Incentives in news analysis

Not to talk about news for two posts in a row, but let’s talk about news for two posts in a row (shorter this time!). In one of those weird corners of the NYTimes website that I mentioned in the last post, Stanley Fish, one of America’s best known academic intellectuals/philosophers, keeps a blog, in which he talks about things like the NBA draft. Anyway, weird corner. His most recent post, though, is a little attack on media coverage of the Sanford scandal and Palin resignation. His premise is that, look, these things happen, Sanford was unhappy in his marriage, Palin was sick of the media circus, and all this parsing of their respective stammering speeches for clues of shadowy motives (especially in Palin’s case), when in reality the admissions had little to do with politics. His final line: “So what’s the bottom line story? Simple. Sanford is in love. Palin is in pain. Sometimes what it seems to be is what it is.”

It’s easy to write off Fish’s complaint as a rigorous version of the Leave Britney Alone guy. Every once in a while, someone will come out and criticize the press for overstepping its bounds, with the effect being similar to the old crank coming out on to the porch, yelling “stop that, you darn kids!” and retreating inside. Everyone goes back to doing what they were doing.

Cynicism about the media has been in vogue for the past decade, and is stronger the younger and more liberal you are (although now I’m sure that trend is going in the opposite direction). We came of age during the botched WMD-Iraq reporting job, and spent 8 years wondering why the news didn’t spend more time reporting on what we saw as Bush’s mistakes and abuses. The media was written off by a lot of people as short-sighted, focused of profiteering rather and reporting. And so when I read Fish’s comments, my first reaction was similar to the first comment left on his post: “You know what? You’re right.” The implicit addendum to that, I think, was “What are you gonna do about it?” News outlets make more money if more people tune in, and people like speculation.

On the whole, I think that news outlets, especially TV, will bring this sort of speculation to a fever pitch just because it sells, but I think the decision to speculate in the first place stems from some interesting dynamics.

What I think the heart of the issue is to what extent different analysis outlets are held accountable for their predictions. If a TV network speculates that Palin’s resignation was some high-stakes, half-baked gambit for presidency, and they’re wrong, they’ll be more careful next time if them being wrong costs them viewership. This is why in certain fields, analysis actually tends to be pretty good.

It’s no secret if you’ve read this blog more than once that we’re big fivethirtyeight.com fans, but I’ll use it again as an example. During the election, they were the election analysis site that received the most traffic. Why? Because if you really care about the outcome of the election, you will probably visit the site that has a history of good predictions, which Nate Silver established through his work on the primaries. Sure, you may read Daily Kos or Red State to get your filler of crazy predictions, for a Daily Me kind of effect, but if someone proves they have an edge in prediction accuracy (and a significant one), you’ll probably give them a good read-over. And the thing is, Silver’s analysis is pretty boring – it cuts out the speculation, takes the numbers we have available and let’s a computer do the rest.

So, if you are paying attention to all the possible outcomes of a situation, and each outcome is as interesting to you as the others, you’re probably going to demand an accurate prediction. If someone gives you stock picks, you’ll remember whether they were right or wrong, because you’ll either make or lose money based on it, and you’ll notice both of those outcomes equally.

So why does news seem to focus on low-probability outcomes? My suspicion is because news analysis is not judged within the context of all possible events in the world, only events relevant to the news. Consider the election prediction example: if Nate Silver predicts Obama to win, and McCain wins by a landslide, he’ll be discredited. But if he predicts Obama to win, and on election day China invades and installs a puppet government (probably headed by Ron Paul, based on a shared interest in the gold standard), no one will kick Silver for not predicting it – Chinese invasion is outside the scope of his work.

That’s an overblown example, but I think a similar paradigm governs how news is judged, albeit on a much more subtle level – news analysis is only judged by its ability to predict other newsworthy events. Sarah Palin starting a grassroots, third-party presidential run would be a newsworthy event. Sarah Palin willfully fading to obscurity would not be. So if a news outlet were to say, as Stanley Fish wants, “Sarah Palin is in pain, she’s leaving politics”, and she actually goes on to do something newsworthy, the political desk of that news outlet will have a lot of explaining to do to upper management. On the flip side, if they speculate that the resignation will lead to more newsworthy events, and Palin fades into obscurity, no one will judge the outlet for the worse, because no one cares if a news outlet can correctly predict events that, when they occur, no one will care about.

Is that a problem? Maybe, but for the most part we have the scope of our attention to blame. The fact is that most of us won’t notice or care once Palin has faded into obscurity. For a lot of issues and events, we only pay attention if surprise twists and turns occur (who, for instance, closely followed Palin’s governance record in Alaska prior to her resignation), so we shouldn’t be surprised that newspapers devote a lot of time to speculation about such events, even when, essentially by definition, they don’t play out in reality very often.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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