What does it mean to be accurate?
One of my major issues with modern, broadcast journalism is its normalisation of a one dimensional view of accuracy. When called out over a questionable story the retreat mostly takes place to the “facts” within the story itself. Solace is found in the precise sourcing of a story, even if that isn’t the way knowledge actually works.
Rarely are other dimensions questioned, such as whether the story’s very existence is misleading or lends undue credence or salience. Because that, also, is inaccurate. The five stories every day on petty crimes may be exact in recounting the details (as far as we can ever know), but is the presence of five stories an accurate portrayal of the magnitude of the problem?
Is this conflating precision with accuracy?
…precision can mask inaccuracy by giving us a false sense of certainty, either inadvertently or quite deliberately.”
This is from Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan. I’m about halfway through and haven’t come across much that would be surprising to anyone who has done an intro statistics course. But Wheelan has an interesting way of theorising what are otherwise mundane concepts.
Consider his framing of “precision” and “accuracy” (forgive the long quote):
These words are not interchangeable. Precision reflects the exactitude with which we can express something. In a description of the length of your commute, “41.6 miles” is more precise than “about 40 miles,” which is more precise than “a long f——ing way.” If you ask me how far it is to the nearest gas station, and I tell you that it’s 1.265 miles to the east, that’s a precise answer. Here is the problem: That answer may be entirely inaccurate if the gas station happens to be in the other direction. On the other hand, if I tell you, “Drive ten minutes or so until you see a hot dog stand. The gas station will be a couple hundred yards after that on the right. If you pass the Hooters, you’ve gone too far,” my answer is less precise than “1.265 miles to the east” but significantly better because I am sending you in the direction of the gas station. Accuracy is a measure of whether a figure is broadly consistent with the truth—hence the danger of confusing precision with accuracy. If an answer is accurate, then more precision is usually better. But no amount of precision can make up for inaccuracy
Bringing this back to journalism, it highlights the fallacy in retreating to details rather than the bigger picture. If a portrayal of the world is an accurate one then precision is laudable. But you can’t sacrifice one for the other. By no means conflate one with the other.
If the audience walks away with all the details of the criminals but a misleading impression of the likelihood of their being a victim, that’s a failure. And it’s one we all eventually pay for through public policy.
This is a rabbit hole I’ve wandered down many a time when thinking about journalism and the possibility of representing truth. Whether achievable or not, truth definitely isn’t entirely in the details.
As usual my emphasis