The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, September 01, 2005

News for Grownups

To understand how news reporting is so bad, we have to look at the sections of the newspaper where the news is actually good [i.e., of high quality]: sports and [to a lesser extent] business. It is instructive to consider the distortions which degrade the sports section to match the quality of other sections:
  • If only games decided by over 10 runs (or 30 points) were mentioned, it would be like the local news.
  • If each team's manager got all the credit or blame, regardless of what the players accomplished, it would be like the national news.
  • If only personality clashes were described, never actual game results, it would be like the international news.
  • If the paper mentioned only games which the Yankees lost, it would be like the war news.
The sports section has three great strengths. The first is standings, which encapsulate the myriad of context [betting lines, when available, are even better for this]. Second is recent game results, which describe each team's success at achieving a previously agreed objective. Finally, there is analysis of the future which makes a clear distinction between causes and effects. [This last is the great weakness of financial sections, which see the effect first, and then try to ascribe it to some haphazardly chosen cause.]

News for grownups must be complete with context, emphasize processes rather than events, and focus on the continuity of developments. An article about Iraqi unemployment or power shortages begs several questions [e.g.,the history of such unemployment and comparable statistics from neighboring countries]. Answers to these are never offered.

Markets can offer a lot to the news. For example, in reporting on the possible failure of New Orleans to recover, information on land prices in the area [with historical context!] would be far more informative than some reporters' and politicians' self-serving speculation. New markets can be created for interesting stories: for example, a company like InTrade might market a contract on the population of New Orleans at the 2010 census. [There are currently 7 open contracts on the John Roberts nomination, so this is not an exorbitant demand.]

Context, measurement and continuity are the crucial ingredients of news for grownups, just as lurid pictures are the heart of news for children. Providing these requires skill, including some degree of numeracy, which might be rare in today's journalism profession; but surely it cannot be altogether absent.

Back in March, I wrote:
As long as spectacular pictures dominate news coverage, the side that is in the business of creating such images will have an unassailable advantage. There is not terribly much individuals can do about this, either; it will improve only to the extent that news coverage begins to have a memory, to be able to compare today with yesterday, or last week, or last year. Right now the entire sphere of news -- the blogosphere included -- is like an infant in the night, terrified anew by each atrocity, beguiled by each pretty dancing flame.