Investigative journalism is great but rare

Via a terrific Felix Salmon post on media as technology “stack” I stumbled on this post of his from 2010 which contained a paragraph I just couldn’t help but post:

Dean has a very old-fashioned view of what journalism is and should be: “the corest of core” values, he says, at any news organization, are investigations. Now I have nothing against good investigative journalism, but it’s hardly a defining feature of most journalism, and in fact Dean’s attitude is extremely elitist, germane only for a handful of big daily newspapers. Most copy in all newspapers, and all copy in most newspapers, is simple stuff, and always has been. People read it because it’s relevant to them, because they can talk about it, and because they might as well read the stories after they’ve bought the paper for the supermarket coupons.

That’s exactly right. As I wrote in a post a couple years back about core civically minded journalism:

1) When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

You can say that journalism is all this stuff, or that journalism is the core civic stuff and media is the umbrella, or you can pick any other set of terms. But this is a crucial point that’s worth remembering. Salmon uses it to make the point that the blogosphere has added tons of value (I agree) and that comparing them to investigative reporters ignores most of what traditional journalism has done.

Once you grasp that the kind of amazing investigate work that we put on a pedestal is done by a small number of outlets, and even there comprises a small percentage of their product, it becomes easier to discuss how we can preserve and even expand that work, as well as to talk about what the rest of the media ecosystem should be up to.

Closing OpenCourseWare

I bought a couple of textbooks last week and it was pretty rough on the wallet, even after rigorous comparison shopping and eventually purchasing used texts off of Textbooks cost a ton. And I really like them. A good intro text book is skimmable in a way that other popular, accessible nonfiction often is not. They have intros, conclusions, practice questions, etc. If you want to grasp a new topic quickly, a 101 textbook is your best friend.

So in theory I should be psyched about Apple’s new move to revolutionize textbooks. But I’m not. The first thing that jumped to my mind as I read the news was Is this the App-ification of education? Will Apple remove the “Open” from OpenCourseWare?

Matthew Ingram has the right take:

as usual, all this great design requires a major tradeoff: namely, that schools and publishers agree to be locked inside Apple’s walled-garden ecosystem. That might be fine for music and movies and games likeAngry Birds, but is that really appropriate for educational material?

The textbook industry deserves to be disrupted. But how? Will Apple’s move lead to more accessibility and openness? Or will it put one company in control of the standards by which we teach our kids and ourselves?

(Nieman has a good round-up of reactions if you want various takes.)

The tireless social media churn

Via Twitter I came across this essay “Better” that struck a chord:

Politics, celebrity gossip, business headlines, tech punditry, odd news, and user-generated content. These are the chew toys that have made me sad and tired and cynical.

I’m usually pretty dismissive of this sort of thing and consider it the equivalent of an old man shouting “get off my lawn.” But this part felt a little too close to home:

What makes you feel less bored soon makes you into an addict. What makes you feel less vulnerable can easily turn you into a dick. And the things that are meant to make you feel more connected today often turn out to be insubstantial time sinks – empty, programmatic encouragements to groom and refine your personality while sitting alone at a screen.

Am I a dickish, overly opinionated addict? Don’t answer that. I’m reminded of a great Avett Brothers lyric that could easily have found its way into that essay:

Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different
We love to talk on things we don’t know about

The author has some thoughts on how to overcome this, but here’s my take: always ask whether the churn is a useful part of a process towards building something more substantive and lasting. My tweeting, blogging, emailing, etc. has helped refine a number of ideas that I’ve turned into essays of which I’m quite proud. Not all of it. But the short, messy stuff is a filter, an incubator, a test-bed and for me it’s what makes the longer, more substantive stuff possible. So when I think about which bits of the social media churn are too addictive, reductive, or wasteful and which are indispensable I will be asking which bits make the good stuff possible.

Cowen vs. Krugman on pundits and the public sphere

The back and forth between Paul Krugman and the Marginal Revolution duo (plus the various responses from other corners of the wonkosphere) has been fascinating for many reasons. I want to highlight just one bit. Here’s Cowen:

The issue is not that Krugman changed his mind (I’ve done that plenty, Alex too).  The issue is that Krugman a) regularly demonizes his opponents, including those who hold Krugman’s old positions, and b) doesn’t work very hard to produce the strongest possible case against his arguments…

…Is it easy to imagine the current Krugman writing rich multi-voiced dialogues which extend both his points and those of his intellectual opponents?  Can you imagine the current Krugman writing something sufficiently multi-faceted that you might come away thinking — because of the piece itself — that the opposing point of view was the better one?

Krugman in his response:

Cowen apparently wants me to make the best case for the opposing side in policy debates. Since when has that been the rule? I’m trying to move policy in what I believe to be the right direction — and I will make the best honest case I can for moving in that direction.

