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July 29 2010

15:35

Bloomberg Circles the Wagons on Misleading Gulf-Spill Poll

CircleWagons.jpg
News organizations' default response to criticism is to circle the wagons.

"We stand by our story!" is a stirring thing to say, and sometimes it's even the right thing. But in the web world of 2010, where everyone has a public platform, ignoring critics can also squander a news outlet's credibility and alienate its audience.

The basic premise of MediaBugs -- which I laid out in this video -- is that news organizations can begin winning back the public trust they have lost by engaging civilly, in public, with people who criticize them about specific errors. Whoever is right in the end, and whether the newsroom decides to run a correction or not, the editors are better off explaining their thinking than slamming the door on dialogue.

Bloomberg's Poll Problem

For an example of precisely the wrong way of handling legitimate questions about coverage, consider the controversy over a recent Bloomberg opinion poll. Josh Nelson, who blogs at Enviroknow.com, first brought this to our attention. He'd pursued something of a one-man campaign criticizing how Bloomberg framed its reports on a recent poll question about oil-drilling bans in the wake of the Gulf spill. Calling it a one-man campaign is a bit unfair, however, because he was joined by some impressive company along the way.

Here is the issue Nelson raised: Bloomberg's headline for its July 14 story read "Americans in 73% Majority Oppose Deepwater Drilling Ban." Its lead read: "Most Americans oppose President Barack Obama's ban on deepwater oil drilling in response to BP's Gulf of Mexico spill..." Because Bloomberg is a wire service, the story ran in many outlets -- among them, the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.

Nelson argued that the headline and lead were not supported by the actual question the poll asked, which was: "Do you think the spill proves off-shore drilling is just too dangerous and should be banned in U.S. waters, or was this a freak accident and offshore drilling can be made safer and should not be banned?"

Nelson wrote:

Obviously, there is a huge difference between an indefinite ban on all offshore drilling and President Obama's temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling. Regardless, Bloomberg polled about the former and reported on the latter.

Here you can read a summary of Nelson's tenacious but ultimately quixotic attempts to get Bloomberg to correct this story. He contacted roughly a dozen Bloomberg staffers. After various referrals, he finally heard from Al Hunt, Bloomberg's executive Washington editor, who supervised the poll. Hunt's first response was:

mr nelson: why don't you write back a serious response that doesn't contain such silly assertions as intentionally misleading reporting or sloppy journalism.

After one further email, Nelson got a second reply from Hunt:

Mr. Nelson: We appreciate your interest in our BP poll and understand that you think the conclusions we reported are wrong. We have reviewed the article in light of your comments and we believe we interpreted the poll data correctly. We encourage you to write a letter to the editor to express your views. -- Al Hunt, Executive Editor

This would appear to be the end of the line for Bloomberg. Nelson's further efforts to get a more satisfying response from the organization went nowhere. After Nelson filed a bug report at MediaBugs, we tried to talk with Bloomberg about the issue. We hit the same wall.

The wagons have circled. Bloomberg stands by its story. End of story?

Why?

Not exactly. Other news outlets have not shared Hunt's view of the matter. The Atlantic ran a correction on one of its blogs; Kevin Drum at Mother Jones called it "stunningly bad journalism"; Jon Cohen of the Washington Post's Behind the Numbers blog took apart the issue as well.

So why is Bloomberg being so obstinate? Here, it seems to me, are the possible scenarios:

  • Bloomberg dislikes the messenger. Unquestionably, Nelson could have pursued his complaint with more diplomatic finesse. One of his blog posts was headlined, "Does Anyone at Bloomberg News Care About Accuracy?" Bloomberg's defensive response may be explained as a natural human reaction to hostile criticism, but it cannot be excused on those grounds. Editors shouldn't make decisions about corrections out of pique. Journalists who care about accuracy have a duty to ignore their personal feelings about critics, to peel away the emotion and consider the substance, if any, of the criticism.
  • Bloomberg is just really busy and uninterested in worrying about yesterday's news. Every news organization is strapped these days, and spending a lot of time sifting through "shoulda-coulda's" from last week's news budget is generally viewed as a luxury at best. We can empathize with harried newsroom managers, but we can't give them a pass. Their future depends on readers' perception that they hold themselves to higher standards than the average person who posts unvetted information online. And on the web there is no such thing as "yesterday's news." Yesterday's error is republished over and over until it is properly corrected.
  • Bloomberg really believes there is no problem here. This one is hard for me to believe, given the evidence. But if it's the case, surely the editors can see the value in actually making their rationale known rather than keeping it to themselves.

