It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, June 30, 2008

Sleight-of-Mind

Andy Revkin has an article up on a public radio site that gives us some insight into what he thinks the problems of his work are and ends up, to me, emphasizing the related but not identical problems that I think are the core issue. This is striking:
Now, however, the nature of environmental news is often profoundly different, making what was always a challenging subject far harder to convey appropriately to readers. By appropriately, I do not just mean accurately. Any stack of carefully checked facts can be accurate but still convey a warped sense of how important or scary or urgent a situation may be. Therein lies an added layer of responsibility—and difficulty—for the reporter.
That goes directly to what I think the most cogent criticism of even the most responsible media on global change issues (as often voiced by Jeff Huggins in Dot Earth comments). These stories persistently appear on page 14, behind Pres. Sarkozy's love life or Michigan's manufacturing or California real estate and so on. On thing we are missing in the media is a serious concentration on the serious issues.

You might argue that the endless saber-rattling in the middle east is a direct consequence of this sleight-of-mind.

Revkin offers us a case in point, remarkably mentioning "page 14":
News is almost always something that happened today. A war starts. An earthquake strikes. In contrast, most of the big environmental themes of this century concern phenomena that are complicated, diffuse, and poorly understood. The runoff from parking lots, gas stations, and driveways puts the equivalent of 1.5 Exxon Valdez loads' worth of petroleum products into coastal ecosystems each year, the National Research Council recently found. But try getting a photo of that, or finding a way to make a page-one editor understand its implications.


Here's how I handled that story, which the science editor pitched for page one, but was trimmed back and ran on A 14 on May 24, 2002 :

“Most oil pollution in North American coastal waters comes not from leaking tankers or oil rigs, but rather from countless oil-streaked streets, sputtering lawn mowers and other dispersed sources on land, and so will be hard to prevent, a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences says in a new report.

“ The thousands of tiny releases, carried by streams and storm drains to the sea, are estimated to equal an Exxon Valdez spill -- 10.9 million gallons of petroleum -- every eight months, the report says.”
Emphasis added. And then there is this:
The hardest thing sometimes, is to turn off one's news instinct and insist that a story is not “frontable,” or that it deserves 300 words and not 800. Try it some time. It violates every reportorial instinct, but it's do-able—kind of like training yourself to reach for an apple when you crave a cookie.
Indeed.

It's time the Times realized that there is no requirement that it have the same number of "pages" every "day", nor that stories length should be related to their importance. The "paper" is no longer made of paper!

Which is why stuff like this:
Somehow, through the ensuing years I adapted to the rhythm, but also to the reality of its limitations. Particularly on an issue like the environment, I understood why that crutch of “on the one hand” was so popular. There's just no time to do better.

And there's no space. Science is one of the few realms where reporters essentially have to presume no familiarity at all in the reader's mind with the basics. Just about anyone in America knows the rules of politics, business, or baseball. But a spate of studies of scientific literacy shows just how little most people know about atoms or viruses or the atmosphere.

All that extra explication has to somehow fit into the same amount of space devoted to a story on a primary vote, a stock split, or a shutout. And it doesn't. The shrinking of an environment or other science story competing on a page with national or foreign developments is as predictable as the melting of mountain glaciers in this century.
doesn't fly. Andrew simply is not acknowledging that the nature of his job has changed. News lasts forever, and should be written as such. I make little distinction between yesterday's story and last month's. If it comes to my attention and I find it interesting, I read it in exactly the same way with the same attention. If it's more than two years old I may be making some mental adjustments.

Finally there's his anecdote about the reporter who got everything wrong. He tries to pass some blame onto the scientist.
I was at a meeting in Irvine, California, on building better bridges between science and the public, and one researcher stood up to recount her personal “horror story” about how a reporter totally misrepresented her statements and got everything wrong. I asked her if she had called the reporter or newspaper to begin a dialogue not only on fixing those errors, but preventing future ones.

She had not. She had never even considered it.

Until the atmosphere has changed to the point where that scientist can make that call, and the reporter respond to it, everyone has a lot of work to do.
Despite all the grief I give him, I'd love to meet Andrew some day. But I hope never to meet the reporter in question here. I would never consider getting in touch with someone to whom I had given hours of my time who showed no sign of understanding a word I said. I might contemplate, in a charitable frame of mind, whether I should refrain from trying to get such a reporter fired, or at least assigned to another beat.

