Friday, March 04, 2011

slick stuff

I imagine journalists have always felt a bit torn between two desires that are mostly in competition with one another. They want to be respected for the quality of their writing and want also to gain as many readers as possible. The quest for quality tends toward depth, nuance, and balance. The quest for numbers of readers tends toward simplification, exaggeration, and surprise. As the size of newsrooms dwindles one expects this personal, internal struggle to increase as each journalist tries to show how very good she or he is both at delivering excellence and at capturing vast quantities of eyeballs. This conflict of personal ambitions can, and I think frequently does, lead both to honest mistakes and to guilty transgressions. The case I outlined yesterday seems apt. A reporter jumped at the chance to put on display a stalwart union member in blue collar Janesville, Wisconsin — a man, he wrote, who turned against his kind and became a supporter of Governor Walker and the Gov.'s union-bashing policies. The reporter assumed his prize exhibition to be a card-carrying UAW-ite and neither he nor his editor took the trouble to check whether this assumption was correct. It was not. I'd like to be able to say he and his paper are now forced to regret the negligence, but, as my blog post indicates, this doesn't (at least yet) seem to be so.

It's easy to find examples which show journalist eagerness getting the better of journalist caution. The events leading to the dismissal of Kurt Bardella are an instance. Jack Shafer's piece in Slate gives all I expect you'll need to know about this. A congressional staffer in the office of Rep. Darrell Issa, Bardella took advantage of reporters' pitiful eagerness for scraps of news. Playing a game of suck-up that (apparently) is all too common in Washington, the reporters let themselves be led by the nose. Unwilling to set a news item in its proper context, they wrote up what was handed to them as if it were their own work. Shafer points to the moral: "Faux scandals such as the one unfolding in Issa's office stand to remind us that every reader needs to be his own press critic, constantly asking himself if the publication he's reading — or the channel he is watching — is in the tank for its sources. If a story reads a lot like a press release, say, it's the first to report that Rep. Cheese is going run for speaker of the House, it probably is a gussied-up press release." (Ryan Lizza, in the New Yorker, adds to the story: News Desk: Issa and His Aide.)

I've a second example of a similar nature. Seeking to make the most of a fairly routine press release, PopSci's Clay Dillow comes to the sensational conclusion that New 'Nanolube' Could Cut Engine Friction by More Than Half. Trouble is, he misreads the press release on which he bases his story. As one commenter helpfully (and very politely) points out: "I'm not sure the amount of friction reduction is as significant as this article implies, hence this article may be titled incorrectly... I think we need some better numbers and more descriptive language before we jump to conclusions about how much these nanopolymers are going to double our gas mileage and make our engines last forever." It doesn't take much internet sleuthing to find out that the commenter is right. The press release says quite distinctly that the nanoparticle technique was able increase the performance of the best available lubricants by half again (55%). Thus if a lubricant were able to reduce friction by 10% then the lubricant plus nano-additive would reduce it by a bit more than 15%. There is nothing in the nano-research that showed the technique "could cut engine friction by more than half."

In his eagerness for a good story Dillow not only misreads his source, but also fails to notify the reader that the research he reports was first published not this month or last, but more than a year ago, in December 2009. The press release he glommed onto is about an award given to the primary researcher, not — primarily — the research outcome. As the flaks at the researcher's university tell us: "Dr. Liu’s discovery has earned the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers’ Captain Alfred E. Hunt Memorial Award. This prestigious award is given annually to the STLE member who authors the best paper dealing with the field of lubrication or an allied field."

Shafer's right to say we should our own press critics. You should, he says, "be no more gullible in your news consumption than you are when buying a used car."

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