Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Small Case Study of Bad Journalism

A reader calls this sentence from The New Republic to my attention:
Mankiw...left his post as chair of the Council of Economic Advisors after publicly supporting offshoring.
The sentence is true in the same sense that this sentence is true:

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor after Thomas Jefferson completed the Lousiana Purchase.
Both sentences get the chronology right, but they mislead the reader by compressing the time line of events and insinuating a cause-and-effect that is absent in the historical record. In the first case, the correct statement would be:

Mankiw got into political hot water by making positive comments about offshoring. Twelve months later, with the presidential election over and the furor over offshoring having largely subsided, his two-year leave of absence from Harvard came to an end, and he returned to his tenured chair as had been planned all along.

I bring this up not because I am defensive. (Well, maybe I am, a little.) Rather, I think this sentence illustrates, in a small way, how journalists twist the truth to suit their own ends.

One of the basic principles of economics is that people respond to incentives. Remember that journalists are people too. They are rewarded for compelling and interesting stories. Unfortunately, the truth is often boring. Journalists are incentivized to make the truth sound more exciting than it really is. (I highly recommend the movie Shattered Glass for a more extreme case of how journalists respond to incentives. Like the above sentence, it also involves the New Republic.)

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion of the new Bob Woodward book on the Iraq war. I have no first-hand knowledge to judge whether Woodward is right about the facts or whether those disputing him are closer to the truth. But I know that Woodward, like every journalist, has an incentive to make the facts sound as sensational as possible.

Update: The author of The New Republic piece emails me:

Dear Greg,

I guess I should consider it a weird honor that you have written two posts about my article on offshoring from a few weeks ago. With regards to your most recent post, I just wanted to make sure you understood that it was an example of sloppy, rather than slanted, journalism. I understand full well that you did not leave because of the outsourcing uproar, but what I wrote obviously communicated otherwise, and so I apologize. I certainly wasn't trying to "twist the truth to suit [my] own ends," for what it's worth --after all, given the argument of the piece it wouldn't really matter whether you left on your own accord, were fired, or ridden out of town on a rail. And in defense of my previous employer, I am sure that you, as a one-timeTNR contributor yourself, understand that the publication is not in the business of encouraging hack writing, even if its writers sometimes decide to take matters into their own hands.

And while I am clearly not high on your list, I continue to read your blog on a daily basis. Keep it up.

Clay Risen

Managing Editor
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Of course, I accepted the apology. Life is too short to hold grudges, and I truly admire the willingness to admit mistakes. Maybe I, too, was mistaken-- for too quickly impugning Mr Risen's motive. (But I will stick by the movie recommendation.)