Saturday, March 11, 2017

Diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization and aggregation

In past posts (among them, Environment drives bias? and The effect size from their perspective is that much smaller than from yours) I have argued that what is often seen as bias and deliberately slanted reporting might simply be the consequence of journalistic bubbles. If substantively all mainstream journalists are college educated, high earners, living in half a dozen big cities which are all governed by Democrats and which all have higher ethnic diversity, inequality, and crime, then that likely unintentionally creates a group think at variance with the rest of the country.

Nate Silver, in the most recent installment of his post-election analysis of why there was such a material divergence between the coastal elite and their media allies and the voters of the nation, seems to reach much the same conclusion. And kudos to Silver for undertaking such an important exercise when most have made the barest head nod to the reality of their failure before proceeding as if nothing had happened to call into question their world view.

From There Really Was A Liberal Media Bubble: Groupthink produced a failure of the “wisdom of crowds” and an underestimate of Trump’s chances. by Nate Silver. I'd really like to excerpt the whole piece - it is worth a read.
It’s hard to reread this coverage without recalling Sean Trende’s essay on “unthinkability bias,” which he wrote in the wake of the Brexit vote. Just as was the case in the U.S. presidential election, voting on the referendum had split strongly along class, education and regional lines, with voters outside of London and without advanced degrees being much more likely to vote to leave the EU. The reporters covering the Brexit campaign, on the other hand, were disproportionately well-educated and principally based in London. They tended to read ambiguous signs — anything from polls to the musings of taxi drivers — as portending a Remain win, and many of them never really processed the idea that Britain could vote to leave the EU until it actually happened.

So did journalists in Washington and London make the apocryphal Pauline Kael mistake, refusing to believe that Trump or Brexit could win because nobody they knew was voting for them? That’s not quite what Trende was arguing. Instead, it’s that political experts4 aren’t a very diverse group and tend to place a lot of faith in the opinions of other experts and other members of the political establishment. Once a consensus view is established, it tends to reinforce itself until and unless there’s very compelling evidence for the contrary position. Social media, especially Twitter, can amplify the groupthink further. It can be an echo chamber.

I recently reread James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds” which, despite its name, spends as much time contemplating the shortcomings of such wisdom as it does celebrating its successes. Surowiecki argues5 that crowds usually make good predictions when they satisfy these four conditions:
1. Diversity of opinion. “Each person should have private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.”

2. Independence. “People’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them.”

3. Decentralization. “People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.”

4. Aggregation. “Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.”
Political journalism scores highly on the fourth condition, aggregation. While Surowiecki usually has something like a financial or betting market in mind when he refers to “aggregation,” the broader idea is that there’s some way for individuals to exchange their opinions instead of keeping them to themselves. And my gosh, do political journalists have a lot of ways to share their opinions with one another, whether through their columns, at major events such as the political conventions or, especially, through Twitter.

But those other three conditions? Political journalism fails miserably along those dimensions.
Earlier posts addressing Surowiecki's book are here, here, and here. I also note that Garett Jones's book Hive Mind is also relevant.

Silver goes on to elaborate each of the four items. Let Diversity of Opinion serve as an example. The original text is rich in links.
Diversity of opinion? For starters, American newsrooms are not very diverse along racial or gender lines, and it’s not clear the situation is improving much.6 And in a country where educational attainment is an increasingly important predictor of cultural and political behavior, some 92 percent of journalists have college degrees. A degree didn’t used to be a de facto prerequisite7 for a reporting job; just 70 percent of journalists had college degrees in 1982 and only 58 percent did in 1971.

The political diversity of journalists is not very strong, either. As of 2013, only 7 percent of them identified as Republicans (although only 28 percent called themselves Democrats with the majority saying they were independents). And although it’s not a perfect approximation — in most newsrooms, the people who issue endorsements are not the same as the ones who do reporting — there’s reason to think that the industry was particularly out of sync with Trump. Of the major newspapers that endorsed either Clinton or Trump, only 3 percent (2 of 59) endorsed Trump. By comparison, 46 percent of newspapers to endorse either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney endorsed Romney in 2012. Furthermore, as the media has become less representative of right-of-center views — and as conservatives have rebelled against the political establishment — there’s been an increasing and perhaps self-reinforcing cleavage between conservative news and opinion outlets such as Breitbart and the rest of the media.

Although it’s harder to measure, I’d also argue that there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to skill sets and methods of thinking in political journalism. Publications such as Buzzfeed or (the now defunct) get a lot of shade from traditional journalists when they do things that challenge conventional journalistic paradigms. But a lot of traditional journalistic practices are done by rote or out of habit, such as routinely granting anonymity to staffers to discuss campaign strategy even when there isn’t much journalistic merit in it. Meanwhile, speaking from personal experience, I’ve found the reception of “data journalists” by traditional journalists to be unfriendly, although there have been exceptions.

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