Thursday, 11 November 2010

The dangers of selective reporting

The Wall Street Journal's RTE blog (via Paul Krugman) has been spluttering about being misrepresented by Sarah Palin.

RTE criticised her for saying "everyone who ever goes out shopping for groceries knows that prices have risen significantly over the past year or so". In fact, RTE pointed out, inflation in food prices has been at a record low this year, of just 0.6%. General inflation is also low, at 1.1%.

Palin - and I have to give her credit for this - responded quite cleverly to RTE by citing the Wall Street Journal itself, which said in an article last week:
"an inflationary tide is beginning to ripple through America’s supermarkets and restaurants…Prices of staples including milk, beef, coffee, cocoa and sugar have risen sharply in recent months"
RTE correctly points out the facts of the matter: beef is up, but bananas are cheaper; producer prices are up but retailers have not yet passed them on; the catering industry is increasing quality and offering premium options to customers rather than forcing straight price rises on them.

But here's the thing: nobody would have guessed any of that from reading the WSJ's own article. The authors of the article, Jargon and Brat (what wonderful names), have selectively quoted statistics and anecdotal evidence to convey an impression of fast-rising prices. It would hardly be surprising if ordinary readers, let alone a Sarah Palin with a political point to make, rely on the WSJ's clear implied message rather than poking through the underlying data.

Perhaps the Journal will learn from this that their credibility will be improved if they present facts in a neutral, responsible way instead of following the lazy editorial habit of pick-the-evidence-to-support-today's-narrative. You can always select a convenient subset of data points and draw any curve you want through them. But someone who is genuinely attempting to get an accurate picture of the world will be as comprehensive as possible, and will work hard to combat the cognitive biases that influence the patterns we see. We can hope that the Journal actually is more committed to accuracy than to storytelling. But to be fair, it's very hard both to achieve objectivity, and keep the attention of readers.

It's a little like Interfluidity's message this week about economic morality. It's all very well between economists for Paul Krugman to rely on counterintuitive, technocratic, model-driven analysis. But if the message is not translated into something that real people can feel in their gut, it won't resonate. And whoever does have a message that affects people in that way - regardless of whether it's logical, self-consistent or founded in facts - is likely to get their way.

1 comment:

Min said...

Jargon and Brat: "an inflationary tide is beginning to ripple through America’s supermarkets and restaurants."

That's not reporting, that's prognostication.

I used to read the Wall Street Journal. I even thought that it was the best newspaper in the U. S.