Andrew seems to understand the quandary we are in, though he doesn't seem able to convey his understanding to the front page where it belongs, and is tied to an old model of what a newspaper is. Other than that, on the whole he does a good job. If he misquoted me I would call him on it and would expect a first rate clarification.

With the other reporter on the story, I wouldn't call to clarify at all. That reporter would get the clarification wrong too! That such a reporter is assigned to science stories is yet another sign that the editors, like reporters, lawyers, politicians, tink thanks, etc., the whole east coast power enterprise, don't have a clear idea of what planet we live on.

Settling for 300 words on page 14 is not going to help.

13 comments:

dan said...

Michael,
Good post, and insightful thoughts. But one thing, newspapers like the TIMES are still printed on paper, and that is the vehicle which makes money for its parent company and brands the firm as well. True, stories no longer have to be trimmed back online, but if you have ever worked in a newsroom you will know that editors, and the managing editor, make all the big decisions. Like Andy said, his editor, the science editor pitched the story for page one, but higher up editors for the entire paper, who have different agends and tasks, they pulled the story back to page 14 and cut the words back. This happens every day in newspapers around the world. We cannot change that. It's just part of the way papers are produced, on deadline. Daily.

But if someday, it all goes digital, to the web, then yes, things will change and there will be no more page 14, and no more trimming of stories from 2000 words to 600 words. Yes yes yes.

But until that time, patience, sir, patience. Newspapers are strange beasts. I know. I have worked on a few.

I think Revkin is doing his best, the best he can, but his job is to write, interview, report, and the rest is up to his beat editors and then the page editors and then the national editors. So don't blame Andy. And don't even blame the Times. This is how newwspapers work.

But I do think they will be replaced by web editions completely, soon, by 2100. Can you wait another 92 years?

EliRabett said...

Most of them come from Texas. They are yours you are welcome to them

Dano said...

I guess this overarching topic could be a Brittanica-sized series of volumes.

We don't have the sensory perception mechanism/s to apprehend slow change - we must use our brains. And we're wired to perceive immediate threats (or so sez my old environmental psych prof). So we must think about it.

And there's the rub: we don't (as a group) want to think about it. We will, eventually, but it'll be too late by then. This is why we need strong leaders - but not too strong. Etc.

Best,

D

bi -- IJI said...

A while back I had the opportunity to correct a Wisconsin reporter on his story about the "Heartland 500" list. To his credit, he did come back with a correction in a later report.

The initial story -- mistakes and all -- was a measly 183 words. (Wheee!)

Maybe Revkin can focus more on reporting inactivist shenanigans, which are invariably easier to explain and understand.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Richard said...

Michael,

re: the East Coast power enterprise -- according to Bret Stephens in the WSJ today, global warming is a discredited cult. Which makes me feel much better. Or makes me think of the cartoon in the previous post.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121486841811817591.html?mod=hps_us_inside_today

Michael Tobis said...

Eli, point taken.

There is something oddly dreamlike about Texas and Texas logic that can easily turn nightmarish and does.

The odd thing is that up close, Texans appear generous and thoughtful and kind. It's just that the landscape and the history is so very odd that puts very peculiar ideas into their heads, that at a distance appear so shabby and shallow and cruel.

GWB is the farce version of history repeating the LBJ tragedy.

I wasn't really sure where Crawford was 'til I drove through it by mistake a few weeks back. I didn't stop. There's plenty of room around there, though, for wealthy man to find a peaceful and pleasant retirement.

So I'm looking forward to the day when Texan attitudes are more of a local problem. Ship 'em back here.

PS - Watch the excellent documentary "The Unforeseen" for further enlightenment on these matters.

Hank Roberts said...

I've taken to complaining that dot.Earth comments are a free forum for unsupported claims. Andy does from time to time insert a reply pointing out gently that better information is available. But when he writes:

> I do not just mean
> accurately. Any stack of
> carefully checked facts
> can be accurate but still
> convey a warped sense of
> how important or scary or
> urgent a situation may be.
> Therein lies an added
> layer of responsibility
> —and difficulty— for the
> reporter.

