Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Journalism and the long view

Note: This is the third and final column in a series based on questions posed to former Post Register Managing Editor Dean Miller, who is now the director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University.

Not only does no one know what the future holds for journalism, very few people even pretend to know any more.

"You ask what the future of news is? I have no friggin' idea. No one does."

That was Jeff Jarvis a couple of years ago after becoming well known as a confident prognosticator of journalism's future.

Dean Miller is a pretty confident guy, too, but he won't take a guess at how the future of journalism will unfold.

“If I were a skillful predictor of dynamic situations, I wouldn’t be at the office on a Saturday because my home in the ‘Greater New York Metroplex’ is reduced to third-world utility service after a rainy wind storm,” he wrote to me when I asked for his prediction for journalism. He was willing, however, to recommend that journalists need to maintain a long view.

“It is more important than ever for journalists to play the long game and stick to what makes news different: verification, independence, accountability,” he wrote. “We’re still in the early days of digital publication. Anyone can crank out rumor, spin and hype and generate traffic for a little while, until someone even less scrupulous comes along. But the internet’s memory is longer than what we’re used to and I think those players who pretend to be journalists in order to win a battle or two will lose the war and spend years explaining themselves.”

 I believe this, too. While the delivery mechanisms will continue to change and stylings evolve, journalism will continue to matter.
     
Miller points out that shows like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or the Colbert Report wouldn’t work if the audiences weren’t already familiar with the actual news being disseminated by real journalists. I take some comfort in that, despite surveys indicating that many Americans under 35 say Stewart is their main source for news.
     
Can news consumers really tell the difference between the satirical Onion, MSNBC and the Wall Street Journal? The answer is probably yes, but many still get tripped up from time to time. Members of Congress have been known to issue opinions on fictitious “news” stories from sources like The Onion. Message boards and social media are chock full of false assertions made by people who lack either the skills or the desire to separate fact from opinion and outright fiction.
     
Still, in this Age of Entertainment, there remain serious-minded journalists committed to producing credible, compelling, relevant and accurate reporting – the signal amidst the noise – to borrow a phrase from statistician Nate Silver. Solid journalism is out there, for those who seek it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Verify, independence, accountable

Note: In part two of a three-part series based on a Q&A with former Post Register Managing Editor Dean Miller, we look at how the Internet can be used intelligently. Miller is the director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

Is the Internet like fire – in the right hands it can save lives (or make them more comfortable), but used wrongly it can destroy? Does the generation that has always known a world in which the Internet exists really know how to use it?

“If by that you mean, ‘How sophisticated are young ’uns at telling the difference between hooey and verified information from independent sources?… I’d say they are no more, or less, sophisticated than their parents and grandparents,” Miller writes. “The focus of my work in the coming years will be to learn if teaching students about cognitive dissonance can inoculate them against their worst reactions to their discomfort with facts they don’t like.”

Education, Miller says, can make a difference.

"From two longitudinal studies, we already know that students who take News Literacy consume a wider variety of news sources, score better on civic knowledge tests and are a year ahead of their peers in their ability to spot imbalanced reporting.”

I ask, "how is this taught?" (And now, I give over the rest of this column to Miller):

"I guess the simple summary is that we teach a combination of classical critical thinking lessons and modern media savvy, using each day’s news as the course text. We comb the web for positive and negative examples and use them to shake students’ complacency about Google searches and Wikipedia research, social media and mainstream media.
         
“Some examples:
          
“Here’s an interactive online game I helped script with several other organizations. In it, you play the role of Lakshmi, a young law student who has to make important decisions about what to do during a modernized Three Mile Island-type nuclear incident. What information is reliable? What is not? Readers may enjoy the give and take: http://tinyurl.com/aj9y2dn.
         
“The first thing students learn is to pay attention to what information neighborhood they are in. Advertising, publicity, entertainment and propaganda have legitimate roles to play and can be useful. But for reliability, we teach students to look for information outlets that verify before publication, hold their reporters to strict standards of independence and are accountable for their work. Easily remembered, it’s VIA: Verify, independence, accountable.
          
“Responsible operators (like the Post Register) post the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code on their home page and encourage readers to hold them accountable to it. Irresponsible operators would prefer you not know they are violating the code of journalism.”

Next week: Journalism and the “long game.”

Friday, November 9, 2012

It's not we, it's you

As director of the Center for New Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York, former Post Register Managing Editor Dean Miller is leading an effort to do two important things: Teach as many people as possible how to consume information, and train others to teach the same topic.

