Sunday, August 12, 2012

success, balance, comments

Paul Tough's second book, How Children Succeed, is coming out September 4. The third chapter is about chess, specifically the IS 318 chess team, James Black, Matan Prilleltensky, the Polgars, Gata Kamsky, and myself. You can read a fun excerpt here of me going over a game at nationals and being a bit psycho.

 As you know, I love the Democracy in America blog, and I was especially struck by a recent article on balance in journalism:

       The problem of balance is neatly explained by a British hack, Nick Davies, who wrote a seminal (and underrated) book on falsehood, distortion and propaganda in journalism called "Flat Earth News". Mr Davies does a bit of teaching, and he has his students imagine that they are asked to write a report on what the weather will be like tomorrow. They interview a woman in one room who says it will be sunny. Then they interview a man in another room who says it's going to rain. Your job, as a journalist, is not to simply write up what you have been told, he says. Your job is to look out the window.
       Writing a "balanced" version of this story would produce an article that reads “he says it will rain” but “she says it won’t”. You have all these quotes fluttering around like “butterflies in a jar”, going nowhere. But there is a bigger danger lurking. What if the man who says it is going to rain is lying? What if he is an umbrella salesman? Your options are to either make a judgment about the truth, or print what you have been told. But if you balance an article when you know that all the evidence points to a sunny day tomorrow, then you are participating in a denial of truth.
And finally, is anyone else disturbed by the wildly inconsistent comment policy at the New York Times? Some articles allow comments; others don't, purely at the whimsy of the department editor, for reasons completely opaque to me. May I comment on a Science article? DON'T EVEN TRY IT. Racial profiling at airports? SURE! Assisted suicide? ABSOLUTELY NOT! A 17 year old Ambassador's daughter who falls to her death at a party in a high rise after drinking? NO PROBLEM.

someone explain it to me


Leon Akpalu said...

DiA is indeed a good and thoughtful read.

I think that part of the thing with "balanced" reporting is that except for the heart-warming stories or the natural disasters, almost all reportage is on topics that are in some way political. And in such cases it's not really fair to players in that political situation not to at least cover both sides -- a dismissive coverage of the creationists who want to take over the school board, for example, may lead to the more reality-based folks underestimating their threat.

Add to this that whatever heuristic we use (and you know this from chess!) there are going to be people who don't use it properly, or situations where it doesn't apply.

There are certainly times when the Fairness Doctrine is mindlessly applied, but given the constraints that reporters work under (especially the time ones) I don't think they've done too badly with it.

It's also important to note that it's not a recent thing. Reading Dick Cavett's sometime column in the NY Times a while back, he mentioned doing the first episode of his talk show and leaving the stage to find a studio executive fuming because one of his guests had criticized the Vietnam war.

The executive held up the broadcast of that episode until they could find some general to appear on the show to say that the war really was all right. This speaks to the time constraint of reporters, too; but more importantly we got through that era (this wasn't even a news show!) and we'll get through this one also.

oddodddodo said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I'm surprised that no one has commented yet on the book excerpt. I think that Paul Tough danced around but didn't quite hit the key point, which is that YOU are the best middle-school chess teacher in America. Also, I suspect that one thing all of those other, "privileged" chess programs have in common is a caring, committed teacher.

Of course I haven't read the rest of the book and don't know the context of this selection; possibly he does make these points somewhere else.


Anonymous said...

The world of news is undergoing radical transformation. Traditional news is based on words but we are finding that this framework is limiting and that the future will be news based upon data. A hurricane is a tragedy and worthy of coverage, but there may be a meta story, which is global warming. Likewise, a murder is horrible, but crime rate trends are also important, as well as our crime prevention systems. Education is another subject that, until recently, could only be covered with words; now, however, we have more and more data available and so we also have the opportunity to tell stories about what is happening and what will be happening, objectively, with data. Doing this takes skill of analysis, synthesis and presentation. So the whole reporting premise of balance in story falls away in the future and our new challenge becomes how do we objectively present the data. Who needs a balanced story about the weather when we have The Weather Channel? Likewise, Nate Silver uses data to understand polls and polling predictions.