‘Watching the Detectives’ Category Archive
I saw Spotlight for the first time a few days ago, and as a dramatization of journalism there were two things that struck me as incredibly insightful but easy to lose track of in the film’s narrative. The first is that, while presented and celebrated as a story of heroic journalism challenging and taking down a corrupt institution, it’s more a story of journalistic failure than anything else. The story of systemic abuse of children by Catholic priests wasn’t just something that “everybody” knew about, which I think tends to be the short version of the backstory; it’s something that the Boston Globe was specifically tipped off about years before the early 21st century reporting that ultimately became “the story.” This is a key plot point that occurs more than once in the film — victims and their advocates hesitant or unwilling to trust the news organization that dismissed them in the past.
That lack of trust is intimately related to Spotlight’s second big hidden element: the link between individual units and systems. This actually comes up in two important ways. Most directly connected to the trust question, the sources being interviewed by the reporters don’t see those reporters as almost entirely different from the people who failed to follow up on their tips in the past. The only member of the Spotlight reporting team to have seen that previous information was Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), who had been the Globe‘s city editor. And yet, all the reporters are told, “you” were sent this information years ago. The “you” in question here isn’t the individual journalists; it’s the Globe as an institution, from which they are inseparable and for which they are responsible. From inside the institution, it’s easy to object and say that was somebody else’s mistake; from outside, the institution is a forest, and the trees indistinguishable.
But if the public is too likely to see only the system, reporters’ bias pulls them the other way, toward episodic stories that too often don’t link together to tell the bigger story beyond the individual events. In Spotlight, the one person who sees this is the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), now at the Washington Post. What got me thinking about this as more than just an interesting story note was seeing Baron’s name pop up in a piece about Post reporter David Fahrenthold’s tenacious pursuit of Donald Trump’s bogus foundation. Fahrenthold had begun reporting on Trump’s promised donation to veterans groups (you may recall this fundraiser as the reason he gave for skipping a debate right before the Iowa caucuses), which had not materialized, and which, like most of Trump’s promises, everybody had completely forgotten about. This is a story worth digging into on its own, but Baron suggested going further: “The logic was that Trump had just tried to wiggle out of a charitable promise he’d made on national TV. What, Marty wondered, had he been doing before the campaign, when nobody was looking?”
These different reporting styles map reasonably well to the concepts of episodic and thematic framing in the scholarly literature, and an over-reliance on episodic reporting is probably as much to blame for the Globe‘s failure as the social biases that would keep Boston reporters from seeing systemic corruption in the Catholic Church. Episodic reporting — or more directly, thought processes that lead to it — allows an event to be a one-off, with baseline assumptions reset the next time the reporter encounters a similar pattern. It means presuming good faith on the part of those being reported on. The potential trouble here is obvious. Unscrupulous actors can and frequently do game this type of reporting. We are seeing it happen right now with coverage of Donald Trump’s tweets. Coverage that simply repeats what he tweets, and makes the story the fact of him saying something, does not allow for examination of the pattern of misdirection and deceit in his statements. This sort of thinking also permeates campaign coverage, and especially post-election coverage, that uses candidate idiosyncrasies to explain outcomes, rather than the broader, macro-level fundamentals that political scientists use to model elections (many fundamental-based models suggested a narrow Trump win this year, for what it’s worth).
Although some of the individual stories in the Globe’s and Post’s respective reporting might be written in thematic frames that highlight general concepts over specific instances, this type of framing doesn’t fit the conflict as well as episodic framing fits the other side. Instead, what I’m talking about is probably better called systematic framing (and this maybe isn’t even framing at all), and occurs across stories, manifesting through linkages that are used to explain truths that can’t be found in a single event. As Fahrenthold put it regarding his systematic pursuit of Trump Foundation information:
The point of my stories was not to defeat Trump. The point was to tell readers the facts about this man running for president. How reliable was he at keeping promises? How much moral responsibility did he feel to help those less fortunate than he?
