Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Misjudgment on the wires

One of the big challenges in putting together a coherent nation/world report from a bunch of supplemental wire services is the running situationer. Given actual spot news (your tornadoes, your explosions, your nonconfessions by the JonBenet nonsuspect), the agencies tend to dogpile pretty reliably. A story that develops a bit every day while its outcome remains unknown (whether the Senate will change hands, whether Iraq has crossed some arbitrary threshold of out-and-out civil war) requires more careful tending.

The easiest error to make is assuming that Iraq or Senate situationers are episodic -- that the appearance on consecutive days of stories saying Iraq is closer to civil war means Iraq is three equal-increment steps closer to civil war. It doesn't. More likely, it means each of your three agencies (NYT, Times-Post and K-R/McClatchy, say) has taken a swing at the same evidence and the same sources and told its version of the same story. It's often a good and important story, but if you signal that it's a measurably new development from yesterday, you're missing the point and misleading the readers.

That's the problem with the lead story shown above, "Critical Senate battles tighten," which the Post pulled off the LATimes/WashPost wire. The Times story itself is kind of careless. Both the lede and the Times' own hed, "Campaign fireworks fly as polls put Senate in play," imply that spot news (two developments at campaign events) and ongoing news (polling in Senate races) have the same time value. The Palm Beach desk introduced an error of its own by declaring that there's a significant tightening, which isn't supported in the text,* but the bigger problem is assuming that there was a story in the first place.

One more time, at the risk of turning this into Night of the Living Dead Horse: "A flurry of surveys showed the battle for a Senate majority heading for a photo finish that could focus on Missouri" ain't news. It could have been written at any time in the past six weeks; heck, most newspapers have already run it in two or three different disguises. The polls themselves are worth a note, but it's a note on the order of "Nationwide, polling indicated that a number of races considered key to control of the Senate remain close, with no clear leaders emerging." That's interesting and, if you keep up with this stuff, important. But on no planet with fewer than nine suns is it a 1A lead.

*Or anywhere else I can find. Even if the story doesn't get any more specific than calling the polls "new" and "recent,"** you can probably find the real data yourself.
** The technical journalistic term for sloppy reporting by the top national politics writers at the LA Times is "sloppy reporting." Any questions?


Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Excellent points, fev. As usual.

3:20 AM, November 03, 2006  

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