This Week in Review: Nate Silver and data journalism’s critics, and the roots … – Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard
High expectations for FiveThirtyEight: Nate Silver relaunched his data-driven blog, FiveThirtyEight, this week under the auspices of ESPN as a full-blown data journalism site covering sports, politics, economics, science, and culture with a masthead of about 20. Silver introduced the new site with a manifesto for his style of data journalism, outlining a four-step process of collection, organization, explanation, and generalization and critiquing traditional journalism for its poor job of approaching anecdotes and data, particularly on the latter two steps.
Silver’s manifesto and his brand of data journalism received some swift blowback. The New Republic’s Marc Tracy faulted Silver for focusing too heavily on outcomes, arguing that “Silver’s outcome-intensive approach risks obscuring the processes and the personalities, the ideas and the ideologies, which in politics matter also.” His colleague at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, wrote a more sweeping condemnation of Silver’s approach, defending opinions and the beliefs that lie behind them and criticizing Silver’s claims to neutrality.
Likewise, The Week’s Ryan Cooper also expressed skepticism about Silver’s professed neutrality, claiming that his true ideological commitment is contrarianism. Financial journalist Matt Stoller combed through Silver’s old writings on the financial crisis to find an ideology that values expert opinion and action over mass political movement. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman chastised Silver and FiveThirtyEight for trying to let data speak for itself rather than examining and testing their own assumptions about it. More broadly, Quartz’s Allison Schrager encouraged data journalists to use data simply, carefully, and with appropriate context.
Much of the site’s initial output came under scrutiny as well. Economist Tyler Cowen said its articles are in an awkward in-between space: “too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers.” Its early pieces on health news and climate change came under fire from the Knight Science Journalism Tracker and ThinkProgress, respectively.
In a perceptive piece, New York’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells suggested that the reason Silver (along with his peers in new news ventures, Vox’s Ezra Klein and First Look’s Glenn Greenwald) is being judged so harshly is that his site is seen within professional journalism as an experiment in reclaiming some of its expertise from the morass of mindless punditry. “The hope invested in these projects is that as the industry shrank, perhaps, at the very least, what was left might become smarter. The profession has retreated, but maybe it has retreated to higher ground.” NYU’s Jay Rosen expanded on this point, parsing out what exactly is the bet FiveThirtyEight is making — that smarter methods for journalism can work.
Others examined the practical side of the new FiveThirtyEight — whether its data-heavy journalism can appeal to a large enough audience to sustain its newly increased size. The Guardian’s James Ball and Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram both explored this question, and TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein called it the central one in FiveThirtyEight’s success: “Silver’s experiment isn’t a test of whether data journalism can work; it’s a test of how nerdy the Internet’s news audience is.” Ben Thompson saw the site as an example of the high-quality content online that’s replaced the average local news content that used to make up our media diets.
Networks, culture, and journalism’s diversity problems: Just before its launch, FiveThirtyEight, as well as Vox and First Look Media’s The Intercept, also took heat for a different type of shortcoming — their lack of diversity. Columbia journalism professor and former Guardian digital editor Emily Bell criticized the sites last week for replicating traditional journalism’s white male-dominated power structure.
This week, Sara Morrison got a response from The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald indicating his efforts to add more diversity and his regrets at not having had more at launch. Greenwald and First Look editor Eric Bates talked about the value of going outside their established networks for diverse hires and held up Recode as an example of a startup with a remarkably diverse staff in a field — tech journalism — dominated by white men.
BuzzFeed’s Shani O. Hilton argued that building a diverse staff that goes beyond single representatives of each group is quite difficult, even if you’re earnestly trying, because the networks used to draw new hires are so limited. “The journos of color and women aren’t networking with white dudes doing the hiring because it isn’t in their DNA,” Hilton wrote. She encouraged both editors and job-seekers to think outside their networks and put aside their pride in order to enhance diversity.
