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A lot of people these days wonder what’s wrong with journalism.

How is it that people like Jayson Blair, for example, can report for outfits as prestigious as the New York Times and routinely turn in articles with fabricated quotes from people he never met and never interviewed?  He was only fired, after several years and six hundred articles, when enough errors piled up in his work that the Times‘ editorial board finally deigned to take notice.

Even then, they didn’t conduct a thorough check, but just thought he was being sloppy.  So he continued at the paper for another year, after “improving his performance.” Two of the paper’s top editors personally vouched for Blair, moving him to the national desk, where he was eventually put on the D.C. Sniper story.  But within a month, other reporters were calling him out on his same old routine, and other outfits began taking notice as well.  When the Times finally fired him, it was because their “inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth.”

“Truth”?  Modern journalism doesn’t recognize “truth” as a literal thing.

And that’s the problem.

If you attend college for courses in journalism these days, you’ll constantly be told that all news is subjective, that pure objectivity is impossible.  Therefore, all stories are inherently subjective to one degree or another.  Many, if not most, reporters take this as license to ignore objectivity as a myth—and in fact, I once got into a very long and heated discussion with a particular reporter whose mantra was exactly that.  He wrote up an article claiming a particular organization was a “homophobic hate group,” and when I pointed out that most of its membership were gay or bisexual, he immediately declared that the Nazis had had homosexuals in their ranks.  Thus, he argued, the overwhelmingly gay population of the group he was reporting on was no defense against his allegations.

GayHitlerbyIsmaelAlvarez The Mathematical Failure of Subjective Reporting

This was a mathematical failure on his part, the reason his subjectivity—which he swore to as a means of obtaining journalistic “truth”—was causing harm to others.

Why do I say “mathematical”?  Because the difference is between integers (objective facts) and variables (subjective opinions).  If you’re a reporter, and your job is supposedly to report the truth, then you are solving for an equation.  If at the end of the day you present a variable as your solution, but try to pass it off as a hard factual integer, you’re either fooling yourself or lying to your audience.

In the above example, the reporter was opining that the Nazi Party was accepting of homosexuality within its ranks, when in reality it was used as an official reason to purge even the highest-ranking Nazis.  An estimated 350,000 gays were murdered in concentration camps, pink triangles sewn to their clothes.

gayholocaust The Mathematical Failure of Subjective Reporting

When reminded of these facts, the reporter did not recant his position, but sent his lawyer to threaten me with a defamation lawsuit.  One short conversation later, she told him to correct his article … and he did.  Never heard from him again.

This is why the old Golden Rule of reporting used to be that opinions were the realm of editorial pieces, while investigative reporters were supposed to focus as closely as possible on the facts without inserting their personal views.

Let’s take a look at the equations involved.  Don’t worry, it’s actually pretty easy.

HomersMath The Mathematical Failure of Subjective Reporting

In a pure opinion piece, it’s simple: X = Story. “I think an asteroid will one day destroy the planet” is a story that might have facts behind it, or it might not.  You never have to solve for X, or whatever other variables you choose to include, because you’re making clear to your audience that it’s a matter of your personal subjective opinion.

In a purely factual piece, 2 + 2 = Story.  “NASA spotted an asteroid which will pass inside the moon’s orbit” has no opinions involved.  No one, not even the scientists interviewed, are being subjective about the data presented.  This sort of story, in and of itself, destroys the popular journalistic view that “objectivity is a myth”—because it simply isn’t.

But it’s the third equation which gave rise to that belief:  X + 2 = Story.

“A local shopkeeper allegedly saw a young black man fleeing the scene after yesterday’s shooting of a police officer.”  The paper’s interview of the shopkeeper is subjective on its face, whereas the fact of the shooting is not.  So long as the word “allegedly” is used and the reporter doesn’t try to insert their own view on what the facts are, this story is fine.

The problem is that many journalists no longer bother with fact-checking beyond consideration for whether or not someone can sue their outfit.  Sometimes, as with Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News Corp, not even then.  Objectivity gets thrown under the bus in favor of rushing articles to print or, more commonly, in the interest of being as salacious (and thus as marketable) as possible.  People can be, and have been, seriously harmed as a result, throughout the history of journalism.

Lynching-news The Mathematical Failure of Subjective Reporting

Image via the Carolina Public Press.

TechRaptor‘s own Anthony Lee reported on how reporters at sites like Buzzfeed and Vice can turn hoaxes into witch-hunts by replacing unknown variables with their own specific accusations.  A more accurate view of the same story could be found in the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported that various people in the “Gamergate community” were enjoying a moment of schadenfreude at Veerender Jubbal’s expense and also quoted Mr. Jubbal as saying “Gamers are absolute garbage like I have been saying for a full year.” The paper further stated, “It was not clear if members of that community were implicated in creating or spreading the image [which defamed Mr. Jubbal].”

The Herald balked at leaping to conclusions, presenting both parties as having a long history of mutual antagonism but stopping short of pointing fingers.  By contrast, Buzzfeed and Vice gleefully plunged off the precipice into conspiracy territory, touting one party as innocent victim and the other as a menacing force out to destroy him.

If this tells us anything, it’s that a lot of journalists out there either think math is hard, or that it just gets in the way of conclusions they’ve already made.

Scott Malcomson

Staff Writer

Old enough to have watched the first moon landing live on TV, I've been gaming since the days of ApVenture and the Zork series. My last console was an Atari 2600, and my first PC was an Apple IIc (in glorious monochrome!). If you want to understand the kind of person I am, it might help a bit to play Ultima IV.

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