All the scenarios point to the same logic: By refusing to give its critic a thorough response, Bloomberg only hurts itself.

July 02 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Weigel and new journalism values, Google News gets personal, and Kos’ poll problem

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Finding a place for a new breed of journalist: Laura touched on the resignation of Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel in last week’s review, and several of the questions she raised were ones people have been batting around in the week since then. Here’s what happened (and for those of you looking for a more narrative version, Jay Rosen has you covered via audio): Weigel, who writes a blog for the Post on the conservative movement, wrote a few emails on an off-the-record journalists’ listserv called Journolist bashing a few members of that movement (most notably Matt Drudge and Ron Paul). Those emails were leaked, the conservative blogosphere went nuts, and Weigel apologized, then resigned from the Post the next day. Journolist founder Ezra Klein shut the listserv down, and Weigel was apologetic in his own postmortem of the situation, attributing his comments to hubris toward conservatives designed to get other journalists to like him.

This was The Flap That Launched A Thousand Blog Posts, so I’ll be sticking to the journalistic angles that came up, rather than the political ones. A lot of those issues seemed to come back to two posts by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that included attacks on Weigel by anonymous Post staffers, the tone of which is best summed up by Goldberg’s own words: “The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training.” (Goldberg did quickly back down a bit.) Fellow Post blogger Greg Sargent defended Weigel (and Klein, a young Post blogger who’s an outspoken liberal) by arguing that just because they express opinions doesn’t make them any less of a reporter. New media guru Jeff Jarvis decried the “myth of the opinionless man” that Weigel was bound to, and Salon’s Ned Resnikoff called for the end of neutral reporting, urging journalists to simply disclose their biases to the public instead.

Several other observers posited that many of the problems with this situation stemmed from a false dichotomy between “reporting” and “opinion.” That compartmentalization was best expressed by Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who asked of the Post’s bloggers, “Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?” (He proposed that the Post have one of each cover conservatives.) The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf said the Post is imposing binary categories on its reporters that don’t fit real life, when the two in fact aren’t mutually exclusive. Blogging historian and former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg made a similar point, suggesting Post “simply lets them be bloggers — writers with a point of view that emerges, post by post.” The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait pointed out that the Post has created a type of writer that it doesn’t know what to do with, while Jim Henley offered a helpful definition of the “blog-reporter ethos” that those writers embody.

Finally, a few other points well worth pondering: Nate Silver, whose opinionated political blog FiveThirtyEight just got picked up by The New York Times, marveled at how much more outrageous the response seemed to be than the comments themselves and wondered if even opinions expressed in private are now considered enough to disqualify a reporter. John McQuaid saw the episode as evidence that journalism traditionalists and the “view from nowhere” political press still rule in Washington, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx saw in the conflict a backlash against a new generation of journalists who emphasize personal voice, as well as “an opportunity to establish a new set of journalistic values” — fair-mindedness and intellectual honesty backed by serious reporting, rather than a veneer of impartiality.

Google News gets a makeover: For the first time since it was launched in 2002, Google News got a significant redesign this week. Now, a little ways down from the top of the page is what Google called “the new heart of the homepage” — a personalized “News for you” section. That area can be adjusted to highlight or hide subjects, individual news topics, or certain news sources. The redesign is also emphasizing its Spotlight section of in-depth stories, as well as user-bookmarked stories. Search Engine Land has a nice visual overview of what’s changed.

The Lab’s Megan Garber also has a helpful summary of the changes, noting that “the new site is trying to balance two major, and often conflicting, goals of news consumption: personalization and serendipity.” All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka wondered how many people are actually going to take the time to customize their page, under the idea that anybody news-savvy enough to do so is probably getting their news through a more comprehensive source like RSS or Twitter. Jay Rosen wanted to know what news sources people choose to see less of. Meanwhile, in an interview with MediaBistro, Google News lead engineer Krishna Bharat gave a good picture of where Google News has been and where it’s heading. And it’s worth noting that the comments we’ve gotten on the change have been wildly negative.

