Vibe-based Reporting

One point of contention in a debate about religion between Sam Harris, a prominent atheist, and Chris Hedges, the former New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief, was the issue of how common among Muslims worldwide is the support for suicide bombings. Harris had argued that a very sizable portion of Muslims in Europe and the Middle East support suicide bombings (as well as other “extreme” practices such as the death penalty for apostasy), and Hedges disputed this claim by describing his experience living in the Middle East for 7 years. He explained that he had gotten to know many Muslim families who viewed suicide bombings with disgust, and reported confidently that this view was representative of Muslims in general. Harris replied by saying “happily we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim world and make friends and get a vibe” and then relaying the results of a Pew or Gallup poll that contradicted Hedges’ assertion.

Unfortunately, the amount of reporting that is based on the vibe gotten by a New York Times journalist is much greater than Harris might like (certainly more than I would like).

Consider a recent New York Times article explaining that the Republican party is “on the defensive” because their recent push for spending cuts is unwise in the opinion of “some well-known economists, financial analysts and corporate leaders, including some Republicans.” 19 of the article’s 30 paragraphs serve primarily to support the notion that a wide variety of economists and other experts do not agree with Republican policies. Among those quoted are co-head of global economics research at Bank of America, the chief United States economist for High Frequency Economics, and the chief economist of OppenheimerFunds. These all sound like smart and qualified people, but the obvious reason this article is not nearly as useful to the reader as it could be is that the reader still has no idea how representative these people’s views are of macroeconomists in general. Nor do we have any idea why the New York Times reporter chose to talk to the co-head of global economics research at Bank of America rather than the analogous person at Citibank, or JPMorgan, or anywhere else. Was the Bank of America guy more friendly? Was he the only one who listed his phone number on LinkedIn? Were his views more consistent with the theme the New York Times was trying to push?

Happily, as Sam Harris would say, we have a device that allows us to render all of these issues and questions irrelevant: a poll. Unhappily, the New York Times chose not to use that device.

Wouldn’t the reader have gained far more knowledge by simply reading the results of 2 or 3 poll questions posed to, for example, 200 randomly selected tenured macroeconomists at accredited U.S. universities?

The obvious reason why the New York Times chose to publish an article rather than a poll is that it is a newspaper, not a polling outfit (also maybe the article is more fun to read). But when deciding whether a New York Times journalist or Pew is better suited to answer the question “how commonly held is the view, among economists, that the Republican economic policies are bad?”, the answer is just as obvious, and the same, as it is when the question is in regards to Muslim public opinion.

 

*Hedges left the Times after being formally reprimanded for “public remarks that could undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality.” One naturally wonders whether his greater offense might actually have been undermining the paper’s impartiality.

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14 Responses to Vibe-based Reporting

  1. Morgan C says:

    I recently read that quantitative statistical probability was first publicly discussed in writing in the mid-1600s, which sounds very late. (Before this, the words ‘probable’ and ‘likely’ existed, but they were used to mean ‘trustworthy.’ A “probable fellow” was a person who gave off the vibe of being trustworthy.) It is interesting to me that before the mid-1600s, your blog post would be unintelligible to all except (maybe) some gamblers who had independently arrived at probability theory.

    Here’s where I read about the origins of probability theory:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Z2g0F1V5DywC&printsec=frontcover&dq=ian+hacking+probability+theory&hl=en&ei=JLFKTpjsIsTTgAeM7Pxy&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=ian%20hacking%20probability%20theory&f=false

  2. Morgan C says:

    “Formally reprimanded”: You seem to be saying that while the Times may be informal and sloppy in allowing their authors to to sneak in bias in statements about likelihoods that rely on pre-1660s “vibe” logic, at least they man up and issue formal reprimands when it comes to their most egregiously partial reporters.

    Are you ignoring the fact that the Times’ 2003 standards for impartiality, enforced by the reprimand to Hedges, expired in 2004 with the famous mea culpa editorial in which the Times repositions itself to match Hedges’ public remarks, to the effect that the occupation was unjustified and led naturally (if not inevitably) to damaging American prestige and power. (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/international/middleeast/26FTE_NOTE.html)

  3. Jonathan says:

    I think even pre-1660s people would have understood that a report which cited the views of 200 randomly chosen economists is more informative than a report which cited the views of 20 economists chosen in a way that is completely opaque to the reader. They may not have used words like “probability” to describe this feeling, but they would have understood the notion intuitively.

