Getting it right

Newspapers would be more useful if reporters made fewer laughable technical errors. Such errors can be avoided (only?) by recruiting a network of experts to vet stories on the fly and spot the howlers. But that would require a re-thinking of current ideas about journalistic integrity and independence.

Changing economic conditions and reading habits pose an existential threat to the newspaper as we know it. Since no one has proposed a plausible alternative way of organizing, financing, and presenting shoe-leather reporting, that’s a major social and political problem. If no one can invent anything better, we ought to think about the Terry Fisher/Lawrence Lessig/Mike O’Hare proposal for some sort of content-neutral public subsidy for the reporting enterprise.

That said, newspapers face a different sort of challenge: their inability to get technical details right. By “technical” I don’t just mean science and engineering; regarding any field in which there is expert knowledge to be had, it’s more than likely that the reporters covering that field don’t have very much of it. And the journalistic belief that someone of general intelligence can, by asking questions of competing experts, understand technical detail well enough to frame the issue so as to make it comprehensible to the general reader is, usually, laughably false.

To fix this problem would require: (1) hiring reporters with the relevant spread of technical expertise, which seems impossible; (2) making it routine for a reporter assigned to a new beat to get intensive training in the relevant art from actual experts, which seems only slightly less plausible, and still wouldn’t deal with the problems faced by general-assignment reporters or political reporters covering issues with high technical content; or (3) developing (possibly even paying) a network of experts whose function it would be to serve as technical advisers to reporters: not just answering questions, but reviewing stories for technical accuracy before publication.

None of that would be easy. But if it’s not done, reporters will continue to make mistakes that make people knowledgeable in the relevant arts laugh out loud, and leave non-expert readers utterly befuddled.

Latest instance: a fairly competent piece of reporting on the appointment of the new “drug czar” by Carrie Johnson and Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post. The overall story is roughly correct: the team of Gil Kerlikowske and Tom McClellan represents a shift to a softer line on drug policy. (What the story doesn’t say is that it also reflects a shift to much greater intellectual integrity and technical competence.)

As an instance of the softer line, the reporters write:

On the campaign trail, Obama and Biden promised to offer first-time, nonviolent offenders a chance to serve their sentences in a drug rehabilitation center rather than in federal prison. In promoting wider use of drug courts, the administration is embracing an idea that has broad support in theory but has never been a main path for people with drug addictions who are charged with crimes.

This is contrasted with the hawkish tone of the outgoing “drug czar,” John Walters:

Walters had written widely for the Weekly Standard and other publications advocating for stiff prison sentences and “coerced treatment.”

As Colombo would have said, “There’s just one thing”: both diversion programs (allowing those convicted of drug offenses to do rehab rather than prison time) and drug courts (the same thing with a judge in charge) are precisely instances of … coerced treatment.

Now as it happens, I’m not a fan of coerced-treatment programs, because they tend to be poorly complied with (in the case of diversion programs such as California’s Prop. 36) or resource hogs that can’t possibly be brought to the relevant scale (in the case of drug courts). I’m convinced that the focus of coercion ought to be actual desistance from illicit drug use, not treatment attendance, and the example of Project H.O.P.E. in Honolulu suggests that a well-organized program of drug-testing and sanctions (with treatment imposed only on the minority of probationers who fail to clean up their acts on their own) can greatly outperform either version of coerced treatment.

So the reporters managed to pick an issue on which the old team and the new team pretty much agree, and point it up as a contrast, without ever noting the current controversy concerning how best to do that job.

It is true that the Walters regime wasn’t a strong advocate for spending more money on drug courts or diversion programs, and it’s probable that the new team will be more active in that area. And it is also true that Walters was a strong advocate for long prison terms for drug dealers, and probable that the new team will push in the other direction. So the overall thrust of the story – a shift to a somewhat softer line – was largely correct. But a crucial detail – a detail that anyone in the field would have spotted instantly – was backwards.

It wouldn’t be hard for major papers to round up stables of experts to “vet” their stories. But the extant journalistic ethic would regard such a step as morally dubious, a threat to journalistic independence. After all, it is the reporter, not the experts, who is supposed to be the final arbiter of truth. The experts are just “sources.” That’s the stance I would like to see reversed.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: