Monday, October 10, 2011

Dear NY Times, let us interpret the news

It used to be that you could count on the New York Times to separate clearly news stories from analysis or commentary, but the newspaper now regularly blurs the distinction.  Let me give an example from today's paper, in a front right story entitled (in the paper edition), "Median Incomes Shrank Further After Recession". 

By the way, that I might agree with the opinions put forth is not the point.  The point is that a news story is supposed to be news, not opinion.  Let the readers draw their own conclusions.

Here's the lede:

In a grim sign of the enduring nature of the economic slump, household income declined more in the two years after the recession ended than it did during the recession itself, new research has found. 

The use of the term "grim" is problematic, as it is the writer's characterization.  The sentence would have be accurate and properly sparse without it.  But that is minor compared to this conclusion, two paragraphs further along:

The finding helps explain why Americans’ attitudes toward the economy, the country’s direction and its political leaders have continued to sour even as the economy has been growing. Unhappiness and anger have come to dominate the political scene, including the early stages of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Where does this come from?  There is no evidence presented in the story that there is a connection between the two.  Maybe, for example, people's attitudes towards their political leaders result from those leaders behaving like incompetent boobs (my opinion).  But there is not even support included in the story for the proposition that these are "Americans’ attitudes" or that they have "continued to sour," i.e., grown in scale.  Again, I am not saying the conclusion is wrong:  I am saying that, in a news story, the reporter is supposed to provide factual support for the statements.

The rest of the story, after the page turn, is an excellent summary of economic research on the income issue, by this reporter who presents this kind of material well.

In previous decades, the Times would have separated the news story -- "median incomes shrank" -- from an accompanying news analysis story  -- "grim figures explain public malaise."  By combining the two aspects into one story, the newspaper falls into the entertainment trap of certain television networks.  Maybe that is its intent.


e-Patient Dave said...

I have no insight into what's happening in the halls of the Gray Lady, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone there were to notice, after decades of fighting the good fit, that they were getting whupped by the other side's "We report, you decide" liars (my characterization :-)), and decided to fight back.

I don't like the idea that fewer and fewer Americans know how to look below the surface of *anything* but I'm pretty sure it's a principal reason why people like Rush Limbaugh get away with the idiot things they say. I personally railed for those same decades against the decline of literacy and "thinkeracy" but here we are.

(And you know I myself still prefer to think and lit.)

Anonymous said...

Dave, I wish this comment column had a 'like' button; I'd check it for your comment. (come to think of it, speaking of causes of "illthinkeracy".......)


Anonymous said...

I think of the class of undergraduates, hoping for an easy 'A' from their choice of social science. After a disappointing show of curiosity, observation and analytic skills, one said, "but science is hard!" Why bother with fact-finding when those well-worn synapses of belief seem to work just fine? Put another way: information processing is time consuming and energetically expensive. And the social and economic benefits of herd behavior are overwhelmingly higher than probable outcomes from tweaking (i.e. questioning) dominants in the group. So, is the NYT is responding to the herd, or to its dominants?

Anti-intellectualism has been at a boil in this country for decades, and the NYT piece echoes the fear-centricity of its reasoning. We cannot leave so much of the population behind - and hold so few accountable for their words - and not expect to pay for it.

e-Patient Dave said...

omg, did I just say "fighting the good fit"??

See what I mean?

(I've always wished that blog comment software would let me edit what I posted, but very few do, and I'm pretty sure Blogspot won't even let Paul edit it for me.)

Paul Levy said...

Correct, Dave.

Paul Levy said...

From Facebook:

Patricia: This is exactly the topic I am covering in my English Comp. 1 class right now. Can I use this post in my class?

Omid: Another tell in the story is the use of "household income". That is a very misleading statistic since household sizes change all the time. A more intellectually honest metric would be personal income.

Bob: I agree, Paul - and the Times sister paper, the Boston Globe, blurs the line consistently with editorial comments strewn willy nilly throughout what is supposed to be objective reporting. A case in point is the recent spate of articles on gaming (and I have no fox in this hunt, just a casual observer).

Beverly: Oh, the Globe is a newspaper?

Howard said...

I agree with you. It is so frustrating to read almost anything today that I find it difficult to take the time to read in depth any newspapers except the sports sections.