Bad Writing, Bad Editing, Bad Grasp of Law: An Example of Awful Legal Coverage

Law

As you know, I gripe about many things. It's the life of a blogger.

One of my most constant gripes is that the media does a terrible job of covering legal issues. Far too many journalists do not understand the burden of proof, do not understand sentencing, and do not understand famous but complex laws like the PATRIOT ACT. What's worse, they don't care that they don't understand those things and don't take reasonable steps to educate themselves.

Too many journalists think their readers are too stupid to grasp accurate stories about the legal system, choose sensationalistic pap that distorts stories, gleefully accept rights-depriving and system-distorting leaks to scoop competitors without recognition that the government's willingness to leak is a part of the story, and generally act as lapdogs to law enforcement and the security state.

I've grown so jaded about it that it takes a really horrifically botched job of journalism to really move me.

Congrats, CBS2 New York. You've made it.

CBS's New York affiliate reported on a workplace discrimination verdict in a case featuring claims that the defendant made free use of ugly epithets. The plaintiff said the use of the epithets created a hostile work environment; the defendant said the epithets had to be viewed differently in different cultural contexts and were not meant to harass. The jury found for the plaintiff. Here's how CBS interpreted that:

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A federal jury has rejected an argument that the use of the N-word among blacks can be a culturally acceptable term of love and endearment, ruling instead that its use in the workplace is hostile and discriminatory no matter what.

[Emphasis mine, idiocy in original.]

No. No, no, no, no.

Good Lord. Who wrote that? Who edited it?

A jury can't rule on what the law is. A jury can't rule that a word is "hostile and discriminatory no matter what." A jury can only return a verdict on the application of the law it is given to a specific set of facts. At the very most, this verdict means that this jury found, by only a preponderance of the evidence, that the evidence presented to it showed that the defendant employer created an unlawfully hostile work environment for the plaintiff worker in violation of anti-discrimination law. The jury didn't, and couldn't, say whether other facts of other uses of racial epithets would create a hostile work environment. The jury didn't, and couldn't, make law for the country. The jury verdict can't be cited for any legal proposition.

Perhaps you'll say that the bad reporting here was just in the lede, not in the heart of the story. But the lede is all that many people read. The lede gets picked up as the hook for the story. The lede gets repeated and cited and argued by people talking about the news. An ignorant lede promotes ignorance. This is an ignorant lede.

There are certainly very complex areas of the law, and the job of a lawyer can be very challenging. But the basic mechanics of the legal system aren't rocket science, and a high-school grasp of the way the legal system works should not be an insurmountable barrier to journalists or their editors.

[If commenters could spare me the deeply annoying why-can't-I-say-that-word-when-rappers-say-it discussion, which is tangential to this post, that would be great.]

Edited to add: ABC does the same thing, through Russell Goldman:

A federal jury in New York found that use of the N-word in the workplace is never acceptable, even when used between black coworkers and when the historically fraught word is intended to denote friendship or endearment.

JURIES CAN'T DO THAT. THIS JURY DIDN'T DO THAT.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

76 Comments

75 Comments

  1. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Sep 3, 2013 @2:43 pm

    In the days of H. L. Mencken, newspapermen were a coarse and largely ignorant lot. Then the fashion for Educated Journalists came in. Now journalists are TRAINED to be a coarse and ignorant lot.

  2. Craig  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:10 pm

    Journalists these days are trained to write stories that will sell newspapers or get good ratings on TV, facts be damned.

  3. Martin  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:10 pm

    I don't think that's really limited to legal coverage – that just happens to be the area where you have most insight into how terrible the reporting is. Any aviation coverage that makes me want to scream for exactly the same reason. It would be nice if they got the basics right but it's apparently not going to happen.

  4. GrimGhost  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:14 pm

    All you need to know about "professional" journalists: they regularly are outplayed and outsmarted by Sarah Palin.

  5. jim  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:15 pm

    Listen, I have plenty of black friends, so I'm not a racist, I'm simply wondering why I can't say the N-word when all these famous rappers can.

  6. Fasolt  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:21 pm

    Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

  7. Chris  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:22 pm

    Any aviation coverage that makes me want to scream for exactly the same reason.

    Same here, just substitute "firearms" for "aviation".