Look, economic policy matters. It matters for real people who suffer real consequences when we get it wrong. If I believe that the doctrine of expansionary austerity is all wrong, or that the Ryan plan for Medicare would have disastrous effects, or whatever, then my duty, as I see it, is to make my case as best I honestly can — not put on a decorous show of civilized discussion that pretends that there aren’t hired guns posing as analysts, and spares the feelings of people who are not in danger of losing their jobs or their health care.

This is not a game.

Krugman is justifying himself through consequentialism. The results of his punditry matter; his only obligation is maximize his positive impact on the world. The intellectual standard to which he holds himself is to be judged on that basis. For what it’s worth, I’ve long suspected that this is how Krugman views his role. (I suggested as much at the end of this post.)

Moreover, as a consequentialist myself, I find this reasoning compelling. Or at least I think this is the right way to judge the issue. As for Cowen’s reasoning, you could defend it either by rejecting Krugman’s model, or by affirming it and arguing within it. The former would be some sort of principled/idealistic/rationalist view, which simply rejects consequentialism and affirms certain intellectual standards for public debate. The latter would embrace consequentialism but argue that in the long-term (or I suppose even in the short term though I think this would be a harder case to make) the best consequences arise in a world where the public sphere operates at a high level of intellectual honesty.

I’m fascinated by this debate because I don’t see it as obvious either way. My view is that most likely we do need both of these elements in a healthy public sphere – truly rigorous intellectual discourse AND punditry that explicitly seeks to maximize its impact on the public (still held to more basic standards of honesty) – but saying that both are necessary doesn’t answer the question of how Krugman should behave.

All I can say is that as a reader I’m more interested in the Cowen model. And it’s worth bearing in mind when you read Krugman that he’s thinking seriously about how to convince you, not just about serving up the best arguments. He may even be justified in doing so, but if you’re looking only for the best and most honest information, you may be better served reading elsewhere.

Me at Nieman Lab: Hacking Consensus

For the past few years I’ve bent quite a few ears about how much better arguments could be online. The earliest of these ear-bendings (that I can remember) was in Q1 of 2008. Since then I’ve talked to policy wonks, developers, journalists and plenty of friends and family about how I think the basic op-ed model should be improved. Four years since that first conversation, I finally have an essay on the topic that I feel comfortable standing behind.

My piece is up at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab and I hope you’ll give it a read. I’d appreciate any feedback you have. Here’s the intro:

In a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman argued that we should impose a tax on financial transactions, citing the need to reduce budget deficits, the dubious value of much financial trading, and the literature on economic growth. So should we? Assuming for a moment that you’re not deeply versed in financial economics, on what basis can you evaluate this argument? You can ask yourself whether you trust Krugman. Perhaps you can call to mind other articles you’ve seen that mentioned the need to cut the deficit or questioned the value of Wall Street trading. But without independent knowledge — and with no external links — evaluating the strength of Krugman’s argument is quite difficult.

It doesn’t have to be. The Internet makes it possible for readers to research what they read more easily than ever before, provided they have both the time and the ability to filter reliable sources from unreliable ones. But why not make it even easier for them? By re-imagining the way arguments are presented, journalism can provide content that is dramatically more useful than the standard op-ed, or even than the various “debate” formats employed at places like the Times or The Economist.

To do so, publishers should experiment in three directions: acknowledging the structure of the argument in the presentation of the content; aggregating evidence for and against each claim; and providing a credible assessment of each claim’s reliability. If all this sounds elaborate, bear in mind that each of these steps is already being taken by a variety of entrepreneurial organizations and individuals.

Please read the rest!

Storytelling, Trust and Bias

One intellectual rule of thumb on which I rely is that one disagrees with Tyler Cowen at one’s peril. Cowen is an economist at George Mason, and is one of the two bloggers at Marginal Revolution, a very popular blog on economics and culture. So while I won’t call what I’m about to write a disagreement, I do want to offer thoughts on Cowen’s TEDx talk on storytelling. (The talk is from 2009, but I just wandered across a transcript of it for the first time today.) Here’s Cowen’s typically interesting premise:

So what are the problems of relying too heavily on stories? …I think of a few major problems when we think too much in terms of narrative. First, narratives tend to be too simple. The point of a narrative is to strip it way, not just into 18 minutes, but most narratives you could present in a sentence or two. So when you strip away detail, you tend to tell stories in terms of good vs. evil, whether it’s a story about your own life or a story about politics. Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we’re too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more.

Another set of stories that are popular – if you know Oliver Stone movies or Michael Moore movies. You can’t make a movie and say, “It was all a big accident.” No, it has to be a conspiracy, people plotting together, because a story is about intention. A story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human action but not of human design. No, a story is about evil people plotting together. So you hear stories about plots, or even stories about good people plotting things together, just like when you’re watching movies. This, again, is reason to be suspicious.

