Sunday, May 22, 2005

Journalistic Malpractice

Daniel Okrent, NY Times Public Editor, comments on a often used (mal)practice in journalism: 'random' interviews that support an article's thesis:

... 9. It's a story, say, about the New York City public schools. In the first paragraph a parent, apparently picked at random, testifies that they haven't improved. Readers are clearly expected to draw conclusions from this.

But it isn't clear why the individual was picked; it isn't possible to determine whether she's representative; and there's no way of knowing whether she knows what she's talking about. Calling on the individual man or woman on the street to make conclusive judgments is beneath journalistic dignity
(ed. emphasis added). If polls involving hundreds of people carry a cautionary note indicating a margin of error of plus-or-minus five points, what kind of consumer warning should be glued to a reporter's ad hoc poll of three or four respondents? (13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did by Daniel Okrent)

Here's an example of this technique in practice:


...Reporters also chose extreme examples to make the case against personal accounts. For the March 4, 2005, “CBS Evening News,” Jim Axelrod featured Steve Vivien, an employee wronged by corporate accounting fraud. As Axelrod explained, “First his employer, MCI, converted his pension to company stock. Then WorldCom
bought MCI, and scandal sent the stock belly-up, gutting his 401(k). Social Security’s gone from the icing on his cake to the meat of his retirement.” Axelrod concluded, “With his retirement plans now far different from a few years ago, Steve Vivien would prefer no changes to the role of Social Security.” Obviously, the vast majority of Americans don’t fall into Steve Vivien’s category.

Scare tactics such as these were common, as reporters often likened personal retirement accounts to high-risk stock market investments. The assertion that personal accounts were “risky” was made by sources or reporters more than 50 times. Trish Regan even set her Feb. 5, 2005, “CBS Evening News” report against the backdrop of Reno, Nev., a popular gambling destination. Unsurprisingly, local worker Maureen Fager said about personal accounts, “This is Reno, Nevada. I know a gamble when I see it.”

... The networks also were fond of characterizing Americans as ignorant about investing, implying that it was risky for them to be in control of their own etirement funds. On the Dec. 16, 2004, edition of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” Betsy Stark made this introduction: “Like many American families, this one has done very little investing. And they worry about knowing enough to make good investment decisions.”

She asked Teresa Webster, “Do you know the difference between a stock and a bond, for example?” Webster’s answer: “Not really. No.” Stark did not explain the terms. The networks ignored widespread participation in the stock market through 401(k)s, mutual funds and individual investing.

CBS continued the policy of making Americans look financially inept on the Feb. 9, 2005, “Evening News.” Jim Axelrod asked, “Would you say you know a little about investing or a lot about investing?” Receptionist Jama Whitesell: “A teeny bit.” Axelrod: “Just a teeny bit?” Whitesell: “Yes.” Axelrod: “In that case, Jama and a lot of Americans might want to know more than just a teeny bit about investing, because the choices they make could have a huge effect on their retirements.

(From: Biased Accounts Networks Guarantee Liberal View of Social Security By Amy Menefee )

Hat Tip: Rantingprofs


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