  8. gramps  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:33 pm

    Like others here, when I see some journalistic effort about a topic or event that I am familiar with, I am amazed (not surprised, however) as to just how wrong the story is about the basic facts.

    Its been said before by those more notable than I, but this is good reason to doubt most of what you might see published as news. What are the odds that your pet topic is the only one they know so little about? In 7 or 8 comments we have already covered law, firearms and aviation… showing essentially the same experience with journalists.

  9. Renee Marie Jones  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:38 pm

    Ya. It is not just coverage of the law that suffers. I unerringly find huge flaws in any major news report where I have some expertise in the subject. I therefore presume that all other news reports are equally inaccurate. I wish news corporations and journalists cared more, but in reality they only care if their stories attract people who will read the accompanying advertisements for toothpaste or cars or soap and buy the products.

  10. Michael Donnelly  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:44 pm

    The scary thing about this for me is when I read articles where I don't have the requisite domain knowledge to identify the obvious bullshit that's only there to generic clicks.

    Sure, it's easy to dismantle an article about law or technology or even reverse-engineering.

    But what about that note I just read about "better flu vaccine coming" or even "Suns buy out Beasley's contract"? There's likely to be all kinds of crapola in there that I simply cannot perceive for lack of being a medical doctor (or slimy agent, respectively).

    General skepticism only goes so far, resulting in a kind of fuzzy "I kind of understand what's going on there" feeling that never really coalesces, because I don't trust what it will look like when it reaches solid form.

  11. Tim Cushing  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:45 pm

    Look, I appreciate your take on the issue and your aversion towards being bogged down in a discussion about a word rappers say all the time, but isn't used by polite society, but I've never really had an opportunity to use "Hennessy" in a sentence before and I'm not going to pass up that opportunity.

  12. Michael Donnelly  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:45 pm

    Hah, Renee posted almost my exact thoughts while composing that. I guess it's not a limited problem among people who care.

  13. That Anonymous Coward  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:46 pm

    When the media helped the country turn the dial to 11, they created their own problems.
    Now everything has to be in the most black and white (heh) terms possible, and spun to make it look like someone could be at fault for it.

    Zero Sum Game Politics, Zero Sum Game News…
    No wonder the country is so screwed up.

  14. Derrick Coetzee  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:49 pm

    @Martin: "Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge." -Erwin Knoll

  15. Dion starfire  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:49 pm

    As a member of the general public, I gotta say you're pretty thin-skinned if that sort of misstatement is considered particularly egregious. After your intro (and before reading your quote) I read that article expecting some egregious misquote or misunderstanding of law (e.g. "Corporations are people"), and couldn't figure out what was so egregious about it. I still can't, actually. If you replace "jury" with "judge" and it reads just like any other news story about legal issues.

    As a PC tech, I can empathize about how minor misunderstandings like that can lead to big problems (e.g. www, email, or a particular website is not the internet (it's just a portion of it), Password can not be replaced with password, etc.)

  16. Rowan  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:53 pm

    The decline of the English language is upon us.

  17. Meursault  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:56 pm

    The phenomenon a lot of commenters have alluded to was called the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect by Michael Crichton:

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the 'wet streets cause rain' stories. Paper's full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

  18. Lee  •  Sep 3, 2013 @3:59 pm

    You can say the same about – as far as I can tell – all health coverage. Often headlines/ledes are not just misleading, which is bad enough, but I regularly follow up news articles, find the research article (a whole 'nuther gripe, CITE YOUR DAMN SOURCE!!) to scan. You often don't have to have an MD or PhD; usually a decent grasp of English is enough to see that the newspaper reports things the research NEVER says. Or the opposite of the research. Can't imagine it's limited to health, any more than law. I've yet to see much of anything I'd say reflects research at all well.

  19. Zack  •  Sep 3, 2013 @4:14 pm

    Ken has resorted to all-caps. The end is nigh. :)

    But seriously, legal ignorance among most people is staggering- and people, more than that, are willfully ignorant- even if you tell them, they'll try to claim it doesn't matter.

  20. Robb Allen  •  Sep 3, 2013 @4:27 pm

    Yeah, as a gun blogger, I feel your pain. Hard to find a journalist who doesn't write crap like "4.5 Caliber 9mm Semi Automatic Revolver".