It is certainly true that we rely heavily on stories. And it’s further true that in doing so we tend towards oversimplification. The human mind doesn’t do well with uncertainty; we seek narrative coherence even where it isn’t justified. And yet stories are deeply useful. They help us process information more easily. In his recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman relied on a kind of story to relate the way we think, through the use of “characters” System 1 and System 2. The former is the intuitive mind, making quick decisions below the level of consciousness. The latter is what we think of as the rational mind, coming to our aid when we consciously reason through something. The dichotomy has some acceptance in the psychology literature (not as a distinction within the brain, but as a theoretical distinction for studying thinking) but some of Kahneman’s colleagues objected to his personification of these “characters.” Here’s Kahneman explaining his conceit:

System 1 and System 2 are so central to the story I tell in this book that I must make it absolutely clear that they are fictious characters. Systems 1 and 2 are not systems in the standard sense of entities with interating aspects or parts. And there is no one part of the brain that either of the systems would call home. You may well ask: What is the point of introducing fictitious characters with ugly names into a serious book? The answer is that the characters are useful because of some quirks of our minds, yours and mine. A sentence is understood more easily if it describes what an agent (System 2) does than if it describes what something is, what properties it has. In other words, “System 2” is a better subject for a sentence than “mental arithmetic.” The mind – especially System 1 – appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities. (p. 29)

I believe this is a better way of thinking about stories. It may be true that embedding information in stories generally leads to oversimplification or avoidance of uncertainty. On the other hand, plenty of stories can be nuanced and accurately relate complicated information. But even if storytelling does sacrifice something, it gives us the ability to digest and remember information much more quickly and easily. And the fact is that, in practice, most of us are working with very limited resources (most notably time). We need all the help we can get to process information. If stories can help, that’s generally a good thing.

Yet, I generally agree with Cowen’s point about stories that seem too convenient (especially Michael Moore movies!) But I’d like to propose that, rather than setting up a mental filter to resist certain types of stories, we focus our efforts on the evaluation of the sources of those stories.

Here’s where trust and credibility come in. When Kahneman says he’s going to tell me a story about two characters that make up the mind, I trust that he won’t mislead me, that he won’t overstate his case, or eschew complexity so completely that I’m left with a misguided impression. I believe that he’s trying to help me get a basic grip on very complicated information as best he can given the time I’ve allotted to learn it. That’s because he comes recommended by lots of thinkers whom I respect, and because he’s extraordinarily well credentialed. I find him credible and so I trust him.

I’d urge us all to spend more effort evaluating who we trust – whose stories we’ll buy and whose we’ll treat with Cowen-esque skepticism. And perhaps one metric for assessing credibility would in fact be to apply Cowen’s criteria (does so-and-so constantly tell black-and-white stories?) This seems a more promising path. After all, at this point if either Cowen or Kahneman told me a good vs. evil story I’d believe him.


Ping U: Bringing open courseware to your inbox

As someone who recently completed CodeAcademy’s brief Getting Started with Programming lessons, I couldn’t be more excited for CodeYear, CodeAcademy’s latest offering. Says the site:

Make your New Year’s resolution learning to code. Sign up on Code Year to get a new interactive programming lesson sent to you each week and you’ll be building apps and web sites before you know it.

There are tons of free programming lessons out there, so why is this so exciting? Because this one will pester me in my inbox. I’ve experimented with a variety of online learning resources in various disciplines, and one thing I’ve wished for is the ability to sign up for the course as if it were an RSS feed. Send me one lesson per amount of time (ideally at my discretion) so that I can apply the same mania that drives me to keep my RSS reader and my inbox under control to learn new stuff.

As it is, the 1000+ in Google Reader and the [number not to be named here] in my inbox seem to call out and demand my attention, while the next Khan Academy lesson sits silently, never bothering me about when I’ll get around to it. In this very minor way, pinging me about the next lesson gets at one of the core bottlenecks of education, as Matt Yglesias has described:

I even downloaded an MIT lecture course off iTunes for free to refresh my existing base of math knowledge and lay the groundwork to pursue it further. But did I actually watch the lectures, study, and learn the stuff? Of course not!

That’s life, just as I’m sure I’m not the only blogger who finds himself not exercising as much as he probably should. Whoever finds good ways to ameliorate these kind of motivation / time consistency / akrasia problems will have the key to revolutionizing the sector. But for now, I think people focus a bit too much on the policy barriers to successful online education and not enough on the fact that we genuinely haven’t figured out how to make it stick at all.

As technology continues to improve, online education will be as much a motivation problem as anything else. I guess we’ll see in a year to what extent CodeYear’s simple solution of showing up in inboxes actually matters.