Digital First’s Mandy Jenkins also pinpointed the network problem, noting that many jobs are filled via networks before they’re even posted and urging news organizations to post their jobs early in the process to draw diverse candidates outside their networks. The National Association of Black Journalists also offered some useful tips for finding and attracting talented minority journalists.
Sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci said the problem (and solution) goes beyond networks to the culture that the tech world builds up around itself. Tufekci explained how the tech and news worlds, despite seeing themselves as outsiders from the larger macho culture, can create their own exclusionary male culture without realizing it. Bell revisited and reflected on the variety of responses to her initial piece, reiterating her point that the diversity debate is still very much worth having.
How public are tweets?: BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa rather unwittingly prompted an interesting discussion on the publicness of Twitter and social media journalism ethics with a post last week collecting responses on Twitter to a question about what people were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. Testa received permission from each of the people whose tweets she posted, but not from Christine Fox, who posted the question and retweeted the responses.
At Global Voices, Jillian C. York summarized the criticism of Testa’s post and the debate that followed, which centered on how public content on Twitter should be considered and what obligation journalists might have before republishing that content anywhere else. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan issued a forceful defense of Twitter’s publicness, and Poynter’s Kelly McBride was skeptical of Fox’s objection to using the story without her permission, questioning, “Because you pose a question that provokes an interesting answer, does that give an ethical claim to control the story that emerges?” (McBride also followed up with lessons learned through a factual error she made in the post.)
The Daily Dot’s Kate Knibbs said that while Twitter is indeed public, the decision to republish content there is still subject to the same standards of compassion and decency that should govern our lives everywhere else. Alex Howard of TechRepublic sounded a similar note: “Just because tweets are public doesn’t mean journalists with a huge platform should automatically amplify them, particularly if doing so doesn’t serve a newsworthy purpose or serve the public interest — and if the updates touch upon a sensitive subject, as these did.” Slate’s Amanda Hess talked to several news organizations about how they’re weighing the changing definitions of publicness and privacy online.
ReadWrite’s Selena Larson and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici both looked at Twitter’s role in determining the expectations of publicness and privacy on its network, both noting that the company has played things very hands-off, leaving a great deal of ambiguity. As Bercovici said, Twitter can’t declare its network public without alienating a core group of its users, and it can’t publicly affirm the privacy of its tweets without slowing down conversation around it and frustrating journalists.
Reading roundup: A few other stories worth taking a look at from this week:
— Los Angeles Times journalist Ken Schwencke used an algorithm that he programmed called Quakebot to write a story on the earthquake that hit the L.A. area early Monday morning. The Wire’s Eric Levenson and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon talked to Schwencke about Quakebot. Ryan Calo of Forbes looked at the legal aspects of bot reporting.
— The Media Insight Project published a study on how Americans consume news, and the Associated Press reported on it as encouraging evidence of consumers’ desire for meatier news, while The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza saw an appetite for quick headlines and little else. The Lab’s Justin Ellis looked at a few other trends revolving around topics, news cycles, and trust.
— A few notes on the continued fallout from Newsweek’s troubled bitcoin cover story: Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, the man Newsweek identified as the creator of bitcoin, issued a statement denying the claim and saying he’d hired a lawyer. Reuters’ Felix Salmon annotated the statement, and law professor Eugene Volokh looked at the legal case for any potential suit. Ars Technica’s Joe Mullin called for a retraction, and The Daily Dot’s Ben Branstetter saw the episode as an example of the emptiness of “meet the man behind X” stories in the Internet age.
— A few final pieces to take a look at: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan launched AnonyWatch, “an effort to point out some of the more regrettable examples of anonymous quotations in The Times,” the American Journalism Review’s Mary Clare Fischer looked at some news organizations’ reluctance to give out metrics information to reporters, and here at the Lab, Center for Investigative Reporting fellow Lindsay Green-Barber wrote about efforts to measure impact in investigative journalism.
Photo of Nate Silver from 2012 by AP/Nam Y. Huh. Image of Twitter bird by katska used under a Creative Commons license.