Any individual story about Trump stiffing a charity doesn’t and can’t answer those questions, in the same way that any individual story about a pedophile priest doesn’t and can’t answer questions about the extent of the problem or the systematic cover-up being run by the Church. These are complicated stories that are, by nature, not reportable in disconnected, single articles. More than that, they’re stories that can’t be expected to emerge simply from an amalgamation of one-offs pieces. They need context and connection, a tie consciously made by the reporter, and used to illuminate the bigger truth for the public.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 8:34, January 4 || No Comments »
Related to my previous post, am I confident that the press can avoid moon journalism, chasing shiny objects that they can reflect to the public? I am not:
Apropos of IOP mtg, this is how much Trump dominated news coverage in the general election: pic.twitter.com/eMfXlgjh7R
— Monkey Cage (@monkeycageblog) December 2, 2016
Hillary Clinton barely got the majority of coverage of the two major party candidates during the Democratic convention (for what it’s worth, Gallup’s survey data has the same finding). The three occasions when she had the clear majority of coverage were related to bogus scandals. The point here is not the press was blindly pro-Trump — coverage of him had a reasonably neutral valance overall — but rather that Trump was allowed to set the agenda and consume all the campaign oxygen. This is consistent with coverage of the primaries as well. No non-Trump candidate’s message was ever able to break through as a major component of campaign discourse in the media. Now that the election is ostensibly over, the pattern continues with Trump’s Carrier PR stunt and victory tour.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 17:45, December 2 || No Comments »
Politico Magazine asks today, “Why do voters believe lies?”:
If Gardner wins on Election Day, he certainly won’t be the only politician to get away with not being totally transparent, and it prompts the question: Why do voters fall for misinformation? A common refrain these days is that this is because there is a plethora of “low information” voters. If only those citizens knew more about politics, the argument goes, then the problem would be solved. But in fact, the problem is much more complex: It is often the people who are most interested and informed about politics that are most likely to adopt false beliefs.
Goal-post shifting from “believe lies” to “adopt false beliefs” aside, it’s a bit rich for Politico to run a piece blaming voter misinformation on motivated reasoning above all else. One reason that Cory Gardner’s lies (referred to even in this piece with “lies” in the headline as “equivocation”) haven’t hurt him with voters — particularly those less motivated, low-information voters — is that the press is unwilling to say that he’s lying about his previous and current support for personhood amendments. To the extent that the press is willing to challenge these statements, it’s in asides, shunted off to comically inept “fact-checking” columns, as if it’s not the job of regular reporters to check facts before printing them.
The LexisNexis archive contains 30 newspaper articles from Colorado sources in 2014 that mention “Gardner” and “personhood,” a number of which are editorials, and others of which mention personhood only in passing. In Iowa, Joni Ernst, another Senate candidate and personhood support who now claims that personhood amendments don’t mean what their text plainly says, was mentioned in only two state newspaper articles alongside personhood. That’s exactly two more than mentioned her along with “Agenda 21,” the UN development plan that she and other fringe conservatives believe is a secret plan to institute a one-world government. However, dozens mention her infamous “castrating hogs” ad from the primary campaign, a piece of political theater that sent tingles up the legs of many Washington courtiers.
A lot of misinformed people are going to vote today, and it won’t only be people whose misinformation is motivated by partisanship. A political press that allows lies to exist in a quantum symbiosis with truth bears plenty of the blame.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 15:05, November 4 || No Comments »
CLINTON: “Their campaign pollster said, ‘We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.’ Now that is true. I couldn’t have said it better myself — I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad.”
THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were “legally accurate” but also allowed that he “misled people, including even my wife.”
Clinton lied about something unrelated 14 years ago, so therefore his claim that Romney is lying now is false, because balance.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 10:47, September 6 || No Comments »
Every once in a while you’ll read a bit of commentary about an opinion columnist or editorialist making some claim that flatly contradicts facts in reporting by that columnist’s own news organization (see, e.g., the disconnect between editorial and reporting in the Washington Post). There are all sorts of potential reasons for this happening, and it provides a lot of fodder for eager media critics in the blogosphere.
But I was really surprised to see this coming from a blogger, and particularly one who is generally quite insightful. Steve Benen, the blogger behind the Washington Monthly‘s Political Animal, has an op-ed in the New York Daily News today suggesting that Barack Obama could be successful in the upcoming legislative session by co-opting Republican ideas that he largely agrees with and supports. The two examples he gives are presenting John McCain’s 2008 cap and trade system and George W. Bush’s immigration reform plan as his own bipartisan proposals. How could Republicans suddenly oppose things they’d so recently supported? Put aside the fact that Republicans, en masse, were never fans of either of those proposals. Republicans just did this! The health care bill that almost every congressional Republican voted against was nearly identical to the Clinton-era Republican counter-proposal and the system signed into law in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. In 2009, that market-driven, Republican-approved plan became a socialist plan to pull the plug on grandma.
The point of this, though, is not to make a counter-argument to Benen’s op-ed. It’s to point out that he spelled out why this can’t work just yesterday in a post called “When (and Why) Bipartisanship Is Impossible.” In it, he notes exactly the health care process that played out last year, and quotes Ezra Klein noting that Democratic moves toward (then through and past) the center are always met with Republican moves to the right. So it was very surprising to read this from Benen, and it’s hard not to wonder if the venue — a daily metro newspaper, as opposed to a blog hosted by a monthly opinion journal — influenced his argument and the conclusion he reached.