    Sadly, thanks to the Gell-Mann amnesia effect, people read something in the newspaper they know to be complete BS, then because the next article points out bad things about a politician they hate, suddenly find journalists to be full of integrity as subject matter experts.

  21. AlphaCentauri  •  Sep 3, 2013 @4:29 pm

    Compare the weather forecasts on the commercial-driven TV/radio stations with the weather forecasts from the NWS. There's big money in getting people so scared they keep listening for updates.

    http://mobile.weather.gov is free, always available on your handheld device, works better than most of the mobile phone "apps" for weather, and is usually a lot more accurate than broadcast weather, especially when there are forecasts of heavy snow.

  22. Robb Allen  •  Sep 3, 2013 @4:34 pm

    Interesting. When I commented, I was but one of 0. Then suddenly, dozens before me, saying basically what I said, making me sound like a broken record.

    Regardless, if I read that JC Penny's is having a sale on socks in the paper, I call first to verify.

  23. JAWolf  •  Sep 3, 2013 @4:35 pm

    Even though I had been involved (even indirectly) with CAMERA since its beginning, it took law school for me to discover how ignorant most reporters are and how bad most of their product is.

  24. Speed  •  Sep 3, 2013 @4:46 pm

    Local TV's expertise is limited to light rewrites of press releases and in some cases reading sports scores. Their value-add is doing stand-ups in front of important buildings, signs or gas pumps.

    National networks have better graphics and more important buildings.

    In all cases, TV news has a measurable positive effect on the hairdressing industry.

  25. Bob Brown  •  Sep 3, 2013 @5:41 pm

    Computer security. Encryption. Any statistic with a denominator. AAaarrgghh!

  26. David  •  Sep 3, 2013 @5:52 pm

    @Bob Brown is right. A good deal of mainstream journalism having to do with computer tech or software exhibits this same level of domain knowledge and understanding. It's maddening.

  27. Mike  •  Sep 3, 2013 @5:57 pm

    Ken, just wondering if you're ever moved to email your concerns to the offending parties, or if you think the effort would be fruitless.

  28. ketchup  •  Sep 3, 2013 @6:11 pm

    I'll add my discipline to the list of areas in which terrible journalism is the norm – physical science. Believe me, it is not limited to law coverage.

  29. Tarrou  •  Sep 3, 2013 @6:34 pm

    As Schofield, ketchup and a host of other commentators have noted, the more you know about a field, the more enraged you are by the media's handling of it. Seems there should be some handy internet name for that phenomenon.

    The corollary is that by and large, everyone notes the insane ignorance of the "professional" journalist class with regard to their own field of expertise, but figures they are probably not as bad about all the other fields, and so read them anyway.

    Truth is, if you want to know some facts, it's hard to beat reading the paper, or watching the news, and assuming the opposite. Personally, I wouldn't trust a journalist to sit the right way on a toilet, much less be able to comprehend or communicate complicated information.

  30. Castaigne  •  Sep 3, 2013 @6:42 pm

    @jim: Listen, I have plenty of black friends, so I'm not a racist, I'm simply wondering why I can't say the N-word when all these famous rappers can.

    I am glad that black people love you. (http://www.blackpeopleloveus.com/)
    Now prepare for your ritual stabbing. Stabbitystabbitystabstabstab!

    (Yes, I know you're kidding. So am I.)

    @Robb Allen: Yeah, as a gun blogger, I feel your pain. Hard to find a journalist who doesn't write crap like "4.5 Caliber 9mm Semi Automatic Revolver".

    It's even more annoying when journalists don't realize that Glocks ARE COMPLETELY MADE OF PLASTIC! That's why the terrorists use 'em, they can go through metal detectors, yupyupyup.

    (Again, kidding. That myth drives firearm aficionados mad, I know.)

  31. SPQR  •  Sep 3, 2013 @6:55 pm

    Do what I do, Ken.

    Just cry a lot.

  32. TennLion  •  Sep 3, 2013 @7:11 pm

    Martin & Chris–I concur in my area of expertise–the military.

  33. Jack  •  Sep 3, 2013 @7:19 pm

    As with others here news reporting in my area of expertise (computers) has always been terrible but the straw that broke my faith in reporters happened when listening to a radio report on a earthquake in Mexico. The reporter on the scene made a comment 'up to 500 people were injured.'. Immediately afterword the local reporter recapped the story saying 'at least 500 people injured.' If they can screw up basic facts in under 30 seconds how can you accept anything they say.

