for decades, and has been accentuated as Foxnews has emerged as a powerful driver of the political narrative, even with a mostly older and diminishing viewing audience.

In politics, when we focus on whether a politician is lying and whether an accusation is true with fact-checking, the battle has already been lost because that means we are letting the narrative be determined by the accuser instead of the objective observers. The problem with the objective mainstream media is that the traditional journalistic model only works in a good faith reporting environment. The existence of the Murdoch/Ailes propaganda machine changes the dynamic in a way that requires rethinking how that model is failing and needs to change.

Instead of journalists pretending not to have any beliefs and changing what they do and do not cover and what questions they ask, a cognitive somersault, why not just try to be as objective as possible about trying to report what you see is going on. If any such reporting yields errors, then correct that with new information, like we do in science all the time. What if scientists tried to be balanced all the time instead of intellectually curious?  What would happen if instead of trying to understand what is going on in the world and collecting the most relevant evidence to test their models, they went back and forth between competing interests, evaluating the biased views of those interests? That would be a disaster.

So the NYT agrees to tweak their model (sort of a"You Lie, Mr. Trump!" moment). But the Times does not even consider that maybe, just maybe, their balanced model needs to be replaced.  The NYT is unwilling to admit that “fair and balanced” reporting is failing because there are participants in the process with significant influence who are willing to act in bad faith to subvert honest reporting. The word “lie” is an incendiary term and can function most effectively as an accusation, especially if a listener is predisposed to bear ill will toward the target. But to an objective observer, the word “lie” has limited usefulness. If it sends a reporter in hot pursuit fact-checking mode, it may be a diversion from collecting and evaluating the best information to understand context. The word "lie" is used in politics, not to help people understand what is happening, but to brand a political opponent a “liar”. Under that model, if someone is a “liar”, they are unfit for the presidency and should be eliminated from possible election.

One problem with discussing the birther retraction from Trump –suppose the original accusation was simply a cynical ploy to burnish his brand to run for President with a certain segment of the electorate. As soon as journalists discuss that ploy as a possibility that needs to be investigated in detail – “try not to think of an elephant (Lakoff) – try not to think that the president, maybe the president you voted for, was illegitimate, the battle is already lost.  If journalists had always treated it as a ploy, an insult, and a devious tactic to take advantage of weaknesses in our campaign reporting model, then Trump would have faced a different challenge with his recent retraction. The retraction would have been tantamount to an admission that it was a cynical ploy all along – deeply insulting to Americans and to the president. But I am still waiting for the reporters to recognize that Trump thought all along that they were too dumb to catch on to what he was doing and, with the playbook retraction –shifting all the negative attention of the fact-checkers to Hillary Clinton with a “lie” that it was all her idea, still thought he could manipulate the reporters.

Meanwhile, the president was reduced to presenting not one, but two birth certificates, and further made subject to never ending disbelief among a large segment of conservatives.  If they are never going to believe you anyway, why should you be reduced to presenting your birth certificate? This is how these accusations always work.

The NYT keeps trying to remain above the fray, but they have become a part of the problem despite their best intentions.

Warning: The above post contains factual information presented in context. The NYT has not reviewed this material to remove the context, nor to add balance to foster the appearance of objectivity over the accurate depiction of reality.

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