    I don’t see any evidence in that editorial of a repositioning in favor of the view that the occupation in Iraq would “damage” our “souls” (whatever that means) – but even if you don’t view that comment as showing partiality, watch the youtube clip or read one of his articles (or just the first paragraph of this one: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/fundamentalism_kills_20110726/) and you’ll find what you’re looking for.

    But the more important point is that the Times’ reprimand was issued due to the undermining of “public trust in the paper’s impartiality” whereas, as anyone who views the youtube clip (or reads the article I cite above) can see, the employment of an idiot like Chris Hedges is far more damaging in that it undermines the paper’s actual impartiality; to the extent that Hedges managed to undermine the public’s trust in something which didn’t exist in the first place, he only mitigated that damage.

  4. Morgan C says:

    “I don’t see any evidence in the editorial of a repositioning in favor of the view that the occupation in Iraq would “damage” our “souls” (whatever that means).”

    Hedges wasn’t reprimanded for uttering something meaningless.

    I understood your distinction between public trust and actual impartiality the first time around. It’s a good point.

  5. Jonathan says:

    What if Hedges had said “If we go to war in Iraq, it will take at least 10 years before the angels inside of us manage to again wrest control of our minds away from the demons.”

    He’d probably have been reprimanded.

    If he had said “I firmly believe we should not go to war in Iraq,” do you think he would have been reprimanded?

    If so, how about if he’d said “based on the vibe I am getting by talking to all of the experts out here in the Middle East, it is a bad idea if we go to war.”

    • Jonathan says:

      I’m not sure my last comment is very helpful at all (although I am sort of curious about the answers to my questions). My rebuttal to you should have been to point out that the “editorial” (it actually isn’t best termed an editorial I don’t think — it seems to be written by the news side, not the editorial side, and you’ll notice they actually make no comment at all about whether the war was a smart move in that piece, but rather make only non-normative claims about past reports) you link to does not convince me that the editors would have wanted their *reporters* making normative comments about the war. Whether they’d have wanted that is a totally separate issue from whether, in the Times’ editors’ view, the war reporters showed undue bias in their reporting in favor of the war.

  6. Morgan C says:

    I’ll respond to your questions tomorrow. Bill Keller, the Executive Editor in 2004, wrote the mea culpa, and his job transcended the news and editorial sides.

    Did Harris make normative claims about the war in his articles, or only on his own time? (If he showed his raving partizan colors in his articles, you have a point.) When a newspaper expresses its bias, the bias does not usually come out when reporters make claims about the wisdom of a war in their articles (even though reporters might make normative claims on their own time), but when editors commission articles critical of or in support of something by writers who will be predictably critical or supportive of that thing. In this interview Bill Keller says he wishes he had published more stories critical of the invasion plans pre-war. He also comments that Fox executives are ridiculousness, and notice, it’s on his own time that he is making these politically sensitive statements (to my mind, that shows at least as much bias as it does when an reporter makes normative claims about an invasion on his own time).

    Here’s the interview:
    http://www.regrettheerror.com/2009/02/06/bill-kellers-regrets/

  7. Morgan C says:

    When I said “critical” in the above post, I was thinking, “articles written from a critical point of view.” I wasn’t thinking of articles that level politically loaded criticisms or charges, but articles that relentlessly question the judgement and honesty of those who led us to war, including expose-style stories.

  8. Jonathan says:

    I look forward to your answers tomorrow, but I hope they don’t rely too heavily on your 2nd sentence, which is not correct. Andy Rosenthal of the editorial page reports directly to Pinch Sulzberger, who is the publisher: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Rosenthal

    I agree with Michael Kinsley that it is better for a journalist to reveal his normative beliefs professionally (http://www.slate.com/id/92782/) than to hide them from his readers.

