Friday, June 05, 2009

Editing fail

What we have here is not a bad story -- at least, not necessarily a bad story. But because it's in the lead position on the front page, it needs to be a little more than not necessarily bad. That's where the editing breakdown comes in. At least three editors -- line, rim and slot (a fourth if the Obs is still using a "1A captain") -- could have pulled the story over for some mandatory reworking. Let's have a look at what ails the poor thing and then speculate about why it wasn't fixed.

In a new study on social ties in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, more residents report having friends from diverse backgrounds, but they still lack trust of other races.

Sound sort of like an ad so far? As in, people are saying things that sound like they ought to be important but not giving you any tools to judge those things by?

... The 2008 Crossroads Charlotte Social Capital Benchmark Community Survey is to be released today. It is a locally produced update of a similar 2001 Harvard study of 40 communities that ranked Charlotte-Mecklenburg next-to-lowest in inter-racial trust.

The Charlotte survey of 856 residents – 49 percent men and 51 percent women – measured community friendships, civic involvement and trust of police, among other categories.

And this is all the data we get on the bones of the survey, which means at a minimum that the story isn't ready to run. You can calculate the margin of sampling error from the sample size, but it's sort of a minimum courtesy to provide it anyway (you don't make readers figure out ERAs for themselves, do you?). When was the survey in the field? Who was sampled? Where -- Charlotte or Charlotte-Mecklenburg? Why do we get the one subgroup breakdown -- men and women -- that has nothing to do with the story, while the ones that might make for some relevant comparisons (white, black, Latino, Asian) are ignored?

Since the 2001 survey, the community appears to have made the greatest strides in diversity of relationships. (Whose opinion is this, and what does "diversity of relationships" mean?)

More than 50 percent of respondents reported having friends from diverse backgrounds, compared with 23 percent in 2001. Yet the numbers show no significant gains in trust between races. Fewer than one-fourth of respondents reported high levels of trust toward other races – the same as in 2001.

That's the second time in six grafs that "friends from diverse backgrounds" is mentioned, but we still have no idea what it means. Here's the explanation for "diversity of friendships" from the executive summary for the 2001 survey (if you think it's the reporter's job to have read this and explained the current survey's version in the story, it is -- but an editor should have raised that point before the story got to the top of the front):

The survey asked whether the respondent had a personal friend who is a business owner, was on welfare, owned a vacation home, is gay, is a manual worker, is White, is Black, is Hispanic, is Asian, is a community leader, and was of a different faith. Then the number of categories each respondent mentioned were added together, and this summed score became the index.

Are you wondering why the only bit of expounding on "trust toward other races" is that it's the same as in 2001? Here's where those subgroup comparisons would come in really handy. At least we'd have some idea of what we were measuring.

But researchers say the new findings show progress.

“It means that perhaps the relationships are beginning to develop across races,” said Jeff Michael, director of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, which conducted the survey. “It's a step in the right direction, but perhaps they haven't translated into greater levels of trust yet.”

Well, it might or it might not. Given that one of the "friendships" areas in which the region was well above the national average in 2001 was knowing people who own vacation homes, I'd be wary of generalizing to relationships "across races" (again, a stable figure in the whole sample could be masking notable changes in subgroups).

And then we have ... five grafs of what newspapers always do with survey stories, which is introducing some Real People (a black woman and a white woman who are friends) to illustrate the social conditions the survey addresses. Which is about as illuminating as it is during campaign season. There follow a few random bullet points from the survey and an indication that we can expect a repeat in three years.

On the whole, it's hard to see why this story is worth anything near the front page -- unless you're actively interested in Robert Putnam's theory of social capital, which the story almost entirely ignores (odd, given that Putnam was the PI on the 2001 survey), or you think interracial trust is important (in which case you have reason to be baffled). So why didn't some editor pull the story off for revising? Here are some ideas.

There's the standard economic explanation: Fewer staffers but more stuff to do. Buyouts and layoffs tend to weed out the more experienced (alas, often the more skeptical as well). If it isn't going to get you sued, put a hed on it and hit the button. And yes, journalism as a whole has trouble playing by the rules of social science research. But I think there's something else in play as well. "Diversity" is a God word for journalism. Once it's invoked, there's no room for criticism -- even the constructive sort that tries to patch up holes in stories before they run.

That's especially unfortunate because it goes directly against any real idea of "objectivity." The point of being objective isn't to look for any occurrence of sentiment A and provide equal space for sentiment not-A; it's to make sure all news stories in any particular category play by the rules of that category. In surveys, that means telling people exactly what was measured and how, along with the appropriate ways in which those results can be compared to similar surveys.

If the people who take diversity seriously can't or won't enforce the applicable standards, they're leaving the field of criticism open to the wingnuts, who are quite eager to paint the whole enterprise as so much Kool-aid and Kum-ba-ya. Please don't feed them. They're eating quite well as it is.

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