Well yeah, but the stack of checked facts is necessary although not sufficient.

That's where the dot.Earth comments fail so badly, they're not education, they're mostly diseducation, almost always quickly filled up with long-refuted claims by the usual few regulars who never cite sources and never give up.

It's the editors who cut out or never support providing checked facts and references in the main article. I assume it's also the editors who let the comments run unchecked in all senses of the word. Andy tries from time to time to insert a comment but rarely says flat out that someone is making up their own fact claims, as they so often are.

Anything and everything in the NYT these days should have an accompanying file of citations and full text transcripts of the material they are willing for the public to see. I'm not talking about violating confidential sources, just about citing sources who want to be findable.

Right now the science pages are selling ad space by "teaching the controversy" as Doonesbury puts it.

Dano said...

That's where the dot.Earth comments fail so badly, they're not education, they're mostly diseducation, almost always quickly filled up with long-refuted claims by the usual few regulars who never cite sources and never give up.

Hank, what would success be? That a major media outlet has a comment thread that doesn't get hijacked by denialists and the denialist fringe and the denial industry? Sure. Has it ever happened? Have you ever read the comments in any major newspaper?

Best,

D

Hank Roberts said...

Dano asked, good question. I think success will be as Dan says:

>... it all goes digital, to the web, >... and no more trimming

And some provision made for checking sources. It's a habit newspapers are supposed to have. Not all sources are available to the public -- getting those remains the job of the journalist.

Hank Roberts said...

Aside -- I don't doubt Andy Revkin's competence checking facts, which I respect. I just find the sheer density of the density in the comments threads discouraging.

Andy did write something about finding people capable of analyzing a contents thread a while back as a sociological study. I hope to see that.

Just wishing the NYT as publisher would make it part of their publishing business to always provide an explicit place for people who post what they believe to also post a source for it -- online, not in the limited print space -- and have a reference librarian handy to help people look for such sources to check what they read. I find this sorely lacking all through the NYT's health and science columns and blogs.

E.g.
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/02/brain-surgeons-and-cellphones/#comment-85256

Chuck said...

"That such a reporter is assigned to science stories is yet another sign that the editors, like reporters, lawyers, politicians, tink thanks, etc., the whole east coast power enterprise, don't have a clear idea of what planet we live on."

Amen.

As for GWB, I think he combines the worst aspects of Texas and East Coast cluelessness.

hankroberts said...

http://calculatedrisk.blogspot.com/2008/07/good-for-wall-street-journal.html

Example of doing it right:


" ... But look! On the online version of the story, there's this little box several paragraphs down, titled "From the Case Filings." And it in are links to the various court filings and internal FDIC documents on which the story is based. You can click on one of those links, if you feel the urge, and read the same primary written sources that the reporter used to write the story! If all you want is the short version, you can just read the article. But for once, we see the online media using the powers granted by the Internet to create a situation in which we're not forced to settle for just the short, breathless, over-simplified version! Not that I think this particular article is an offender in that regard. But I have spent a lot of blogging time on breathless, over-simplified articles--Hi, Gretchen!--based on great long complicated court filings that I had to go look up myself to get a clearer picture, if they were even available online.

I therefore drop a deep and graceful curtsy to the WSJ's online editor and the reporter, Mark Maremont. You probably don't want to get used to this yet, but it is still quite sincere."

Anna Haynes said...

Belatedly, re Dano's defending Dot Earth by saying

> [Has it ever happened] that a major media outlet has a comment thread that _doesn't_ get hijacked by denialists and the denialist fringe and the denial industry?

It could be done; I wrote the Dot Earth Defender script to solve this problem. Then the Times preemptively 'fixed' Dot Earth's comment formatting in a way that broke it - and made readers unhappy.
So no, I don't think they're overly concerned with creating value for the commenters or for the readers of comments. The *only* real way to prevent infestation from destroying the comments' utility (to commenters) is to provide the ability to intelligently filter, and they're still not doing it, last I checked.

"A newspaper's main product is not news or information, but influence." - Phil Meyer

If paper can't control the commenters, it loses influence.