12 February 2010

"launder opinion into news"

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When you read the news, you'll often see quotes from analysts. It's the result of a quid-pro-quo: the reporter gets a "researcher" to whom a statement can be attributed, and the analyst's reputation gets buffed in print. But most analysts know little more than reporters: they just sell their research privately instead of using it to pursue stories. At best, they act as a dial-a-quote service, used to launder opinion into news--it's a way to create multiple-source stories on deadline.
Very true.

I previously linked to a similar critique my Michael Kinsley:
It’s not [the reporter's] job to have a view. In fact, it’s her job to not have a view. Even though it’s her story and her judgment, she must find someone else—an expert or an observer—to repeat and endorse her conclusion. These quotes then magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one. And so:
“People have to look at the sizable gains that have been made since stock and options were granted last year, and the fact is this was, in many ways, a windfall,” said Jesse M. Brill, the chairman of CompensationStandards.com, a trade publication. “This had nothing to do with people’s performance. These were granted at market lows.”
Those are 56 words spent allowing Jesse M. Brill to restate the author’s point. Yet I, for one, have never heard of Jesse M. Brill before. He may be a fine fellow. But I have no particular reason to trust him, and he has no particular reason to need my trust. The New York Times, on the other hand, does need my trust, or it is out of business. So it has a strong incentive to earn my trust every day (which it does, with rare and historic exceptions). But instead of asking me to trust it and its reporter about the thesis of this piece, The New York Times asks me to trust this person I have never heard of, Jesse M. Brill.

Of course this attempt to pass the hot potato to a total stranger doesn’t work, because before I can trust Jesse M. Brill about the thesis of the piece, I have to trust The New York Times that this Jesse M. Brill person is trustworthy, and the article under examination devotes many words to telling me who he is so that I will trust him. (By contrast, it tells me nothing about the reporter.) Why not cut out the middleman? The reason to trust this story, if you choose to do so, is that it is in The New York Times. What Jesse M. Brill may think adds nothing. Yet he is only one of several experts quoted throughout, basically telling the story all over again.
That's one reason I get my news through blogs. Blogs don't need to shoehorn that middleman in there to turn the writer's opinion into third-party objective fact. I know it's just the writer's opinion the whole time, and I can trust them or distrust them as I may. No smoke and mirrors.

2 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, you repeat the same mistake as Mr. Kinsley. If either of you spent 5 minutes googling Jesse Brill, you would see that he and his CompensationStandards.com resource has been the primary source for practical guidance about how to rein in excessive CEO pay and instill responsible pay practices for years.

    Those "in the know" recognize Jesse as such and his annual conference on responsible pay practices are widely attended by most in the executive pay design industry. Jesse's writings are one of the main drivers for the SEC to overhaul their pay disclosure requirements in 2006, etc. The NY Times did not pick Jesse out of a hat.

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  2. Broc I'm sure Brill is a fine source for that story with plenty of sterling credentials. The point is that when I'm reading that article in the NY Times I had never heard of him. Neither had 99% of the other readers. And no one puts down their paper to go google every single person quoted to see who they are.

    Furthermore there are dozens of other people with credentials good enough to be quoted in that story, if not more. Brill was one who would say something along the lines of what the author wanted said. I'm sure Brill actually believes what he said, and he may even be right. That's not the point. The point is that you haven't added any objectivity to the story by having your argument repeated by an outside source, you've just pushed the subjectivity back a step to the decision of who to quote and how. All quoting an expert does is prove that the author is not completely off the deep end: there is at least one semi-respectable person who agrees with that point.

    It seems like Brill is a friend or colleague of yours. I'm not trying to challenge him, I'm trying to criticize journalism practices generally. No need to defend him here.

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