More readings for budding journalists

A veteran journalist complains about, among other things, the innumeracy of most reporters, and I suggest two corrective readings: Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics” and Niederman and Boyum’s “What the Numbers Say.”
Which leads to the next question: rather than asking what we want journalists to read, what is it that we want them to know?

A reader with long experience in the news biz writes:

Your post and Steven’s gave me my best laugh of the day. After a 25-year career in journalism at major metro dailies, I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of journo-colleagues who could read most of those books, let alone would choose to read them. A good number of those who could spent some time in newspapers and then took their intellectual curiosity and passion elsewhere &#8212 teaching, law, government, writing books. And it’s getting worse: The financial squeeze on the newspaper industry is hollowing out newsrooms, with many of the more engaged and talented mid-career people, who have a chance to pursue alternative careers, accepting buyouts and taking their experience with them.

At the very top of the newspaper business &#8212 NYT, WP, or WSJ &#8212 the analytical talent and intellectual levels are much higher, of course. But most Americans are getting their news from a local daily or Action/Eyewitness News at 5. I always considered it a victory if I could get reporters to be able to read and understand a government budget or distinguish between real and nominal growth. If you can get some budding journos to sip from your reading list, may the Force be with you.

The reference to real v. nominal growth reminds me of two glaring omissions from my earlier list:

* Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics

* Niederman and Boyum’s What the Numbers Say

How to Lie with Statistics is entertainingly written and illustated, and provides some good examples about how numbers and graphs can be used to deceive; Niederman and Boyum are more ambitious, attempting to give their readers both the desire to be good at quantitative reasoning (which is not at all the same thing as being “good at math” or “quick with figures”) and some useful ways of thinking about, and asking about, facts and arguments presented in quantitative form.

Which raises the next question:

As opposed to a list of documents to read, what would you nominate as the list of concepts journalism students should be exposed to? Here’s a quick sample:

* Institutional culture

* Regression toward the mean

* Moral hazard

* Expected value (of an uncertain outcome)

* Present value (of a stream of gains and losses over time)

* Statistical control

* Correlation v. causation

* Benefit-cost analysis and willingness-to-pay

* Cost-effectiveness

* Separation of powers

* Mill’s “harm principle”

* Rent-seeking


And how did I forget:

* Opportunity cost

* Cognitive dissonance

* Milgram experiment

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:

22 thoughts on “More readings for budding journalists”

  1. I like your list and yet think it comprises"nice to have" elements and overlooks the essentials. In my view, the single deepest deficiency of American journalists, compared to peers abroad, is their inability to grasp or even to look for the dynamics of social change: that the powerful make concessions only grudgingly; that it is NOT about elections and candidates (until late in the process); that social and economic groups see the world differently just as much as ethnic groups do; that media usually serve the powerful and share their world view; that that the US is NOT unique in the way social change occurs.
    Because American journalists don't even know these things, they are incapable of reporting on social change. They turn it into silly stories about horse races and politicking and a "public" (as if there IS such a thing as THE public) composed of morons. They pervert the history of our own social movements (civil rights, McCarthyism, labor unions, abolition, the 8 hour day, fundamentalism) into morality tales and fairy tales which PREVENT the public from understanding and making social change. In particular, they totally fail to see the vital role that the trades union movement has played in making our society more democratic, peaceful and egalitarian.

  2. It seemed that some works on political history were missing from the list favoring theory and economics. Recent books in this field that I would recommend are American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips and Fareed Zacharia's work The Future of Freedom provide interesting perspective and analysis grounded in history. Both also have the advantage of being a little more accessible than some of the others on the list.

  3. Anyone with children should have Huff's book. I read it when I was about 7, and it gives you a few simple tools of skepticism that will serve you all your life.
    And those tools will be sorely needed when you confront topics like Cost-Benefit Analysis. At the very least, any discussion of Cost-Benefit Analysis must be preceded by a review of the "recreational benefits" claimed by the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation as they dammed and channeled the waterways of America, or some similar example of how terribly wrong complicated ideas can get, when they're not subjected to some strong skepticism.

  4. Along with expected value, you need expected utility with plausible utility functions. Otherwise, you get bizarre misunderstandings of the purpose of insurance–both social and private.
    (How often have you heard something like, "But if everyone pays their expected costs, it's not really insurance," in the health insurance debate?)
    Also I'd add:
    regulatory capture (regulators working for the benefits of incumbent firms/methods)
    skewness and measures of central tendency

  5. I think this list is far too ambitious. All a decent journalist needs is basic writing skills, a healthy skepticism about the motives of their sources, and the guts to ask the experts. This list seems to indicate that journalists needs to be experts themselves. That conception is actually part of the problem. The sooner journalists realize that their job is to report, and not to educate or opinionate, the better.

  6. A document to add for anyone who covers politics: the U.S. Constitution. I am stunned at how often I talk to a reporter who knows less than a student in my intro course.

