Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Confirmation journalism and the death penalty

Jerry Stratton, November 12, 2014

Fourth Estate Restaurant: Sign outside the Fourth Estate Restaurant at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.; restaurants; National Press Club

The Fourth Estate Restaurant, truths on the menu for every taste.

Researching a project I’ve been working on for over a year now, I’m currently reading Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. It’s a facially reasonable guide for journalists and the public on how journalism should work. Facially reasonably, because it tends to use smart ideas to justify the same old biases.

For example, he talks a lot about emulating the scientific method, which in theory is a great idea for verifying facts and meaning, but in practice ends up justifying the sins of an iterative journalism, whereby journalists keep digging into the facts until they reach the level of their confirmation bias.

He describes the process on pages 43–45. Here are some representative quotes:

It is more helpful, and more realistic, to understand journalistic truth as a process—or as a continuing journey toward understanding—that begins with the first story and builds over time… Journalist Carl Bernstein has described this as reporters’ striving to provide “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

The individual reporter may not be able to move much beyond a surface level of accuracy in a first story. But the first story builds to a second, in which the sources of news have responded to initial mistakes and missing elements, and the second story to a third story, and so on. Context is added in each successive layer… This practical truth is a protean thing that, like learning, grows like a stalactite in a cave, drop by drop, over time.

The truth here, in other words, was a complicated and sometimes contradictory phenomenon, but seen as a process over time, journalism can get at it. It attempts to get at the truth in a confused world by first stripping information of any attached misinformation, disinformation, or self-promoting bias and then letting the community react, with the sorting-out process to ensue. The search for truth becomes a conversation.

As historian Gordon Wood has said about writing history: “One can accept the view that the historical record is fragmentary and incomplete… and that historians will never finally agree in their interpretations” and yet still believe “in an objective truth about the past that can be observed and empirically verified.” This is more than a leap of faith. In real life, people can tell when someone has come closer to getting it right, when the sourcing is authoritative, when the research is exhaustive, when the method is transparent. Or as Wood put it, “Historians may never see and present that truth wholly and finally, but some of them will come closer than others be more nearly complete, more objective, more honest, in their written history, and we will know it, and have known it, when we see it.”

We will know it when we see it. That’s the problem with modern iterative journalism. At some point they need to snap that stalactite off and present it to the public. The point at which they do that is going to be the point at which their biases are confirmed. The point at which they know it without thinking about it.

A great example of the dangers of this iterative journalism is the book’s success story:, presented on page 106. David Protess, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University, uses death penalty cases to teach journalism. In 1999 he used the case of death row inmate Anthony Porter. He and his students investigated until they found Alstory Simon; they decided Simon was guilty and then convinced him to confess to the murder that Porter had been convicted of. Anthony Porter was freed, Alstory Simon imprisoned, and the death penalty ended in Illinois.

Serendipitously—in a twisted and dark way—I recognized those names because they were in the news about a week ago as I write this, fourteen years after it happened. Protess and his students had a bias, which was that the death penalty is wrong because the state often successfully prosecutes the wrong person.1 In this case, however, Protess and his students tricked Alstory Simon into confessing to murder. He spent fourteen years in prison for the sins of this “extraordinary demonstration of the power of methodical journalistic verification.”

Iterative journalism sounds great: keep digging until you find The Truth. But the problem with journalism isn’t finding the truth, it’s deciding what the truth is. The bias of journalists means that sometimes journalists will stop before they’ve found the truth, and sometimes, as appears to be the case here, they will go further than the truth permits because they did not recognize the truth.

One very important step in the scientific method is to always try to disprove yourself. Once you confirm your biases, go one step further and disprove them. Scientists don’t design experiments to prove their theories. They design experiments to disprove them.

Just as facts are iteratively searched by journalists until biases are met, so too are the justifications journalists use to decide what is news and what isn’t news. Reporters and editors often give reasons for why stories or facts within stories are important, and, in today’s world of Twitter and Facebook, why some stories and facts are not important.

But the scientific method is not just explaining your reasons for front-paging or hiding news. Those reasons must be consistent and testable. Too often, the reasons why something is or is not news change depending on the reporter’s, or paper’s, biases. If the scandal is a Democrat, it’s local news, and doesn’t deserve national exposure. If it’s a Republican, it points to wider issues, and deserves a national conversation. And when scandals are reported, they are about individuals when it’s a Democrat, and about party if it’s a Republican.

Those reasons are not scientific. They aren’t testable. They are not applicable over time. That is, readers cannot reliably apply those reasons to future stories and predict which stories are news and which are not. The reasons are justifications, not rules. The journalist searches for the first justification that matches their bias, and then stops.

Iterative journalism, as it is practiced today, might as well be called confirmation journalism. “Sentence first,” as they quote Anthony Lewis decrying conservative pundits later, “verdict after.”

April 28, 2015: Twisted censorship from France
Censorship stamp: A “censored” rubber stamp from Piotr VaGla Waglowski.; censorship

Sometimes truth is far stranger than fiction, or, in this case, prose. Were I to write about this for The Walkerville Weekly Reader, even the name would sound too over the top. A writer for the Guardian, named Francine Prose—almost literally, “straight talk from France”—writes that Charlie Hebdo does not deserve their PEN award because the truth about what happened to them goes against the narrative of the anointed.

