Thursday, 12 January 2012

Memory in journalism

Keith Ng thoroughly documents one instance of a broader phenomenon in New Zealand journalism: very poor apparent institutional memory.

Keith notes that ACR, the Association of Community Retailers, which lobbies against regulations that impose costs on small tobacco retailers like dairies, gets PR support from Imperial Tobacco. Keith calls it astroturfing. That's possible, but I don't think it rules out that the group of represented small retailers genuinely supports the policies promoted by ACR and simply shares interests with Imperial on those issues. 

Either way, it didn't take long after Keith broke the story for the NZ media to forget that ACR enjoyed industry support. Writes Keith:
It seemed like quite a problem, the idea that so much of our news comes from groups which could be hiding all kinds of interests and agendas.
Turns out, the problem isn’t “what are they hiding?”, but “does anyone give a shit?”.
What this has shown is that even when the agenda is Big Tobacco’s, even when the connection is the second result on a Google search, even when their own organisation has reported on it, even when it’s stated plainly on their website, even then, the PR industry can get their stories printed with no scrutiny.
It’s a complete and utter rout.
You know, some of my best friends are journalists. And I like to think that they are the better ones. They always complain that they’re under pressure and under-resourced, and that this sort of shit slips through the cracks.
I’m sure it’s true, but here we are, at the point where our biggest news organisations run stories without spending 10 seconds on a Google search, or asking if something makes any goddamn sense. [Emphasis added]
If Richard Green says new laws will cost him $10k for shelves, they run it. If Richard Green says new laws will cost him $27k for shelves, they run it (RNZ newswire, 14 July 2011).
How many of the facts reported in our media are this dodgy? And if there is so much that we can’t trust – and we can’t distinguish between what can and cannot be trusted – at what point should we simply give up?
You could chalk it all up to that it takes time to build up experience on a file and that erosion of profits in journalism have knocked out the senior folks who remembered what happened a year ago. But that can't be it when a 10-second Google search, or simply "asking if something makes any goddamn sense" would be enough to shoot something down. But when Radio New Zealand happily reports that each smoker costs the economy three times per capita GDP, folks aren't running the simple checks.

It has to come down to demand. If your audience take stats as infotainment, why worry too much if the stats are right? In fact, you can't afford to worry about it too much. And if the customers don't care whether the stats are right, then supply will arise to fill demand for the kinds of stats for which somebody's willing to pay (BERL on alcohol, PWC on Adult and Continuing Ed, many others in the back pages of the blog, the whole InfoGraphics problem cited by Megan McArdle...).

On bad stats, at least we have StatsChat. The University of Auckland's stats department now gives a prize for picking the week's (or month's) worst stat that's appeared in NZ press outlets. I recently nominated Radio NZ's exaggeration of the costs of smoking. Hopefully, shaming news outlets and the producers of bad stats will eventually have some effect. But it's harder to think of useful interventions that fix the kind of sloppiness Keith's citing.

Keith's interview on Radio NZ's interesting; it'll likely here be archived soon.

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