A possible polling fraud revealed: For the past year and a half, the liberal political blog Daily Kos has been running a weekly poll, something that’s reasonably significant because, well, it’s a blog doing something that only traditional news organizations have historically done. This week, Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga wrote that he will be suing Research 2000, the company that conducted the polls for the blog. The decision was based on a report done by three independent analysts that found some serious anomalies that seem to be indicators that polls might be fraudulent. Zuniga renounced his work based on Research 2000’s polls and said, “I no longer have any confidence in any of it, and neither should anyone else.”

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent detailed the planned suit, including a clear accusation from Kos’ lawyer that the polls were fraudulent, not just sloppy: “They handed us fiction and told us it was fact. … It’s pretty damn clear that numbers were fabricated, and that the polling that we paid for was not performed.” Research 2000 president Del Ali asserted the properness of his polls, and his lawyer called the fraud allegation “absurd” and threatened to countersue. Polling expert Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, who began his blog as a Kos commenter, echoed the study’s concerns, then was hit with a cease-and-desist letter from Research 2000’s attorney. Meanwhile, Yahoo’s John Cook laid out Research 2000’s troubled financial history.

This may seem like just a messy he-said, she-said lawsuit involving two individual organizations, but as Sargent and The New York Times pointed out, Research 2000’s work is cited by a number of mainstream news organizations (including the Post), and this could cause people to begin asking serious questions about the reliability of polling data. As trust in journalistic institutions wanes, the para-journalistic institution of polling may be about to take a big credibility hit here, too.

How much do reporters need to disclose?: Conversation about last week’s Rolling Stone story on Gen. Stanley McChrystal continued to trickle out, especially regarding that tricky relationship between journalists and their sources. CBS foreign correspondent Lara Logan stoked much of it when she criticized the article’s author, Michael Hastings, for being dishonest about his intentions and violating an unspoken agreement not to report the informal banter of military officials. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald saw the argument as a perfect contrast between adversarial watchdog journalism and journalism built on access, and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi came out firing with a characteristically inspired rant against Logan’s argument: “According to Logan, not only are reporters not supposed to disclose their agendas to sources at all times, but in the case of covering the military, one isn’t even supposed to have an agenda that might upset the brass!”

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson backed Taibbi up, but DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici rapped Taibbi’s knuckles for his disregard for the facts. Military and media blogger Jamie McIntyre found a spot in between Logan and Taibbi in ruling on their claims point by point. Politico takes a look at the entire discussion, paying special attention to how relationships work for other military reporters and what this flap might mean for them in the future. On another angle, the Lab’s Jason Fry used the story to examine whether the fragmentation of content is going to end up killing some news brands.

Reading roundup: We’ve had a longer-than-usual review this week, so I’ll fly through some things and get you on your way to the weekend. There’s still some really fascinating stuff to get to, though:

— A newly released Harvard study found that newspapers overwhelmingly referred to waterboarding as torture until the George W. Bush administration began defining it as something other than torture, at which point their description of it became much less harsh. (They still largely described it as torture when other countries were doing it, though.) The study prompted quite a bit of anger about the American media’s “craven cowardice” and subservience to government, as well as its unwillingness to “express opinion” by calling a spade a spade. James Joyner noted that it’s complicated and The New York Times said that calling it torture was taking sides, though the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent said not calling it torture is taking a side, too.

— I was gone last week, so I didn’t get a chance to highlight this thoughtful post by the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf on what it takes to replace the local beat reporter. As for the newspaper itself, the folks at Reason gave you a section-by-section guide to replacing your daily newspaper.

— Finally, in the you-must-bookmark-this category: Former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee put together an indispensable glossary of tech terms for journalists. Whether you’re working on the web or not, I’d advise reading it and digging deeper into any of the terms you still don’t quite understand.

April 30 2010

15:34

April 16 2010

15:09

ComRes stats: Who’s to blame for misreported Lib Dem leap frog poll? ITV blames outside journalist

Earlier today [Friday] media news sites, bloggers and tweeters reported that Liberal Democrats had leap frogged Labour by 14 per cent in a ITV/ComRes poll, to 35 per cent.

For example:

But this figure was soon amended and given some context. ComRes actually reports in its “final analysis” that Liberal Democrats remain in third place, with a cut of 24 per cent.

How did the misunderstanding occur?