She compares them to Nazis in Skokie, and then says she admires their courage. Does she admire the courage of Skokie Nazis, too?

The award is the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. PEN has other awards that fit the other candidates she thinks more appropriate—awards for journalism and for merit and even for social justice. But the Hebdo staff literally died for free speech—they knew they were under threat and continued publishing, and then even after the threat was carried out and twelve of them died, the survivors continued publishing. They deserve this award or no one does.

But Prose’s rationalizations betray an even worse tendency of the modern left:

I abhor censorship of every kind and I despise the use of violence as a means of enforcing silence.

But why should this award not be given in the wake of the Hebdo murders? It isn’t just because they were satirists making fun of religion. It’s also because they’re white and their murderers were Muslim extremists.

I’m not paraphrasing or exaggerating:

The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders—white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists—is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.

I abhor censorship, says Francine Prose, but any truths that disprove my preferred narrative? Shut them down. Because that “narrative” she decries is what happened.

Salman Rushdie downplayed the failings of these authors. These are not “six authors in search of character”. In the case of Francine Prose at least, these are censors in search of a stamp.

January 9, 2015: Intermediary journalism and disdain for television viewers
Mohammed guest edits Charlie Hebdo: Mohammed guest-edits Charlie Hebdo’s Charia Hebdo issue in 2011, with Jyllands-Postern’s Mohammed/bomb cartoon from 2005.; Mohammed cartoons

Mohammed guest-edits Charia Hebdo.

In Men Without Chests: How C.S. Lewis Predicted Charlie Hebdo Censorship, Sean Davis reports on why CNN refused to show the Charlie Hebdo images:

…how did CNN justify its ban on pictures? It said it was necessary because “[verbal descriptions] are key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion.”

A TV executive with with an allegedly functioning brain actually wrote that the key — not a key, but the key — to understanding a murderous attack over cartoon images is to…only use spoken words to describe the images, rather than, oh, I don’t know, show the actual images.

Journalists have been afraid that television would render their interpretations pointless since they first started moving from print and radio into television news. I’m currently slogging through Murrow: His Life and Times, and have just now entered the point where Murrow gets into television. Biography A.M. Spearer writes that Murrow worried about “editorial control”. In print,

“editorial judgement has been largely pictorial… most news is made up of what happens in mens [sic] minds as reflected in what comes out of their mouths. And how do you put that in pictures?”

How do you put what happens in men’s minds in pictures? Sometimes I wonder if this is why the left derides television as low-brow: because the default in television is to show rather than tell, to show the viewer directly what is happening rather than tell the viewer the journalist’s interpretation of what was in men’s minds.

In order to get the right interpretation out on television, journalists need to blatantly lie; they need to edit and splice together audio to turn a Zimmerman into a racist; they need to photocopy computer printouts a hundred times to fake an ancient document.

And this is also why the concept of journalist-as-expert is so important to the left: the journalist needs to be trusted as an expert on every topic they report on, so that blatant lies go unquestioned.

January 5, 2015: False positives, the Internet, and the grievance media

There is a little known, except among statisticians1 rule of statistics: when the rate of false positives exceeds the incident rate in a population, that test is more likely to be wrong than to be right about some incident having occurred. It doesn’t matter how accurate the test is, if the false positive rate exceeds the incident rate.

For example, say you have a cancer test that is correct 98% of the time. This means2 that it has a false positive rate of 2%. Since it is wrong 2% of the time, 2% of the time it will say that someone has that cancer when, in fact, they are fine.

Now, suppose that this particular cancer occurs in one out of a hundred thousand people. Some concerned politician of a ten-million population city says, we have this test that is practically always correct, and we have a lot of people with this cancer. We should run this test on everybody.

What happens after the city runs its test on its ten million residents? The test will tell 98 people who have the cancer that they have it.3 And it will tell 200,000 people who don’t have the cancer that they have cancer.

There is a further rule of thumb that, the bigger your population the lower your incident rate for any non-trivial occurrence, just because of the way people work. That cancer test might have made sense when used against patients who come in to have something looked at: it might well be that among patients who come in for an examination for some problem, and who are, after they talk to a doctor, referred to this test, are one in ten likely to have this cancer. The population is a population of people who have something wrong, and that something wrong already resembles this cancer. In that population, of, say, a hundred patients referred to the test, the test will tell about nine or ten of them that they have the cancer when in fact they do have it, and will tell one or two of them that they have cancer when instead they are cancer free.

But expand the test’s population beyond people who in conjunction with their doctors know they are sick, and the test falls apart.

I think we are seeing the same thing in the explosion of false rape reports and false hate crimes in the news media. Most women don’t lie about rape, and most people don’t enjoy being hated. Limit the population that gets reported on to those who call the police and file a police report and whose cases are then prosecuted, and you’re probably going to have mostly true cases reported in the media.

  1. I share this bias.

  1. <- Always get tape
  2. Long Suspicion ->