    In any case, not having watched the interview, I doubt that anything Keller said takes the form “the United States should / should not adopt policy X.” Pointing out the bias of other media outlets is very different from this sort of statement. As to whether saying he wished he’d published more critical stories approaches such a form, I’d have to look at the interview, but I can imagine that it could be much closer to expressing the views he expressed in the piece you linked to, which I’ve already discussed. I’d bet that you might catch Keller saying a lot of things which are politically charged, maybe normative, etc., but the one line he would not want to get caught crossing is making a normative statement about U.S. government policies (and I agree that perhaps that is an arbitrary line, but nonetheless my sense is that this is how Keller / others in the news business see it).

  9. Jonathan says:

    You are assuming your conclusion. That is not an “editorial.” It is “from the editors,” i.e., from the heads of the news desk. If it had said “editorial” it would have been written by Andy Rosenthal and his team. I agree “editor” is a confusing word – it has so much in common with “editorial” yet it is meant to convey something totally different. (Maybe you are just feigning confusion to make a parody of the supposed separation between the opinion people and the news people at the Times. If that is the case, no need; I totally get it that they are all a bunch of libs).

  10. Morgan C says:

    Your inside baseball remarks appear to be right. Still, I imagine most readers (even those who are aware, as I am, of the distinction between the terms ‘editor’ and ‘editorial’) view pieces signed with a generic “from the editors” to be basically the same kind of thing as editorial on the editorial page. Both seem to be the voice of the newspaper. Different newspapers have different degrees of separation between the editorial and the news departments.

    In any case, my point stands that the Times’ point of view moved in line with Hedges’ view. My point is perhaps made more strongly when it is shown that the entire news wing with one voice (Bill Keller, speaking for everyone) denounced the Iraq war, than if an anti-war editorial had been written.

    (By the way, E thinks you are right in this dispute. She thinks it showed outrageous bias when Hedges made his speech, and she imagines the reprimand would have been just as appropriate at any time in 2004 as it was in 2003.)

  11. Jonathan says:

    I agree that there is not a very substantive distinction between an editor’s wish to have written more articles critical of the judgment to go to war, and his statements that take the form “The U.S. should not go to war” (since as you point out the obvious motivation for the first action is the same belief that is expressed in the 2nd action). However I do believe that editors (such as Keller) draw a clear distinction here, despite that it may seem arbitrary (and potentially misleading/damaging) to us.

    The more basic reason why I think this distinction seems arbitrary to us (at least me) is that the distinction between factual claims and normative claims is arbitrary (or at least not nearly as important as others claim). Normative claims such as “we should not go to war with country X” follow straightforwardly from facts such as “country X no longer has any people in it.” More fundamentally, if you believe in moral absolutes (which I believe you do), then normative claims are just factual claims about those moral absolutes (and their relation to facts about the world we live in). So perhaps newspaper legitimately editors feel that arbitrating factual disputes about moral absolutes is above their paygrade, and they want us to be aware of their acknowledgement of that limitation; still, when it comes to moral absolutes as fundamental as whether a reason to go to war which is based on factually false claims (WMDs) should be considered a legitimate reason to go to war, I think we can all agree that Bill Keller should not hold back.

    (And I’m glad E agrees with me on the point about Hedges, but I doubt she agrees on this other stuff.)

  12. Morgan C says:

    >What if Hedges had said “If we go to war in Iraq, it will take at least 10 years before >the angels inside of us manage to again wrest control of our minds away from the >demons.”

    That comes across as gibberish, rather than something atheists regard as nonsense. There’s a difference, and I don’t know how a writer is treated when he begins to speak in gibberish. My guess: because gibberish isn’t likely to be mistaken for endemic political bias in the Times it would probably be understood by all involved (audience, the Times, and Hedges when he came to his senses) that this was merely an embarrassing incident that called for an apology. If Hedges never came to his senses, he would probably be relieved of his responsibilities without reprimand.

    >If he had said “I firmly believe we should not go to war in Iraq,” do you think he >would have been reprimanded?

    No, especially if he gave evidence that the alleged justifications for war were only pretexts.

    >If so, how about if he’d said “based on the vibe I am getting by talking to all of the >experts out here in the Middle East, it is a bad idea if we go to war.”

    No. This would strange comment would not have much rhetorical force. It borders on gibberish, but it would probably only be ignored.

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