Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lying and ... what's that other one called again?

The health care debate is taking up most of the air in the room, but the cousins at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network haven't forgotten about the rest of the War on America. So let's look outside the spotlight for a bit and see what we can discover about how the routines of journalism are practiced at Fox.

Here's the No. 3 tale from the Fox front page at late morning. It's kind of a short one, so let's see how new Fox superstar John Stossel handles himself in the news limelight:

People who commit their lives to going green are just better people. They're more moral, more honest. At least, they keep telling us that, and apparently many students believe it, say University of Toronto psychologists: (Let's stop the tape for just a moment. The first claim is made up in a sort of random way, but it ought to suggest where this hard-hitting report is going. The second claim -- oh, heck. It's pretty much an out-and-out lie. The "University of Toronto psychologists" don't make any such assertion, anywhere in their paper, because that's not the sort of "study" they're doing.)

They initially quizzed the students on their impressions of people who buy eco-friendly products, and for the most part, they considered such consumers to be more “more cooperative, altruistic and ethical” than ordinary consumers...

Yeah, the "more 'more cooperative'" is sloppy, but this isn't much of an experiment either; what the researchers are doing is dividing a bunch (n = 59) of extra-credit-seeking students into two groups and asking each group how it would rate the altruism, cooperativeness and ethics of an imaginary shopper. One group rated a shopper who bought "organic foods and environmentally friendly products," and the other rated a shopper who bought "conventional foods and products." Generalizing from there to what "many students" believe would be amazingly stupid, which might be one reason two assistant profs who are trying to get published didn't do it.

Then the researchers took it an extra step: They ran a test to see who would be more likely to cheat and steal: Greens? Or conventional shoppers?

They divided the greens and conventional shoppers, and then gave the students a test that tempted them to steal money. (That's a lie, plain and simple. The study doesn't divide "the greens" from "conventional shoppers." For the second part,* it recruits a whole new pool of undergraduates and assigns them randomly -- that's how you make it all scientific and stuff -- to conditions in a 2x2 matrix: rate vs. buy and "green" store vs. conventional store. We have no idea what "the greens" do because nothing in the study identifies "greens." We tell some undergraduates (chosen at random) that they should either rate some products or add products they like to their shopping baskets, and we send them (randomly) to one of two types of "store." A "green" store is a Web site with nine "green" and three "conventional" products; a "conventional" store is a Web site with nine conventional and three green products. That's a long, boring way of pointing out that the reason the study doesn't make assertions about "the greens" is that it's designed to do something else entirely.)

The researchers found:

The green consumers were more likely to cheat than the conventional purchasers, and they stole more money when asked to withdraw their winnings from envelopes on their desks.
Here, at least, the typography implies that Stossel is quoting from someone else -- a New York Times blog that, in turn, is quoting Conservation magazine. He doesn't bother to credit the people who did the work, but at least he isn't pretending it's his own. Unlike his second paragraph, which looks suspiciously like this one from the Times:

Using student volunteers, the Toronto researchers tested this notion as it relates to green consumerism. They initially quizzed the students on their impressions of people who buy eco-friendly products, and for the most part, they considered such consumers to be more “more cooperative, altruistic and ethical” than ordinary consumers, according to Conservation.

What's that other ethics thing called? When you take other people's words and ideas and pretend they're your own?

Stossel's conclusion suggests why the whole thing -- given that Fox generally detests social science, especially when it's funded by the gubment (even the Canadian gubment) -- is a story:

Maybe that’s why sanctimonious stewards of the environment like Al Gore are comfortable lecturing the rest of us while living large in mega-mansions.

A couple things are worth taking away from this. One, journalism in general -- even at the level of the Times -- is still pretty incompetent at reporting on research. Two, social science is tentative stuff. When you're tempted by the sweeping conclusions you see in the press, go back and look at how the conceptual definitions are turned into operational definitions. A "green shopper" in this study isn't someone who buys "green" products out of habit or conviction. It's an undergraduate who went to a Web site where the products are 3:1 green (rather than 3:1 "conventional") and was "invited to select products" for purchase rather than being asked to rate them on their attractiveness. Ready to bet the farm yet? Didn't think so.

That suggests, or ought to suggest, another question: What does any of this have to do with Al Gore? And the answer is "nothing," which is the biggest takeaway point. The Times is inept by accident; nobody in power at the Times has yet decided that the methods section is as important as the box scores. That's curable. Fox, on the other hand, is deliberate. It lies because it can score a point that makes Roger Ailes happy. If you're interested in journalism, that's an important distinction.

And here's another distinction. Slow as the process might seem, the Times will actually get around to firing you if you are a liar and a plagiarist. At Fox, on the other hand, fabrication and plagiarism seem to be valuable career skills. They seem, at least, to be working for John Stossel.

* You can download the paper, in its apparently "in press" form, here and read the methods section for yourself.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home