Friday, March 3, 2017

Journalism and complexity

This article, Bees Shouldn’t Become The Next ‘Fake News’ Victim by Jon Entine, prompts a thought.

He highlights two New York Times journalists whose reporting is misleading. In one instance, the reporter is simply filtering information through their personal and ideological biases to arrive at incorrect or incomplete reporting. In the other instance, it sounds like the reporter simply has grasped the wrong end of the stick.

I would argue that there are four broad categories of content in a newspaper - Facts, forecasts, analysis and opinions.

Certainly the mainstream media struggle to even achieve the basics that we seek - the impartial reporting of facts. That is regrettable but not unexpected. That issue has been around a long time. Sometimes it is the misreporting of facts (deliberately or accidentally) and sometimes it is the omission of facts that undermines the reporting.

Then there is the issue of reporting forecasts - a notoriously difficult challenge which journalists make worse, again by filtering everything through ideological lenses. As an example, there is the utopian pursuit of a $15 minimum wage for low productivity employees. Well documented economic theory forecasts that if this were to pass, there would be some combination of predictable outcomes: 1) employers would fire low productivity employees and hire higher productivity employees, 2) the extra cost would be recouped by reducing the volume or quality of the food inputs, 3) employees would be replaced by automation, 4) the cost of goods would rise, and/or 5) the number of businesses would decline.

This forecast is standard economic theory and the exact mix of outcomes is dependent on elasticities of supply and demand and other contextual circumstances. But the media treat the $15 proposition as if there is no of supply and demand and that there would be no consequences. Instead of reporting the standard forecast and the basis for the forecast, they treat the proposition as an ideological debate with both sides making an abstract argument. Which eventually lead to these factual headlines - Minimum Wage Massacre: Wendy's Unleashes 1,000 Robots To Counter Higher Labor Costs.

Opinions have always been around, its just a matter of whether they are segregated in an editorial and opinions page or whether they infuse reporting as well.

Entine's commentary focused me on the analysis area. This has always been somewhat of a red-headed stepchild in journalism. It requires both domain knowledge and some modicum of analytical skill/rationality to do well. Both analytical skill and domain knowledge tend to be 1) rare and 2) expensive. Consequently, newspapers are sparing in their investment in analysis.

What I am wondering is whether the increasing complexity of the world and complexity of human organizations, technology, networks, etc. aren't making the journalistic job harder and worse. The simple stuff like corruption, and basic economics, and crime, etc. have their challenges, but in many ways there are known templates.

But issues like social networking, climate, global trade, manufacturing interdependency, tax policy, the linkage between productivity, crime, education, etc. - all these issues are immensely complex and our deterministic knowledge is minimal. Crime is correlated with poverty in some instances and not in others. CO2 has a logical link to increasing global temperatures but not a reliably robust evidentiary link. Managed trade is beneficial in some constrained circumstances against standard theory.

Are our current population of journalists equipped to do or assess this sort of analytical work? The evidence is that the answer is no. But these are more and more the nature of problems with which we have to grapple. I don't know what the resolution is but it appears to me that we need one.

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