Archive for the 'Media' Category

Reporting reactions to the news, not the news

XKCD: Public OpinionI know I’m not alone in getting frustrated by the tendency, in all forms of mass media, to report on reactions to an event or debate rather than provide substantial detail on the event or debate.  I do realise that it’s because the drama of people’s reactions keeps the audience’s attention for longer, that most people aren’t actually interested in the finer points, that it bores them.

Jon Stewart lambasts America’s television news providers for providing anything but news, but for me the sharpest sense of frustration comes when I read a newspaper.  I don’t really blame the providers of news for being consumed by the desire to entertain when they have sound, colour and moving pictures at their command.  Well, okay, I do.  But the defence of the newspaper editor is far weaker.  Sure, there are technicolour tits on page three, but other than that and an over-sized font for the headlines, there’s not much the newspaper can do to distract you from the article itself.

Most people don’t read more than the first few paragraphs of an article.  That’s why papers like the NY Times put those delicious, tantalising nuggets on the front page for the vrapid browsers among us and then send the hungrier reader off to page Q13, or whatever, to finish the piece.  It’s not a practice we see in Britain, but I quite like it.  It gives a visual honesty to our collective consumption of news.  It lets me imagine, as I hunt through the paper for section Q, that the real meat of the article, the guts, the nitty gritty, the actual news, is available in there somewhere.  Sadly, it almost never is.

I don’t want to single out The Grey Lady.  There is no paper anywhere on earth that consistently lists out the facts in each article.  I don’t even need quality writing.  Just chop off the final paragraph and replace it with the facts in bullet point form.  Nobody reads that paragraph anyway, even if it is the one the journalist fought most with the editor to keep.  Leave the rest of the article peppered with Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s sob story and some politician’s outrage, but give me the facts quietly at the end, where it’s not hurting anyone.

Anyway, via Matt Yglesis, I see that a report has been written by Pew Research on the coverage of the health care debate in America.  You can see the full report here or a summary here.  I quite agree with Matt that the most telling aspect of the report is summarised in the following graph (although I disagree with his conclusion that this is not such a bad result):

Pew:  Top Health Care StorylinesIt’s a terrible diagram, because 3D graphs make it near-impossible to read the actual numbers (I wonder if Pew Research sees any irony in trying to present these data in a snazzy format), so let me give them to you:

  • 41% : Politics and strategy
  • 23% : Descriptions of [proposed] plans
  • 9% : [Current] State of health care
  • 8% : Legislative process
  • 6% : Obama’s health care plan
  • 4% : Town hall protests

This is for all forms of media, though.  The then current state of health care featured more prominantly in newspapers, which gave it 18% of their coverage.  That’s better, but I suspect it’s deceptive.  That 18% will have included innumerable emotion-dripping sob stories about some old lady and her dodgy hip.  Disappointingly, online news sites, which have essentially zero marginal cost for an additional paragraph on the end of a story, gave only 8% of their coverage to describing the then current system.

Ah, well.  Go read the report.

Update:  Ezra Klein makes an excellent point:

It’s trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what’s going on. Keeping up on the news is easy, but getting a handle on an ongoing situation that you’ve not really been following is hard. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of outlets like, which try and police lies that are relevant to the debate. But there’s really no one out there who is trying to give you the background to everything going in the debate. News organizations will write occasional pieces trying to sum up the legislation, but if you miss them, it’s hard to find them again, and they’re not comprehensive anyway. The fact that I still can’t direct people to one really good, really clear, really comprehensive online summary of the bill is an enduring frustration for me, and a real problem given the importance of the legislation and the number of questions there are about it.

If I edited a major publication — or even a medium-size one — I would begin each major legislative battle by detailing a few of my smartest, clearest writers to create a hyperlinked, fairly comprehensive, summary of the basic legislation. That summary would be updated throughout the process, and it would be linked in every single story written on the topic. As reader questions came in, and points of confusion arose, it would be expanded, so by the end, you’d have a document that was current, comprehensive, navigable and responsive to the questions people actually had about the legislation. Telling people what just happened is undeniably important, but given that most people aren’t following that closely, we in the media need to do a better job of telling people what’s been happening.

I always thought of it as Engrish

The NY Times, writing about Shanghai’s efforts to improve it’s signs, has a gallery of amusing mis-translations from Chinese to English.  This was one of my favourites:

As an aside, I like the javascript-free technique used by the NYT developers to prevent most people from saving the images.  Here is the relevent section of the page’s HTML source:

<div class="centeredElement" style="background-image:url('');width:600px; height:400px;">
<img width="600" height="400" src="" />

If somebody right-clicks on the dispayed image (technically, the background image) and chooses to view it or save it, they get pixel.gif, which is a 1×1 clear pixel.

Wanted: A measure of semantic correlation

“The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” and “There is a dog and a fox.  The fox, which is brown, jumps over the dog, which is lazy.  The fox is quick.” should give a value of 1.

“The quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” and “There is a dog and a fox.  The fox, which is brown, jumps over the dog, which is lazy.  The fox is fast.” should give a value of 0.999.

