The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Number and numbers in reporting

Journalism is all about editing, framing, manipulation, inclusion and omission. There is absolutely nothing straightforward about it. It is not flat glass, it's a hall of mirrors.

And that, with the best will in the world: most readers have long concluded that the US (or any other) media does not have the best will in the world.

Some issues are hard to get a handle on: fairly evaluating the extent of USG coercion on media product down the decades, for instance, is a job of work.

Others are easier to handle.

For instance, the characterisation of the number of sources on which an allegation is being based.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, for instance, together with the editors on the job (if they were paying attention), misled readers of his infamous Periscope column into thinking that there was more than one source for the allegation that there was to be an official acknowledgement in a Southcom report of that a Koran had been flushed down the bog at Guantanamo [1].

It's not an isolated incident.

Michael Getler, Post ombud, refers to
a front-page story July 4 by reporters Charles Babington and Susan Schmidt that began, "Democrats' hopes of blocking a staunchly conservative Supreme Court nominee on ideological grounds could be seriously undermined by the six-week-old bipartisan deal on judicial nominees, key senators said yesterday."

There was only senator. The other [2], that was supposed to justify the plural, spoke with studied ambiguity.

Another example: the Cleveland Plain Dealer got a hoo-ha going with its decision not to print a stories based on the leak of confidential information. Chocolate soldiers emerged from their editorial funk-holes to deride the PD's cowardice in the face of Patrick Fitzgerald.

And who should be in the van but that journalistic City on a Hill [3], who headlined a piece by David Cay Johnston Most Editors Say They'd Publish Articles Based on Leaks.

The PD did the work that the Times copy editor, presumably in a state of self-induced tumescence at the time, had failed to do: it counted the number of editors making the allegation.

On the most generous reading, there were four of them. Out of how many thousands in the US? How can that be most? You might well ask.

PD editor Doug Clifton wrote to new Times ombud, Byron Calame, to make the point.

No sign of any reply yet in the ombud kinda-sorta blog.

Takeaway message: if readers can't even trust the media
  1. to count; and

  2. to read through stuff before it publishes,
how on earth does the media expect to win sympathy for a Federal shield law, or anything else?

  1. Jack Shafer (May 26) following your humble blogger (May 17) - post hoc sed non propter hoc, goes without saying. Ooops...

  2. Grant the Post hacks their point, that there were two senators who said what they said was said. Is two enough to justify an indefinite plural?

    For instance, if a journo had interviewed two Londoners after the bombings who had agreed on a point, would he be justified in saying, Londoners are saying that...?

    I'd say, no.

    If a paper says, Senators are saying something or other, the implication is that a politically significant minority, at least, are doing so. Now, senators are not like vox pop respondents: some matter much more than others. For instance, if a report in 1956 said that Senators are saying and those senators were Richard Russell and Lyndon Johnson, that was one hell of a politically significant minority. Whereas you could have named twenty senators of the time who, together, had less influence than either Russell or Johnson.

    The point, as with most of these questions is, the reader is not informed that the text he is reading is in code. Hinc illae lacrimae...

  3. Whose crap may therefore be showered on the rest of us by action of gravitym without consuming fossil fuels. Environmentally sensitive, is the Gray Lady.


Note also, this piece in the Carolina Journal - I don't know it - makes a valid point in its dek: Errors in news stories need more explanation than simple corrections.

It highlights two cases which have to be worse than those discussed above because mere negligence is negatived. One concerns an AP story in which Blair was said to have mentioned the Israel/Palestine problem in connection with global terrorism.

He had every reason to have done so. But he hadn't. No explanation from the AP, just an apology.

And a New York Times Editors' Note about an op-ed:
The writer, an Army reserve officer, did not say, "Imagine my surprise the other day when I received orders to report to Fort Campbell, Ky., next Sunday," nor did he characterize his recent call-up to active duty as the precursor to a "surprise tour of Iraq." That language was added by an editor and was to have been removed before the article was published. Because of a production error, it was not. The Times regrets the error.


A test for 'Barney' Calame.

MORE (July 19)

Calame has provided an explanation amounting to a shaggy dog story. Apparently a genuine chapter of accidents. Case closed.

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