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 11:47, November 14 || No Comments »
Two news stories today that feature totally contradictory ideas coming from the same source, with no attempt by the journalist to explain. One, a George Stephanopoulos piece on Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) entitled, “Sen. Conrad: Extend All Tax Cuts; Time to Get ‘Serious’ About Deficit.” In the piece, Conrad is quoted as saying: “I proposed some weeks ago that we extend all the tax cuts for a period of time until we are able to fundamentally reform the tax system. Because that is what is required in part here along with spending reductions. Both are going to have to be done if we are going to get out of this deep hole.” It’s not at all clear how tax cuts and spending cuts lead to deficit reduction, and unfortunately Stephanopoulos neither presses Conrad to explain this self-contradictory statement, nor does he explain to his audience the role revenues and expenditures actually play in creating deficits.
In the other, a story from Bloomberg, we find this lede: “Investors around the world say President Barack Obama is bad for the bottom line, even though U.S. corporations are on track for the biggest earnings growth in 22 years and the stock market is headed for its best back-to- back annual gains since 2004.” Later, this: “Worldwide, 63 percent of all respondents say his policies are detrimental to the U.S. investment climate. That number increases to 68 percent among U.S. investors, even though the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has risen more than 43 percent since Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 and corporate profits have rebounded almost to the pre-recession peak reached in 2006.” Author Mike Dorning goes into territory that Stephanopoulos avoids by directly contrasting the attitudes of poll respondents to actual investment outcomes during Obama’s time in office. Interestingly, he does little to point out contradictions in respondents’ open-ended answers about their views of Obama, perhaps because the respondents largely traffic in talking points about the “uncertainty” and “lack of clarity” in future fiscal and regulatory policy. Divergent results between US and foreign investors suggest that US investors may be responding with their personal financial interests in mind — 60% of them think all the Bush tax cuts should be extended, as opposed to just 30% of foreign investors.
This prompts a couple of questions for me. The first one is broad, and is one that my grad school colleague Ray Pingree dealt with in his dissertation: What is the effect of the press refusing to adjudicate fact-based disputes? In each of these cases, contradictions arise over fairly basic and well-accepted facts: lowering revenues (e.g., by cutting taxes) increases deficits, business profits and economic growth are up under Obama. How is the audience supposed to interpret stories that don’t allow those pieces of information to have a privileged position?
This question is much more relevant to traditional “on the one hand, on the other” coverage, which quotes each side and doesn’t adjudicate. What makes these two stories interesting is that it’s the same sources dealing with two conflicting pieces of information. Conrad says we need tax cuts and deficit reduction. Investors say Obama is bad for the economy even though their profits are through the roof. There are issues here for the audience, to be sure. Do they even process this type of story the way they might process a more typical “argument” story? Do they understand, without prompting from the reporter, that there’s any dissonance in what the source is saying? Dorning seems to think they might, and balances many of Bloomberg’s poll findings with actual economic data. Stephanopoulos doesn’t take that step, potentially leaving readers so much in the dark that they don’t even know the light exists. Let there be light, George! Let there be light!
Filed: Watching the Detectives || 13:32, November 11 || No Comments »
Dylan Matthews (guesting for Ezra Klein) has a nice piece on the way perceived audience make-up affects news framing:
[C]limate hawks aren’t in charge. Because of the filibuster, and now GOP control of the House, the balance of power rests with people who deny the need to take just about any action to stop climate change. So why is Fallows concerned with rebutting them, rather than trying to win over people to his right, who are actually in a position to change things?
In fairness, Fallows, like any journalist, has to target a specific audience, and chances are that the average Atlantic reader believes that manmade global warming is a serious threat, and are skeptics about clean coal insofar as they have views on the matter. Presenting the piece as a defense of coal makes more sense as a response to them than as an attempt to influence the political system.
He further notes that, though elite political journals all have narrowly perceived audiences, the long-form journalism they produce can be influential all around Washington — even if you think all your readers are center-left think-tankers, what you produce will be seen and used by pro-coal figures. The classic example of this is perhaps Betsy McCaughey’s “No Exit,” published and later retracted by The New Republic, and coincidentally cited as the most destructive impact on public discourse of the 1990s by James Fallows, who wrote the above-mentioned clean coal piece. “No Exit” presented an extreme, right-wing (and fictitious, as it turned out) view on the Clinton health care proposal to TNR’s middle-of-the-road audience, informing them that the proposal would forbid Americans from purchasing health care services outside of the new government-run system. While its first-level affect might have been to lead moderates away from supporting the plan, it also became a springboard for conservatives — George Will later claimed the proscription on outside care would be enforced by jail time.
All of which is to say, who you think you’re writing for matters, and who you’re actually writing for matters. Being able to reconcile the two could be key in producing journalism that can positively affect public policy.