Monday, March 14, 2011
Noise Vs Signal
So an unseasonably cool early autumn day is enough to disprove the existence of man-made climate change, or a two per cent shift in an index presages a new bull/bear market or every five-point downward shift in an political leader's poll rating means a caucus challenge is inevitable. The media are inherently impatient, chronically innumerate and because of ever tightening deadlines and ever diminishing resources, dangerously ready to extrapolate a one-day or one-month wonder into a long-term trend.
Indeed, the great untold con of the news business is that it largely consists of passing off the transitory for the terminal, the ephemeral for the everlasting and the faddish for the forever. This mentality, of course, is quite understandable among journalists themselves for whom anything more than 24 hours ahead is the long-term. (Actually, in radio, wires and online media, anything beyond the next half hour is the distant future.)
It's something the public needs to keep in mind when sitting down to watch the television news at night (assuming of course people still do that in this age). Because for many journalists, every day is a new day and each event exists independently of what came before. So in the constant obsession with the new, context and perspective become collateral damage.
While short-termism has always been a professional hazard for those who work in the news media, the problem has become much more intense in recent years under a general ratcheting up of deadline and commercial pressures and amid the online commodification of the who-what-where-when news that was once the bread-and-butter of the nightly television bulletin.
Alongside this sense of a compression of time has been a shift away from qualitative to quantitative factors in news assessment. So as time pressures have increased, and as resources have been cut, journalists are being asked to say something meaningful about subjects driven by numbers - whether it be climate change, financial markets or political opinion polling. And it's fair to say that for most journos, maths is not a strong suit. Neither is their facility with new media. When you add that to their deadline-driven impatience with complexity or nuance, you have a pretty good recipe for misleading the public and deforming democracy.
This problem was neatly highlighted by the invaluable Possum last year when the Auditor General's report exposed the beat-up that was the media mantra over the BER "waste" (and, earlier, the Pink Batts "scandal"). The actual numbers were totally at odds with the accepted media narrative, but the facts simply didn't matter or where deemed just too darned esoteric to bore the audience with.
This institutionalised innumeracy is rather unfortunate and perhaps explains why an experienced journalist like Barrie Cassidy, appearing on a taxpayer-funded public broadcaster, can just sit mute as one of Rupert Murdoch's professional trolls is paid to come on the Insiders program and spray deliberate mistruths to support a far right political agenda.
And you could see it last year in the gullibility of some (not all - honorable mention to Ian Verrender) of the financial media in giving slack-jawed credence to numbers provided by multi-national miners to beat off a government attempt to secure a better return for taxpayers from finite and publicly owned resources.
Most of all you can see it in the usual suspects wetting themselves over the latest Newspoll without pointing out to their viewers and listeners that Howard was in a similar position as Gillard is now in his first term. And reminding them that in any case the election is still more than two years away and today's poll will soon be a distant memory.
Perhaps it's time for our media bosses to slow things down, take a deep breath, send a few journos off to short courses in statistical analysis (or point them here) and reacquaint themselves with some old fashioned concepts like, oh, respect for the facts and context, a real regard for the reader and viewer and an appreciation of what things mean beyond the 24-hour news/noise cycle. Too much to expect?
Posted by Mr D at 9:34 PM