Yes, I know that it’s complicated; but it’s not impossible.  Google clearly does something similar when grouping stories together for

Then I want to have all news stories automatically compared to corporate press releases.  I want my webpage to show me the press release on one side and the news article on the other.  I want the news article to be shaded with two different colours; one colour for sections that are possibly reworded, but ultimately just taken from the press release and one colour for sections that represent actual work done by the reporter.

Media bias and people who are WAAAY out on the political spectrum

Andrew Sullivan points to this research by Pew on how American’s view the bias of the major television networks.  It’s nicely summarised in this diagram (from Pew):

Public perceptions of news network ideology

Andrew makes the obvious and easy comment bashing on Fox:

Clearly the public understands that the network MSM is skewed to the left. But there’s a difference of magnitude between that assessment and that of Fox. Quite simply, most Americans see Fox for what it is: an appendage of a political operation, not a journalistic one. Its absurd distortions, its relentless attacks on Obama from the very start, its hideously shrill hosts, and its tawdry, inflammatory chat all put it in a class by itself.

Personally, I don’t necessarily agree that the MSM is, on average, biased to the left (although maybe that’s just my internal biases talking).  I’ll get to that in a moment, but first …

14% of respondents consider Fox News to be mostly liberal in it’s bias!  That’s almost one in seven.  Just how far out in the political spectrum are those people? What would Fox need to do to convince them that they were neutral?  Actively promote the KKK?

Back to perceptions of bias.  Here is another graphical illustration of the Pew Research data:

US Perceptions of MSM Bias (Pew)

It seems safe to assume that anybody who thinks Fox News is liberal will consider the rest liberal as well, so that explains a large fraction of the “liberal” responses for the rest.  So, excluding the people who are personally so conservative as to consider Fox News to have a pro-liberal bias, this is what it looks like:

US Perceptions of MSM Bias (excl. people who think Fox is liberal)

In other words, when we restrict our attention to people who are not insane [1], the American public agrees with me: by and large, the non-Fox networks are pretty evenly balanced, although MSNBC  is pro-liberal.

[1] Okay, they may not be insane.  I have no evidence than any larger fraction of them are insane than in the rest of the population.  But they do strike me as having some pretty whacky personal beliefs.

The death throes of US newspapers?

Via Megan McArdle’s excellent commentary, I discovered the Mon-Fri daily circulation figures for the top 25 newspapers in the USA.  Megan’s words:

I think we’re witnessing the end of the newspaper business, full stop, not the end of the newspaper business as we know it. The economics just aren’t there. At some point, industries enter a death spiral: too few consumers raises their average costs, meaning they eventually have to pass price increases onto their customers. That drives more customers away. Rinse and repeat . . .


The numbers seem to confirm something I’ve thought for a while: we’re eventually going to end up with a few national papers, a la Britain, rather than local dailies. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (sorry, conservatives!) are weathering the downturn better than most, and it’s not surprising: business, politics, and national upper-middlebrow culture. But in 25 years, will any of them still be printing their product on the pulped up remains of dead trees? It doesn’t seem all that likely.

For those of you that like your information in pictoral form, here it is:

First, the data.  Look at the Mean/Median/Weighted Mean figures.  That really is an horrific collapse in sales.


Second, the distribution (click on the image for a full-sized version):


Finally, a scatter plot of year-over-year change against the latest circulation figures (click on the image for a full-sized version):

US_Newspaper_circulation_scatterplotAs Megan alluded in the second paragraph I quoted, there appears to be a weak relationship between the size of the paper and the declines they’ve suffered, with the bigger papers holding up better.  The USA Today is the clear exception to that idea.  Indeed, if the USA Today is excluded from the (already very small!) sample the R^2 becomes 30%.

To really appreciate just how devestating those numbers are, you need to combine it with advertising figures.  Since newspapers take revenue from both sales (circulation) and advertising, the fact that advertising revenue has also collapsed, as it always does in a recession, means that newspapers have taken not just one but two knives to the chest.

Here’s advertising expenditure in newspapers over recent years, taken from here:

Year Expenditure (millions of dollars) Year-over-year % change
2005 47,408
2006 46,611 -1.7%
2007 42,209 -9.2%
2008 34,740 -17.7%

Which is ugly.  Remember, also, that this expenditure is nominal.  Adjusted for inflation, the figures will be worse.

So what do you do when your ad sales and your circulation figures both fall by over 15%?  Oh, and you can’t really cut costs any more because, as Megan says:

For twenty years, newspapers have been trying to slow the process with increasingly desperate cost cutting, but almost all are at the end of that rope; they can’t cut their newsroom or production staff any further and still put out a newspaper. There just aren’t enough customers who are willing to pay for their product what it costs to produce it.

Which, in economics speak, means that the newspaper business has a large fixed cost component that isn’t particularly variable even in the long run.

Tyler Cowen, in an excellent post that demonstrates precisely why I read him daily, says:

I believe with p = 0.6 that the world is in for a “great disruption.”  It has come to MSM first but it will not end there.  In the longer run I am optimistic about the results of this change — computers will free up lots of human labor — but in the meantime it will have drastic implications for income redistribution, across both individuals and across economic sectors.  For a core metaphor, the internet displacing paid journalism and classified ads is a good place to start.  The value of newspapers has been sucked into Google.

[…]Once The Great Disruption becomes more evident, entertainment will be very very cheap.

Which may well be true, but will be cold comfort for all of those traditional journalists out there.