We won’t get better journalism without better incentives

Opinion by Claire Zabel
Feb. 26, 2015, 8:53 p.m.

Journalistic errors are sometimes serious, sometimes hilarious, and frequently abundant. For example, last year the The Washington Post made the following correction: “An earlier version of this story erroneously said that Joaquín Guzmán was found in bed with his secretary. He was found with his wife. This version has been corrected.”  The error in this story was not central to the main point. Most people who read it probably never saw the update, and remember only the false version.  One story like this is no big deal (except perhaps to the drug lord, his secretary, and his wife), but in aggregate, valuing false information over no information is damaging and misguided.

An unfounded opinion is worse than no opinion because it is far more noticeable and memorable, but rarely are people rewarded for keeping quiet. When the newest scandal hits the media, outraged tweets abound about how we should not rush to uninformed commentary, or waste time debating silly scandals. (We practice the virtue of silence here by not reviving them).

These calls for silence are often vigorously supported, and completely counterproductive. These and other attempts to publicly halt a debate which is better off forgotten can sometimes strengthen it.  (This is termed the “Streisand Effect.”) But those who do their part to slow this media pollution by not commenting are rarely noticed, let alone rewarded. Meanwhile, the tweets of disgust continue to attract attention or even praise. This only creates incentives for any individual to continue the conversation– even amongst people who all believe it isn’t worthwhile. It’s more fun to participate than stay silent, especially if all your contemptuous fellows will gleefully promote your contemptuous response. In the meantime, trivial and incorrect opinions get publicity and media attention.

It is not virtuous to have an opinion on every subject. Incorrect information is worse than no information, and spreading ill-informed opinions can be worse than silence. The social cost of bad information is easy to underestimate because the sheer volume of bad information itself requires expertise to notice. Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, observed that when he read articles about physics in the paper, he noticed the abundant errors and misunderstandings of his subject. Yet when he read about subjects he was less familiar with, he found himself assuming that the information was sound. This phenomenon is sometimes called “Gell-Mann Amnesia.”

Becoming able to independently reason about any subject takes time and effort. Becoming informed on all of them is impossible. Like everyone else, journalists are incentivized to cut corners when it serves their interests. Intelligent positions are complex, requiring time to develop, whereas unintelligent ones are easy and cheap to churn out.

Journalists (and the institutions that support them) do not often seem to address this. Their job is to communicate about many subjects rapidly, and only rarely do they themselves become experts on those subjects. They can use other tools like interviews to capture the expertise of others, but these methods can be insufficient for robust representation of complex issues. That’s why journalists should be expected to lean on subject-matter advisors, just as they lean on editors.

Editors provide a valuable service, and most people would not read a newspaper that was riddled with spelling errors. But errors in the content–the details of a scientific process, an interpretation of a study, some retelling of a series of events–are more difficult for the average reader to catch. And compared to typos, these sort of errors are far more pernicious.

To be clear, this is a call for content editing, not censorship. We can help ensure content is accurate, coherent, and complete by consulting experts (construed widely– there are many forms of expertise) who could examine a piece of writing holistically. Just as good editing goes beyond spellcheck to include recommendations for skillful and persuasive language, the process of content editing should go beyond making sure that raw facts and numbers are correct. A good content editor could and should make sure a process or series of events is being represented logically and honestly.

There is often room for reasonable disagreement about what constitutes fair and balanced reporting. However, journalists with limited background in a complex subject may be hard-pressed to understand what fair and balanced reporting should entail, especially with tight deadlines.

Despite efforts to help professional experts become better communicators, journalists–the professional communicators–remain critical to the public’s understanding of the world. Asking journalists for a full and complete analysis of issues that most people take years or decades to understand is unfair and unrealistic. Journalists must juggle their dual roles as entertainers and educators, or risk being outcompeted by their peers should their work veer too far on the side of education. Expecting them to do this alone is foolish.

Content editing, or even more vigorous fact-checking, would rob many articles of misleading sensationalist appeal, and the benefits would be difficult for non-experts to perceive. That’s why measures to increase accuracy are very difficult for a newspaper to implement unilaterally. There’s a collective action problem here, in which the incentives are against any single publication deciding to uphold a higher standard of integrity.

We should not ridicule or ignore shoddy journalism, but rather reward accuracy and thoroughness. We need a strong, active bulwark against the spreading of misinformation and flimsy reasoning. And those with the expertise must provide that bulwark, on behalf of everyone still trying to learn.

Contact Claire Zabel at czabel ‘at’ stanford.edu and Joseph (Joey) Zabel at joezabel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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