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August 19, 2012

Man in the street = Editor in the studio

Maybe I’ve been unlucky, or maybe I’m just more sensitive these days, but I think I’m hearing more NPR interviews with ordinary joes and janes. For example, they just ran interviews about the election with seniors. We learned that there’s this one old guy who likes Ryan because he has good values and likes America. We learned that there’s another old lady who is worried that the Republicans will weaken Medicare. Then, we learned that there are other old people with other opinions.

That is, we learned nothing. There was no statistical significance to the interviews. There were no particular insights. The most significant lesson we could learn is about what the editors at NPR think are interesting, balanced sound bites.

There are three levels of badness of “man on the street” interviews. At level one, they are journalism at its laziest. At level two, they’re ways to smuggle in opinions that the journalists are afraid to express. At level three, they’re conscious attempts to manipulate opinion through selective editing.

NPR’s interviews are “balanced,” and thus are probably only Level 1 offenders. Maybe Level 2. I wish all forms of journalism became Level 0 offenders.

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June 28, 2012

[aspen] Amanda Michel and Matt Thompson on how the media have changed recently

Amanda Michel, who I know from her time at the Berkman Center, is being interviewed by Matt Thompson. She’s pretty amazing: Howard Dean campaign, Huffpo’s Off the Bus, Pro Publica, and now social media at The Guardian. She’s talking with Matt Thompson from NPR.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She says that the Off the Bus effort now strikes her as surprisingly structured and profesionalized. For a year and a half, they recruited citizen journalists. Of the 12,000 of the people who participated, only 14% wanted to write articles on their own. The formalized approach Off the Bus took has been adopted by sites that invite readers to contribute their photos, their thoughts, etc.

The biggest shift, she says, is how much the campaigns rely upon data. E.g., how did Romney think he could win Iowa with just a few offices? The people who worked for him had identified die-hard supporters, who were asked to call other supporters, who were also then asked to call. In 2004, we the people were making media constantly. Now the engines driving the campaign are largely under the hood. So, if you’re reporting on campaigns today, you’re doing email analysis to understand the candidates’ strategies

Matt: It’s amazing how much media people now have woven into their days. A study shows that people are now spending 700 mins a day on media. Media is now a layer on top of people’s everyday experience. We looked at how a persistent story — a storm damaging a town — has been told throughout history. The single thing that stood out: We’ve gone from medium as an appointment you keep to media as a constant texture that both succors and buffets you.

Amanda: That’s why in 2008 we used a formalized approach — asking reporters to sign up and giving them assignments — and now people know if they go to a campaign event, they’ll be asked to post photos and twist.

Amanda: How has the shift between media and people changed?

Matt: We used to broadcast. We used to send out msgs. Now people use their mobile devices to talk with one another. We sit in this space, right alongside them. For us at NPR, that position is sweet. Radio is intimate. People can now carry us with them. That intimacy has created a drastically new dynamic for us.

Amanda: At Pro Publica, we worked on “explainers,” explaining questions people have. Readers told us they were particularly useful. I’m interested in how we can hold those in power accountable. We did the “stimulus spotcheck” to see how the economic stimulus money was being used. We asked our readers if we could tell what was going on. I asked readers to help us identify sites. Readers checked 550 sites around the country — 4.5% of construction sites aroiund the country — and we found that that gusher of work was further down the pipeline.

After making multiple phone calls, readers would sometimes say, “Journalism is hard,” which helps them understand the value of journalism.

The big challenge for media institutions is to keep their eye on the ball. The ubiquity of media can give you the false confidence that you’re seeing all there is. You’re checking Twitter, but many stories are much more difficult to find, and there are many people who don’t have a voice.

Amanda: Matt, what do you see coming?

Matt: I try to work through with the journalists the idea that we’re moving from stories toward streams. Humans have told one another stories forever, and will do so. But stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, are being augmented by the constant stream of info. Andy Carvin is constantly tracking events in the Middle East over Twitter. It’s a very different experience — no beginning, middle, end. Twitter gives you a sense of the texture of the lives of the people you follow. “We’re encountering the end of endings,” said Paul Ford. At NPR we’re trying to pull back to tell a longer story, a quest.

Amanda: There is this real need to see the context. Other trends: We’re going to be making sense of the world through the visual. We’re moving from the written word toward the image. At The Guardian, we think about how to bring people along in an ongoing process. How do you tether together items in the stream?

[Great session. My fave so far. But I'm a pretty big fan of both of these people.]

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June 28, 2010

Why we don’t remember how science works

I was listening this morning to an NPR Morning Edition story by Allison Aubrey about a study that found that if mice drink lots o’ joe, they’re less likely to suffer from little tiny cases of Alzheimers. It was a fine piece, but to a large degree because it spent most of its time undoing the very reason that the story was on the air. The story’s pitch was: Coffee prevents Alzheimers! The bulk of the story was: In mice! Maybe! Other studies on humans are provocative but inconclusive! There are other factors! We don’t know! Maybe! Mouse study isn’t really all that significant!

