News: Fit To Print or Print to Fit?

Twitter Changes Our Brains:

In "Cut This Story", Michael Kinsley writes that "newspaper articles are too long", whereas internet news stories "get to the point". In 1,809 words Kinsley calls out the vagaries and customs of print journalism, sniping at long articles filled with what he judges useless information. In one 1,456 word The New York Times story, the fluff surrounding the facts about the House Health Care Plan annoys him: "Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened", says Kinsley. He runs a tally of words he judges wasteful in various news articles: 1,2

"The quote is 11 words, while identifying Miller takes 10"..."Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words"..."Quote: 16 words; identification, 19 words"..."The first 13 words of the piece with tired rhetoric"..."56 words spent allowing Jesse M. Brill to restate the author's point."

Is it a Twitter induced compulsion, first editing down to 140 characters, then getting stingy about words? As you can see, Kinsley's especially peeved about the use of quotes from experts, which he calls "unnecessary verbiage". He cites a NYT reporter who quotes compensation expert "Jesse M. Brill" -- a "total stranger". Reporters should just state their opinions, he says, instead of running them through proxy "experts", noting we only trust Brill because we trust the reporter, the editor, and the paper. In fact, we should cut out Brill, the "middleman", and other experts.

So then we'd be talk radio for readers?

Journalists tend to disagree with Kinsley. One Columbia Journalism Review writer argues that quotes from experts show a reporter has done their homework. Like Kinsley I have issues with experts, though I disagree with CJR's idealistic interpretation of their implementation. But "experts" serve many purposes, even if papers often deploy them egregiously.

As Kinsley points out, the use of experts often fails to ensure any reporting standard. But experts provide journalists with a dependable structure for stories, that they can file under deadline. Expert quotes in stories also give readers of varying opinions something to latch on to, which guarantees papers more subscriptions. One negative outcome of dependence on experts is that we're left subject to manipulation, experts can be used as tools by papers, lobbyists and politicians. But with careful attention to experts' backgrounds, smart readers can quickly understand the particular slant of the story. All to say that the use of experts doesn't waste newspaper space and it would be simplistic to conclude readers move online because articles are too long.

Balance of Evidence vs. Journalistic Balance

In our area of science and technology, journalists report the science in public policy stories like global warming and bisphenol A safety, with necessary journalistic traditions of "balance", "both sides", and statements from "experts". But most often they fail to relay important keystones to understanding science, like the more important "balance of evidence". For example, the balance of evidence supports global warming, although scientists disagree about some details and likely outcomes.

Furthermore, papers routinely identify policy advocates or lobbyists as "scientists" with dependable expertise because they hold a Ph.D., M.D., or other credential, but pay no heed to experts' affiliations or politics, which often provide the only meaningful information. Lobbyists in the global warming arena appear often in newspaper stories, although an opinion from Exxon-Mobil often doesn't offer credible science, rather an opinion as an "expert" on a certain policy preference.

In any area of science there is always valid disagreement, even when the preponderance of evidence tips to one high-level conclusion. But smaller disagreements don't necessarily make a "side" or provide "balance", except in the world of journalism. Journalistic balance seen through scientists' eyes often fails because it abandons accuracy and amplifies trivial opinions, seemingly on account of an editor who lacks the time or guts to report the balance of evidence.

The Cut-throat Non-buyer's Market

Kinsley writes that attributing journalists' opinions to "experts" is as useless as "legacy code" in software programs. However true that expert opinions sometimes fail to hit the mark, sometimes it's critical to leave legacy code in the program, and if we're using analogies, some introns, "non-coding" or "junk" regions of DNA sequence, turn out to be important. Similarly, in more ways than one, the use of experts quotes is also important.

Like many papers that serve(d) as community anchors, New York Times serves as more than a source of "news" or a collection of facts. Rather, readers see it as a faithful morning companion, a little arts and entertainment, some sports maybe, business. Faithfully, whenever some meme floats around, the Times picks it up and ferrets out an expert somewhere to tell you that yes, what you suspected/heard/rumored/hoped/feared is true. The paper grounds stories with quotes and uses experts of opposing views to give readers choices and validate those choices with authority.

Global warming may wipe out your vacation home, but the NYT won't feed you that news with your morning coffee without some "balance". Can't stand the idea of your seaside resort washing away? Don't worry, the NYT has an expert just for you. The right expert, no matter how unreliable, can soften what would otherwise be scary news. Faux conflict that drives scientists nuts about media coverage, reassures readers and reinforces the status quo.

Also to maintain expectations and satisfy readers, papers sometimes add flourish to stories that say nothing. Kinsley rakes through Times and Post articles about healthcare reform, mocking the "sweeping" this and "hard-fought" that. He chastises one author for including what he judges unnecessary quotes from Republicans who unsurprisingly oppose reform. Funny enough, but what else would the paper tell readers? "Congress struggled for months and ended up with a meaningless bill that won't go anywhere? Wake up and smell the coffee?"