ITN claims, in a statement to Journalism.co.uk: “A headline figure of the ComRes/ITV News poll was overheard by a journalist outside of ITV News.”

“Other media outlets ran with this information without verifying. The full figures were released in their full context almost immediately by ComRes and ITV News to all media.”

If you read ComRes’ press statement – published on the Independent’s blog here – it states:

The final analysis of the ComRes instant poll for last night’s ITV News at Ten among those watching the First Election Debate, extrapolated across the GB adult population as a whole, puts the Conservatives on 35 per cent, Labour on 28 per cent and Liberal Democrats on 24 per cent.

(…)

Of the 4,000 viewers sampled, before the poll was weighted across the population, their voting intentions are now Conservative 36 per cent, Labour 24 cent and Lib Dems 35 per cent.

(…)

[T]he national vote share result takes into account ComRes’s latest voting intention figures published on Wednesday 14th April and the voting intention of respondents who watched the debate polled on 15th April.

But it was the latter unweighted sample that caught the headlines, before being quickly updated when the full results were release.

According to the Telegraph’s Robert Colvile it was a case of “egg on pollster face”. But ComRes told Journalism.co.uk it only ever released the full results – with context and weighting.

ConservativeHome’s Jonathan Isaby blamed a tweet from ITV correspondent Lucy Manning (@lucymanning).

But she denied she was the first, and tweeted (in an open message to Guardian political journalist Andrew Sparrow): “Not true many more tweeted them before me. thought id clarify!”

Sparrow justifies sharing the initial poll results, acquired via Twitter, on Guardian.co.uk. He writes:

“Twitter is a wonderful source of information (if we didn’t use it, this blog would be slower and far less information) and the figures were released by journalists who are normally reliable. But on this occasion the information was misleading. I should have waited until I had spoken to ComRes before going into overdrive. I’m sorry about that.”

But weighting or no weighting, is the poll’s methodology sound? Journalist James Ball tweets that weighting a poll like that is “very problematic”.

“Not only is direct audience for debate small, it’s untypical of general population,” he claims. He says it’s “staggeringly poor methodology” for ComRes, “at a time rife for misinterpretation.”

Full ComRes press release:

The final analysis of the ComRes instant poll for last night’s ITV News at Ten among those watching the First Election Debate, extrapolated across the GB adult population as a whole, puts the Conservatives on 35 per cent, Labour on 28 per cent and Liberal Democrats on 24 per cent. This compares to the ComRes poll broadcast on ITV News at Ten on 14th April showing Conservatives on 35 per cent, Labour on 29 per cent and Liberal Democrats on 21 per cent.

Of the 4,000 sample of viewers who watched the debate, their voting intentions are now Conservative 36 per cent, Labour 24 per cent and Lib Dems 35 per cent. This compares to their stated voting intentions prior to the debate which stood at Conservative 39 per cent, Labour at 27 per cent and Liberal Democrat 21 per cent.

Methodology statement:

Instant Poll
ComRes interviewed 4032 GB adults on 15th April by an automated telephone survey immediately after the ITV1 Leaders’ Debate. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults and weighted by past vote recall. Respondents were selected from a pre-recruited panel of people who agreed to be contacted by telephone following the leaders’ debates to give their views. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full data tables will be available shortly at www.comres.co.uk.

National Voting Intention
To extrapolate the impact of the change in voting intention figures for viewers of the debates the national voting intention is modelled taking into account: (i) viewing figures for the debate (Peak of 10 million – approximately 21 per cent of the population); (ii) projected turnout –nationally and among viewers.  Therefore, the national vote share result takes into account ComRes’s latest voting intention figures published on Wednesday 14th April and the voting intention of respondents who watched the debate polled on 15th April.

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March 08 2010

10:44

CCJ: Journalists love polls but are they useful?

Journalists love polls, notes the Committee of Concerned Journalists, but what are the drawbacks? Using examples from the US, Jon Margolis writes:

“[A]ccurate” is not a synonym for “meaningful,” and it is time to consider whether journalists are so poll-happy that they are suckers for anything with a chart and a margin of error even if the end result distorts rather than clarifies reality.

(…)

Public opinion polling is useful, but only if the public has an opinion on the subject under review. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes its opinion really doesn’t matter. And sometimes it shouldn’t.

Full article at this link…

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