a blog

by Josh Nicholas

nate silver

Journalism has a presentation problem

One of the biggest issues with modern journalism is that framing is overvalued and understanding is undervalued. This is true not just in practice, but also in the way it is taught.

Look at any journalism course in Australia and you’ll find that subject knowledge is discounted in favour of presentation skills. Internships and practical media projects are favoured over electives in other academic disciplines - statistics, economics, medicine etc.

This came to mind as I read the last of Nate Silver’s essays on the 2016 election.

In recent elections, the media has often overestimated the precision of polling, cherry-picked data and portrayed elections as sure things when that conclusion very much wasn’t supported by polls or other empirical evidence.

By teaching journalists that their job is packaging the ideas and actions of others, the medium inevitably becomes constrained. What is good presentation exactly? Among other things it’s putting things as simply as possible.

On the one hand this is a good thing - it makes the news widely accessible. On other other, simplification can itself be misleading. Condensing dozens of pages of a working paper, or decades of iterative academic theory, by necessity requires the subtraction of nuance. This is what Nate Silver identifies in his latest piece.

Experts provided myriad caveats to their forecasts in the 2016 election. But constrained by their job as packagers, journalists provided only certainty. By banishing the details as boring or irrelevant, trying to get a clear angle, we were systematically misled.

”While many things about the 2016 election were surprising, the fact that Trump narrowly won1 when polls had him narrowly trailing was an utterly routine and unremarkable occurrence. The outcome was well within the “cone of uncertainty,” so to speak.”

But a narrowing of the role is only part of the problem. One of my friends is currently studying journalism and recently completed a course on data journalism. While this taught her a great deal on telling stories with data, she has little idea of what data to use or when, There were no economics, demographic, health etc. components of her course to provide her with the context surrounding the data.

This narrowing of expertise by definition curtails what stories are told. A bunch of technical skills are being dumped on the market with little subject knowledge to act as guidance to what exactly is a story. It also means these journalists are at the mercy of the very experts they end up packaging.

Now, of course, this whole argument is a great generalisation and misses many wonderful journalists. Especially older journalists who have spent time in the field and built up subject knowledge. But having spent much of the past decade around young and upcoming journalists, Silver’s analysis reads incredibly true. And it’s very worrying.