On the one hand, it’s admirable that NPR spent so much of its time getting us past the headline. On the other hand, isn’t it a little bit depressing that we need to be told over and over again that scientific studies rarely are conclusive about big points and biological correlations? Are we still that unschooled in the scientific method that 450 years after the birth of Francis Bacon (and a thousand years after Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, if you want to get technical about it) we need a refresher course in science’s nervous stepwise progress every time the media report on a scientific study? Apparently, yes.

Then, as if NPR were thinking exactly the same thoughts, the very next piece (by Alix Spiegel) was about how a tiny study got turned into a cultural meme:

In the spring of 1993 a psychologist named Francis Rauscher played 10 minutes of a Mozart Piano Sonata to 36 college students, and after the excerpt, gave the students a test of spatial reasoning. Rauscher also asked the students to take a spatial reasoning test after listening to 10 minutes of silence, and, after listening to 10 minutes of a person with a monotone speaking voice.

And Rauscher says, the results of this experiment seemed pretty clear. “What we found was that the students who had listened to the Mozart Sonata scored significantly higher on the spatial temporal task.”

The story tracks how this modest research among a tiny, non-random group led to a small industry of Mozart for Babies CD’s, the state of Georgia distributing free Mozart CD’s to every newborn, and even death threats against Rauscher for having the temerity to report that she did not observe the same beneficial results from listening to rock and roll.

Why did this basically insignificant study generate so much interest?

It’s probably a couple of things, Rauscher says. Americans believe in self-improvement, but also are fond of quick fixes. And as Rauscher points out, parents care desperately about their children.

Sure. But that’s missing the primary cause in the sequence of events:

The first call came from Associated Press before Rauscher had even realized that her paper was due to be published. Once the Associated Press printed its story the Mozart Effect was everywhere.

“I mean we were on the nightly news with Tom Brokaw. We had people coming to our house for live television,” Rauscher says. “I had to hire someone to manage all the calls I had coming in.”

The headlines in the papers were less subtle than her findings: “Mozart makes you smart” was the general idea.

Americans may have embraced the Mozart-makes-babies-smart meme because we love our poor dumb babies so much, but we got the idea from the AP and the rest of the media that followed AP’s lead. The media played on American’s love of babies, self-improvement, and quick fixes to serve up exactly what we wanted to hear.

So, I’m willing to acknowledge that we have a stupidity gene that causes strong conclusions to wipe out the reasoning that led to them. But the media are supposed to be helping us to get past our natural tendency toward blunt-edged thinking. Instead, over and over it dangles juicy conclusions in front of us, appealing to our fear of disease and our urgent desire to give our babies the competitive edge they need to crush lesser babies whose parents do not love them as much. The good science reports — like this morning’s on caffeinated mice — dangle exciting conclusions in front of us but then explain why we shouldn’t have gotten so excited by them. The bad ones — most of them — play upon the fact that for some reason, we seem unable to remember how science actually works…and then reinforce that forgetting, over and over.


By the way, I wonder if one other reason we forget how science works is that we are taught about the scientific method by performing experiments in school that establish known results. When the lima beans kept in the dark don’t grow, we’re told that the experiment worked because it proves that lima bean sprouts need light. The teacher doesn’t mention that maybe it was because that side of the jar happened to be in the path of hostile bacteria or that the distribution of the beans was not sufficiently randomized. Only many years later is it broken to us that the scientific method is more about eliminating false hypotheses than proving positive causation.

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September 10, 2009

Fear of leadership, fear of government

This morning on NPR, Mara Liasson wrapped up her coverage of President Obama’s health care speech by saying something like: It’s unsure whether the speech will have the effect Obama wants, but if it does, it won’t be because of its soaring rhetoric but because of the details he gave.

Are you sure, Mora? Are you sure that being inspired has no effect on political decisions? Is that why you dismissed the importance of public speech, of words, of vision? Was that a fact-based observation? Or was it perhaps because you feel you have to deny that you personally were so excited by President Obama’s speech that you felt that old thrill going up your leg, and that when he read from Ted Kennedy’s letter you teared up? Just like so many of us? Just like me? In any case, I thought it was a shame to end coverage of a beautiful, inspiring, moving speech with an explicit denial of the importance of what made it not just important, but great.

Next up on NPR’s coverage was a report on the Supreme Court deliberations about exactly how obscenely corporations can pollute our democracy — merely pornographically or the full auto-erotic asphyxiation stranglehold — in which we heard the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court casually say “Are we being asked to allow the government — Big Brother — to…” The quote is approximate, but not the apposite reference to government as Big Brother. Does Justice Roberts really think the government when it regulates behavior is necessarily totalitarian? Yikes.

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July 1, 2009

Crowd-sourcing photos

Steve Myers at Poynter has a good story about NPR’s crowd-sourcing Dollar Politics project. One element of it was a request for help identifying 200 people who attended a Senate hearing, some percentage of whom were lobbyists.

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January 6, 2008

Viewers like you

Andy Carvin (in a tweet) points to the Wikipedia entry on the phrase “Viewers like you.” All part of the Web’s dismantling (and reassembling) of the traditional notion of topics.

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