I’m not someone who gets off on slagging the MSM (or mainstream media, for those of you who don’t spend your days trolling sites dedicated to dissing the press). But there’s one area in which I think the press consistently falls short: providing context for the facts and figures cited in their articles. Two recent examples from The New York Times:
* In yesterday’s paper, Linda Greenhouse, the Times‘s Supreme Court reporter, wrote an article titled “Women Suddenly Scarce Among Justices’ Clerks.” Greenhouse describes a one-year decline in the number of female clerks on the Court. “In interviews, two of the justices, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer, suggested that the sharp drop in women among the clerkship ranks reflected a random variation in the applicant pool,” Greenhouse writes. To prove that this explanation isn’t cutting it in the legal community, she writes, “But outside the court, those who care about what goes on inside are thirsting for more than statistical randomness as an explanation. A post on one popular legal Web site, the Volokh Conspiracy, asked, ‘Why so few women Supreme Court clerks?’ and drew 135 comments during a single week in July.”
I guess 135 comments sounds like a lot, but earlier this month I got more than 50 comments on one post in about 24 hours, and I’m not running what amounts to a water-cooler site for lawyers and law students around the country. Were these 135 comments made up of a dozen or so people posting a dozen times each? Were the posts attributing the one-year drop to any particular cause, or were they, as Breyer, Souter, and at least some of the relevant data indicated, just a random fluctuation? (Ruth Bader Ginsberg has noted this year’s decline in at least one speech, but declined to discuss her thoughts on the matter with Greenhouse.) Readers of the article will never know. Greenhouse’s piece was presented as a front-page news story (printed under the rubric “Supreme Court Memo”), but, with the Volokh Conspiracy comment board the only example of any actual debate or discussion, it looks more like an op-ed written by a reporter with a history of political activism: In 1989, Greenhouse participated in a Pro-Choice rally (in violation of Times policy) and in a recent speech, she described crying at a Simon & Garfunkel concert because the war in Iraq had convinced her that her generation was “mak[ing] the same mistakes” in running the country that previous generations had made. The Times has drawn fire in recent years for pushing agendas in its news pages. Without any context, this has the appearance of another example of that type of reporting.
* Another story, printed earlier this month, also relies on Interweb-based stats and also presents them in a vacuum. In an article detailing the resignation of the top two editors of the Columbia Journalism Review‘s daily website after budget cuts and a change in direction, Kit Seelye writes, “In 2005, CJRDaily.org received an honorable mention from the National Press Club in the category of ‘distinguished contribution’ to online journalism. It now receives nearly 500,000 page views a month, Mr. Lovelady, [one of the editors,] said, up 30 percent from the beginning of the year.”
Again, 500,000 page views sounds impressive at first blush, but what does that number really mean? A little poking around shows that it means Columbia Journalism School Dean Nick Lemann was arguably right to focus the magazine’s limited resources elsewhere. In August, I had 300,000 page views…and I don’t have a paid staff of writers and editors, a connection to an Ivy League university, or any type of marketing or advertising. A handful of sites in the Gawker media empire are regularly topping 350,000 page views a day, according to proprieter Nick Denton’s personal website.*
I’ve argued before that statistics can be used to prove almost anything. The Times has one of the most sophisticated news-gathering operations in the world, and its manpower and resources allow it to cover stories in more depth and with more nuance than the vast majority of media outlets out there. It wouldn’t take much to throw in some context with those figures (and it would make sense for the Times to be extra-careful about the appearance of reporters using the news pages as a forum for their political views). When the media is under attack from so many quarters, it’s crucial places like the Times do absolutely everything it can to show readers it deserves their attention and trust. This would be a good — and cheap — place to start.
* This section initially read: “A handful of sites in the Gawker media empire were regularly topping 350,000 page views a day back in September 2004. (That appears to be the last month that Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s proprietor, posted data on daily web traffic.)” The site traffic figures posted on Denton’s site are actually live; he posted the blog entry in which he began putting up page view figures in 2004.