Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A ray of sunshine

Quoth this morning's Newspaper of Record:

An article in the Itineraries pages last Tuesday reported about the increasing stress on business travelers, and cited the findings of “Stress in America,” an annual survey of the American Psychological Association. That survey found that economic factors were the leading causes of stress levels in 2008, but it did not say, as the article did, that “the crisis on Wall Street was the No. 1 cause of anxiety,” nor did participants in the survey say they felt most vulnerable to stress “in the office and on a business trip.”

The survey included data from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23, 2008, a period of volatility on Wall Street, but none of the questions in the association’s survey referred to Wall Street or any economic crises. Participants were not asked how business travel affected their stress levels or where they felt most vulnerable to stress. The author of the article distorted the survey’s findings to fit his theme, contrary to The Times’s standards of integrity.

If you're a regular visitor to these parts, you might be seeing a familiar theme. All sorts of news organizations routinely distort survey findings to fit writers' preconceived story lines. It's fun to catch Fox out, because Fox is so clumsily shameless about it, but the Times itself has a healthy tradition of bending the data to fit the story. Reporters are storytellers; the structure of journalism is set up to reward storytelling, and there's nothing in it to encourage those pesky rimrats to raise questions about flights of prose that slip the surly bonds of significance and soar off on their gossamer wings. So it's unusual, and potentially quite promising, to see someone own up to this offense in public.

Copydesks should find a copy of today's Times and have this Editor's Note bronzed. And the next time Star Reporter tees up an innocent survey to make a Big Cultural Point, you can take the plaque down off the wall and whack him/her upside the head with it.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Wishydig said...

That is nice.

What would you say regarding a policy of giving the reporter's name in such corrections? Overkill? Not helpful? Slippery slope?

12:31 PM, October 21, 2008  
Blogger Fred said...

Mmm ... sort of, kind of, and sort of. I can see some merit in naming the offender, but I'd be wary of making it a policy unless someone could guarantee that the pain was evenly distributed. It's hard to imagine a correction blaming the chief political reporter for twisting some stats in the interest of the narrative -- much less singling out the assorted editors who encouraged the train wreck or looked the other way when they could have stopped it.

As it stands now, if you put this guy in front of the firing squad, he's got a pretty good case: When did we decide THIS was a crime?

11:24 PM, October 21, 2008  

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