Saturday, July 5, 2008

Deeper thinking

I came across this blog post by New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin, in which he talks about why journalists sometimes react to a hot story and go down that path, instead of thinking through the story and treating it more thoroughly, or even pursuing the story that's the opposite of the hot story; and how that can damage our credibility.

It's something that drives me crazy, when you see newspapers or TV scream about, say, an explosion of shark attacks in Florida, when in reality it's three people attacked in a 100-mile stretch of coastline, or some such.

For us, that kind of reaction can manifest itself if we chase a "trend" story or another hot national story and try to localize it, thinking that, of course, the same thing must be happening here. Sometimes it is, but not always, of course. Doing some thinking at the story-idea/assignment phase might help us tell better stories when these hot stories come up, because they'll always come up. Perhaps we can find a more nuanced angle, or perhaps we should be writing the counter-trend story.

The specific example in Revkin's blog entry was that two studies came out, one saying global warming contributed to more hurricanes, the other saying it wasn't much of a factor. A political scientist counted 79 media stories on the global-warming-affects-hurricanes study (the hot story) and 3 on the minimal-factor study (not the hot story). Here's Revkin:

"(There is) an institutional eagerness to sift for and amplify what editors here at The Times sometimes call 'the front-page thought.' This is only natural, but in coverage of science it can skew what you read toward the more calamitous side of things. It’s usually not agenda-driven, as some conservative commentators charge. It’s just a deeply ingrained habit. ...

"As I’ve said many times, in a couple of book chapters and talks, one danger in this kind of coverage — not accounting for the full range of uncertainty or understanding in dealing with very important environmental questions — is that it ends up providing ammunition to critics charging the media with an alarmist bias. And once the coverage corrects, it results in what I call “whiplash journalism” (coffee causes cancer; coffee helps your sex life…) that could disengage readers entirely from the value of journalism."