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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

 
Truthiness

by digby

Jane appropriately excoriates the WaPo ombudsman, Deborah Howell, for her he said/she said prescription for even more confusing and useless reporting. I think this column may just be the perfect example of everything that's wrong with modern journalism.

Howell comments on a report about military recruiting that stated that more recruits are coming from low income and rural families:

Numbers aren't just facts. They can be interpreted in many ways, even if they come from the same or similar sources.

Ann Scott Tyson, a respected military reporter just back from Iraq, wrote in a front-page story Nov. 4 that "newly released Pentagon demographic data show that the military is leaning heavily for recruits on economically depressed rural areas where youths' need for jobs may outweigh the risks of going to war."

[...]

The story, which was largely based on Pentagon data, included some analysis done by the National Priorities Project (NPP), a liberal-leaning think tank that questions the war in Iraq. The NPP also used Pentagon, census and Zip code data. A different analysis, released by the conservative Heritage Foundation a few days later, was reported by other media outlets.

In looking at the story, I talked to Curt Gilroy, who, as director of accession policy for the secretary of defense, has oversight of all active-duty recruiting; Tim Kane, a Heritage researcher; Betty Maxfield, demographer of the Army; Bruce Orvis, director of the Manpower and Training Program at the Rand Corp.'s Arroyo Center, and Robert Brandewei, director of the Defense Manpower Data Center in Monterey, Calif.

All said the story and NPP analysis lacked context because they did not report trends over the past several years and did not look at "nationally representative data" or the entire recruit population. A statement from Gilroy and Maxfield said that "incomes and socioeconomic status of recruits' families closely mirror the U.S. population. These findings are contrary to those" in Tyson's article.

[...]

My bottom line on polls and surveys, no matter what kind: Look for the widest context. Ask as many experts as possible what the numbers mean. Numbers can be right but not tell the full story, and that's the case with the article on recruiting.


Shorter Deborah Howell:

There are those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts... But the gut's where the truth comes from...I know some of you may not trust your gut yet. But with my help you will. The truthiness is that anyone can report the news to you, but I promise to feel the news at you.


Unfortunately for Howell, her "clarification" only leads to a muddy, unfathomable mess. After reading her further reporting, you have absolutely no idea what the truth is. She should have written her cute little opener to say "numbers are partisan and have an agenda. If you are a supporter of the administration you can believe the pentagon and Heritage analysts. If you are a liberal traitor, you can believe this crappy NPP think tank. It's all about choice."

Howell is promoting that absolute worst kind of he said/she said journalism in this piece. She does not recommend any kind of context in the reporting that might illuminate the Pentagon or Heritage agendas, such as the trouble the military has had with recruiting or the different sales pitches that the military uses in different areas. She does not seek out an academic statistician who might be able to look at all the statistics and sort them out in some way so that readers could come to a reasonable conclusion.

And for someone who so believes in telling all sides of a story, I think it might have been helpful if she told her readers what prompted her to write on this subject in the first place, don't you? Was it, perhaps, a complaint from the pentagon which pointed out the conservative Heritage Foundation's contradictory figures? (We know it wasn't average readers, whom she and others at the Post consider nuisances.)

I do not know if the WaPo's new ombudsman is political but she is remarkably willing to assume liberal bias in the Post's reporting and recommend a "counterbalance" of right wing bullshit to even it out. In fact, this seems to be the Post's answer to everything, lately.

As we have all written about ad nauseum in the blogs these last few years, this is what we hate about mainstream journalism these days. This idea that "numbers aren't just facts." Yes, they fucking well are. Numbers are numbers. They don't have feelings, they aren't obscure. They are what they are. They can be used in different ways, yes, but the job of journalists isn't just to point out all the different interpretations and let the reader choose on the basis of which political party they belong to, it's to reveal how they being used in different ways and why.

I already know that the Heritage Foundation and the pentagon have an agenda. I take Howell at her word that the NPP is a liberal think tank that is against the war. I don't give a shit about any of that. What I would like to know is whether or not the military is recruiting more from lower income and rural areas and if so, why?

The editor of the paper defended the original piece by saying this:

Post National Editor Michael Abramowitz said, "Ann set out to tell the story of what kind of young people are joining today's military. Obviously the armed services draw from a range of demographic, income and ethnic groups. The Pentagon's own numbers indicate that that the military is drawing disproportionally from rural and southern communities, and from families with slightly lower incomes than the population in general.

"The numbers also show a close correlation between the unemployment rate and recruiting. These are the phenomena that Ann accurately described in her story. While we did note some trends, such as the growth in wealthier recruits, we probably could have done a better job highlighting some of the nuances in recruiting patterns and providing more context. But the overall thrust of the story still seems accurate and sound to us."


That's not good enough for Howell, whose further consultations with pentagon, Heritage and Rand analysts report a bunch of arcane gobblodygook that I defy Howell or anyone else to interpret.

But then, I guess that's the point. In order to be fair one must go out of one's way not to tell the truth. The facts, after all, are biased.



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