As he was waiting out the remnants of Hurricane Sandy in his Long Island home recently, he generously answered a number of questions about news literacy I had put to him. Over the next few weeks I’ll be using his responses as the basis for some columns on how people consume information and how his center is going about its work.

For starters, Miller talks a lot about “cognitive dissonance” and how it affects news literacy.

“Social psychologists have well-documented the fact that liberals and conservatives alike go looking for confirmation of what they already think and either ignore, avoid, forget or demonize information that would undermine their world-view,” he write. “It’s called cognitive dissonance and many social scientists believe it is the single most powerful motivator of human behavior. We can’t stand the way it feels when we encounter a fact that contradicts what we know.”

He points to a 2010 survey at the University of Maryland that found watchers of Fox News and MSNBC (the most openly partisan cable outlets in America) were the most misinformed.

“I found it ironic that a lot of opinion-writers leapt on the survey’s finding that among the misinformed, Fox and MSNBC viewers were the most misinformed,” he wrote. “Columnists and partisan bloggers blamed Fox and MSNBC for their audience’s mistakes on the fact questions. … it’s not the news media, it’s the audience. Americans who routinely turn to Fox and MSNBC already have their minds made up and no amount of careful reporting can change what they ‘know’ to be true.”

He notes that there’s nothing particularly new here.

“One fact that Fox and MSNBC haters overlook is that the entire cable news audience is 1/7th that of the three broadcast networks’ 21 million nightly viewership. Like Alexander Hamilton’s New York Post, which was founded to attack Thomas Jefferson’s policies, Fox and MSNBC are essentially partisan newsletters for a small club.”

Among the center’s goals is to help students differentiate between information found in these partisan newsletters and actual journalism.

 “We make our students into insufferable critics of the modern failure to clearly differentiate opinion from reporting through responsible labeling. Especially online and on cable TV, there are a lot of people who want to wrap themselves in the mantle of “journalism” without submitting to the yoke. Their material isn’t news, it’s largely bloviation or, when based on reporting, opinion journalism.”

Next week: How the Internet customizes itself for its users. To learn more about Miller’s work, go to: http://www.centerfornewsliteracy.org/

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How polling became credible again -- in the right hands

One of the lessons from this year's presidential campaign is that individual polls really don't matter. The more important lesson is that being able to aggregate the polls into something discernible matters a lot.

There's more to it than just taking all the polls and averaging them together. Some polls are more credible than others. And therein lies the genius of Nate Silver. I followed Nate Silver before following Nate Silver was cool -- starting in the summer of 2008. Now, he's famous and about to become rich, thanks to the huge uptick in sales of his book, "The Signal and the Noise -- Why Most Predictions Fail but some Don't."

Silver's model weights the various polls based on past performance and other factors, and takes into account issues like the latest unemployment figures.

Here's what I find most interesting about Silver's work this year. The electoral map he posted in June is very similar to the electoral map he posted the morning of the election. By September 6, it was identical to what he would post election morning. In each case, he had correctly projected all 50 states (giving some, obviously, a higher likelihood than others). In other words, after spending billions of dollars, the candidates did not change the outcome by a single electoral vote in the final 60 days.

Just as remarkable, while some idiots (Karl Rove, Dick Morris) were suggesting not only a Romney win but a Romney blowout, Silver projected the popular vote outcome within one-tenth of a point (though the final numbers won't be available for several more days). Rove was so clueless that he argued with the experts at Fox News when they called Ohio (well after NBC and CNN had called it). While others were insisting the election was a dead heat going into the last week, Silver had Obama as a 91-to-9 percent favorite to win, all based on a complex model that must be locked in the same vault as the Coca Cola recipe.

When people on the Post Register's message board would refer to this poll or that during the campaign, I would refer them to Silver, mostly because he's non-partisan and his 2008 and 2010 track record was so spectacular. In 2012 he really outdid himself. The stunned people at the Romney "victory" party on election night would have been well-served to have paid attention to Silver. At least they would have been better prepared for the outcome. I cautiously suggested to an acquaintance who had spent the entire summer and fall working on the Romney team that he might want to pay attention to what Silver was saying. I haven't spoken with him since election night, but I hope he took my advice.

There are other important lessons from Silver's work. For example, while Republicans argue that Hurricane Sandy stopped Romney's momentum, Silver pointed out all along that Romney had no momentum after the second debate and was already losing ground to Obama when the hurricane hit. Silver had Obama narrowly winning Florida even when some big polls had it the other way. And, when Gallup came out with polls showing Romney pulling ahead in the popular vote, Silver doused it with buckets of cold water.

Yes, polls matter, in the aggregate and in the hands of geeks who know their numbers.