And of course if you're 50% of the population who counts yourself as a Republican, you don't want Kinsley's stripped down version, the "duly reported fact that all but one [Republican] voted against [healthcare reform]". You want the paragraph Kinsley would delete, the one with a Republican citing their talking points on healthcare: "more taxes", "more spending". You're glad to read that a Republican "relentless criticized" the "Democrats' plan", because later in the day, you'll do the same, listeners willing. The NYT can't cut out these bits because it needs to assure whatever conservatives it can cling on to, that it's a good morning in America.

Andrew Cohen, of The Atlantic Monthly also takes exception to Kinsley's assessment of experts. Brill's expertise is valuable, he writes, as is his own (Cohen frequently serves as a legal expert), and "straight news articles should include analysis from experts like Brill" (and him). Speaking as a legal expert he enjoys both being quoted and knowing the politics of other quoted legal experts, his peers. His seems like a defense of the Times as the Facebook for middle-aged lawyers, which reinforces my point. The NYT is a comfortable gathering place where you can feel good about yourself. Republicans may call it a liberal rag, but they still get representation.

Happy readers, even ones with unjostled minds are valuable. There are other sources if readers want to bang their heads against walls with harsh, uninsulated facts, but the NYT needs subscribers.

Years of Magical Thinking

Keeping readers and selling news doesn't necessarily bode well for informed civilian participation, don't get me wrong. Watered-down science, politics, and economics news can obscure or belie urgency and misrepresent the grinding difficulty of policy-making.3 Of course talk-radio and TV networks do far more to manipulate and polarize citizens, and dumb down difficulty, but newspapers contribute to the problem.

The use of experts hit a nadir when the New York Times ran stories detailing WMD evidence used by the US to justify declaring war on Iraq. George W. Bush convinced Congress and a good part of the US population that Iraq had WMDs. The president is an "expert" we trust. The Times and their reporter Judith Miller helped justify the urgency of invasion by quoting other "unanimous government experts and Iraqi sources. High level government authorities in turn quoted the New York Times to wider audiences watching weekend talk shows. Miller's sources turned out to be unreliable, vaporware, if you want to continue with software analogies.

The WMD deception worked because we're practically hard-wired to depend on "experts" who feed us the bottom line on what to watch, wear, think, espouse, etc. The White House manipulated us via the Times, a trusted Times reporter, and some experts. Kinsley is right. The "experts" were merely middleman. But their presence in the story was critical to its persuasive power.

On the other hand, the presence of experts gives us valuable insight, even though readers often ignore it. Like footnotes in research and links in blogs, we can look up experts backgrounds to help us judge the quality of the story. Unfortunately, too few people do.

Rising out of "Comas and Coal Mines"

When Kinsley criticizes newspaper stories "written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine", he ignores scads of fooled readers in our midst.

Maybe readers aren't emerging from in a coma, maybe they're stuck in a media trance. TV feeds people constant advertising about how their clothes will sparkle by switching detergents and how the loves of their lives will materialize if they drive the right car or sip the right cocoa. When fairies flit out of TV's morning cereals, a little bit of the brain pays attention (or atrophies, I'm not sure which), and over time we all start to believe the magic.

We buy lots of stuff because someone tells us it will solve out problems -- we buy and we bolster economies. But also 50% of Americans buy that global warming is a hoax. 50% believe that God created the earth a few thousand years ago. In staid, sensible Massachusetts half of voters believe that a Cosmo centerfold with a head of hair worthy of a Rograine ad will deliver them from their problems. And over 50% of Americans voted for an articulate capable president from Illinois, but now want to fire him because he didn't magical action figure they imagined. "Experts" in church, on TV, and in newspapers, spawn and encourage these beliefs.

The constant onslaught of fairy dust diminishes our attention span (Twitter-mind) and analytical abilities. Newspapers are the least worrisome of culprits. We don't vote for charismatic puffballs who drive pick-ups because of newspapers. But newspaper editors to swath the facts of stories with hoopla and hand waving to snap us out of our media trance, and momentarily hold our attention when, it's true, many people would rather be watching a cat video on YouTube. Too many facts too fast, maybe even the who, what, where, when how, would wreck our mood, so newspapers need to be cautious, need to slip the truth in judiciously.

Readers will turn online for many reasons. But it's not because the news is more concise, as Kinsley suggests, rather, because in addition to being convenient, immediate, and interactive, there's unlimited escapist distraction, and far less news, per glance, than in the Washington Post or New York Times.


(1) As of this week, Kinsley is not longer associated with the online business site to be launched by The Atlantic Monthly

(2) Not necessarily true. Some blog posts are very long, longer than ours. And why should they be short? It costs very little to extend a 2,000 word article into a 10,000 word article.

(3) A few years ago we wrote about the New York Times' weak coverage of former President Thabo Mbeki's policies on AIDS in South Africa. Despite unrelenting illness and death Mbeki denied science, and rejected medicines, while the Times served Americans softball platitudes about Mbeki's thought processes that reflected, rather than criticized, US foreign policy. We've also written extensively about mambypamby coverage of global warming" -- there are many other issues.

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