  7. statistical significance vs. real-world significance
    the divergent outcomes of "should" vs. "shall"
    empirically, headline is just as important as the story

  8. Dan Karreman's barebones prescription for journalist qualifications is bad for readers and media organizations alike.
    Take a real-world example: Your local school board proposes a $50 million, 30-year bond measure to build a new high school. The reporter for your local paper writes a story reporting that fact. A local activist calls the reporter and her editor and demands a correction. The real cost of the high school to taxpayers will really be $100 million over 30 years with borrowing costs, he argues. He demands that the paper always describe the high school as costing $100 million.
    Are the paper and its readers better served if the editor and reporter understand the time value of money and the concept of present value? Is it better for readers if the paper, in subsequent stories, treats the the cost of the school as a contested issue–"a $50 million high school, according to supporters; $100 million according to opponents."? In a world of scarce resources, are the readers and paper better served if the reporter and editor spend their time calling an "expert" to referee this issue, or if they use that time to chase down the rumor that school board is going to give the construction contract to the board president's brother?
    There are diminishing returns for expertise in news organizations, but it is very hard to argue that having reporters with a good understanding of these kinds of analytical concepts doesn't contribute to the productivity of news organizations and the quality and value of the news to readers.

  9. Tufte, _The_Visual_Display_of_Quantitative_Information_
    Frankfurter, _On_Bullshit_
    Strunk and White, _The_Elements_of_Style_
    (or maybe the newspapers should hire more copy
    editors, and have _them_read this one)

  10. As a newspaper editor, let me weigh in on a few points.
    Agreed on most points, but the list alone is superficial.
    I am a left-liberal who finds the body of the Constitution archaic and anachronistic. (See Daniel Lazare's "The Frozen Republic" for more on this line of thinking.) I want the "separation of powers" taught ONLY if contrasted to a parliamentary government – and that system's pluses. I don't want "my country right or wrong" taught by either paleoconservs, neocons, neolibs, or even New Deal libs who believe in American Exceptionalism. Period.
    Cost-benefit analysis? Depends on who's teaching the class. You want Newt Gingrich or some clone indoctrinating students?
    Cost-bennie analysis assumes that all things can be monetized. Cost-effectiveness assumes that we make decisions in a moral vacuum, as does cost-bennie analysis. No way to teach those two issues WELL without the moral dimension.
    Anyway, much of this is neoclassical economics. Given Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is a relic of Enlightenment Deism and its' god-winding-up-the-clock-and-sitting-on-his-perfect-world-LazyBoy diety.
    No. 1 idea left out: A class in informal logic/critical thinking. That way, the "ideas" of people like American Hawk would immediately be seen to be intellectually underfunded.
    No. 2 idea left out: Something on SCIENTIFIC literacy.

  11. Mark,
    I understand that this issue is partly driven by the fact that thinking people are fed up with the "he said, she said" model of reporting. But you know, reporters are not resorting to this model because they are uneducated. They resort to it because they are afraid of losing access, or because they are lazy. I fail to see how this list will change that.
    In your example,
    a) the issue is contested, as a matter of fact. Should you as reporter ignore that?
    b) should the reporter referee the issue? I agree that some basic knowledge about net present value would probably allow the reporter to ask the expert more sophisticated questions, but I fail to see the extent this will make a meaningful difference.
    c) if the editor fails to see the significance of the rumour that the contract is fixed, he or she should be fired.

  12. I believe the point of Mark's example is that the issue is not factually contested. The two numbers are (assuming he chose to set the example up this way; without knowing the interest rate he chose, I can't say) two different ways of saying the same thing. The reporter should write the story in such a way that readers would understand both how much money would be raised by the bonds, and how much money it would take to pay them back.
    Or if the example isn't set up so that these are two different ways of saying the same thing, then it's even simpler: one side is right and one is wrong. One side multiplied 3*7 and got 46. A dispute about the value of 3*7 should not be reported as a factually contested issue. Someone who claims that 3*7 is 46 should not get the time of day in a news story—it's not something to be reported on at all, unless you're feeling mean and are planning to write a story making fun of them.

  13. Perhaps I'm revealing my own ignorance, but why do you have "cost-effectiveness" listed separately from "cost-benefit analysis"? They seem nearly identical to me.

  14. And, my nomination for something left off the list is probability and risk analysis.
    For instance, some press release comes out about a new study that says eating hot dogs makes you 50% more likely to die of spleen cancer. It's a one-in-a-million chance, increased to 1.5-in-a-million. But then it gets reported as if it said hot dogs make you 50% more likely to die.

  15. Reckon if there is anything worth knowing that is not about economics? Like, oh, I don't know — science, history, other cultures, languages? It is one thing to be an expert, it is another altogether to be myopic.

  16. pjcamp: This isn't about what's worth knowing; it's about what journalists need to know to be minimaly effective at their jobs.

  17. But, Evan, PJ is right. Why the focus on economics? Given the creationism, followed by IDist, furor, EVERYBODY, not just journalists, should have a class, or seminar, or module, on the philosophy of science, for example.
    And, critical thinking skills teaching should go FAR beyond innumeracy to being able to understand logical fallacies, etc. Automatic textbook: The Skeptic's Dictionary.

  18. A few more suggestions:
    – Law of supply and demand
    – Ceteris paribus — all else being equal
    – Selection (e.g., natural selection, kin selection, a self-selected sample, etc.)
    – Nature vs. Nurture
    – Importance of who your relatives are
    – Nepotism vs. neposchism
    – Relative vs. absolute
    – Direction and magnitude

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