  34. Mark - Lord of the Albino Squirrels  •  Sep 3, 2013 @7:29 pm

    I'm picturing two dogs.

    One is not particularly friendly. He smells a bit, eats too much, and never even learned "sit". Just generally dumb as a box of rocks, this dog. Still, he always barks when something dangerous is happening. He jumps up and down when something interesting gets near. He also managed to kill those rats that were under the house before we even knew they were there.

    We keep that dog in the yard. Maybe if we get him neutered he can move up to the porch – hardly a family dog after all.

    The other dog is sweet as can be. He knows lots of tricks to get our attention. He always sits patiently when we dress him up for the holiday card. He is always so clean and nice – which is probably why those youtube videos of him saying "Ry Ruv Roo" got so many hits.
    He only barks at that one spot on the wall, and he never bites, snaps, or growls at anything. Ever.

    We keep that dog in the house – with occasional trips to the dog park.

    The funny part is, the smelly dumb dog has started to behave more civilly since we got the good dog. Doesn't bark nearly as much as he used to. Maybe he wants more attention.

  35. gramps  •  Sep 3, 2013 @7:31 pm

    Derrick Coetzee: Thanks. That was the quote I was looking for.

    Dion starfire: Often the devil is in the details. Juries decide the current case and it applies only to the defendant on trial. The law is decided by judges… the judge in court gets to decide which laws the jury gets to use and which they do not. Appellate judges (justices) get to interpret laws so that the interpretation applies to a wide range of defendants, present and future. If I knew more than how to type emails I might cook up a computer analogy for you but that's for you young-ens to work out.
    [I think Ken said this, but better, in the original post.]

    Its interesting that over on the Coyote Blog there is a variation on this theme… News articles based on false or seriously misinterpreted data. The link is journalists dealing with things that they do not understand and are unable or unwilling to learn about the topic.

    This latter ties nicely in with Bob's “denominator” comment above.

  36. George William Herbert  •  Sep 3, 2013 @8:00 pm

    I have had press coverage that was precisely spot-on, by journalists who cover a specialty area all the time and know it, live it, hang out at events and think it's cool, and are good fair reporters in the area.

    Also, complete trash coverage like these examples.

    Sadly, the good specialist reporters are being marginalized over time.

  37. JorgXMckie  •  Sep 3, 2013 @8:12 pm

    Statistics. Haven't seen them get one right yet.

  38. jeff  •  Sep 3, 2013 @8:14 pm

    OK, so we all complain about journalists. There hasn't been a single even in which I've been personally involved that was accurately reported by the press. OK. So what? How do we fix it? There's a substantial amount of brainpower here. Is there any change that people that care can make that will have any impact on the situation? If not, why waste the breath? (or more accurately, in this case, the bits?)

  39. gramps  •  Sep 3, 2013 @8:34 pm

    Jeff, its not "fixable" in the conventional connotation. Unless you know where they do brain or interest transplants. Like GWH said, there oare those who do it right, but they are totally immersed in the subject, not journalism. I imagine if you scratch those folks you will find a chemist, securities broker, firearms instructor, lawyer… and a journalist secondarily.

    We can protect ourselves because we know that the initial information is probably bad, but we have interest in what appears to be the story; we do our own digging and find the data the journalist missed.
    J-school is too invested in what got us here to change now, not to mention that the writer might have an agenda. They may have to ignore factsor present them poorly to support that agenda. Go figure.

  40. Aaron S.  •  Sep 3, 2013 @8:59 pm

    One thing to point out – I have lost count of how many times opposing counsel "misinterpreted" case-law in the exact same manner (obviously while citing a court, not a jury). In both cases, it is not clear whether it is on purpose or stupidity. IMO, in both cases it is unethical.

  41. Jerry  •  Sep 3, 2013 @9:11 pm

    It's nice to feel superior to all those idiot reporters and all the idiots who read them, and know *nothing* about our own fields of expertise. But you know what: You (the generic you) couldn't hold a job at a second-rate news organization for long. A typical reporter has to take some facts about a situation he initially knows nothing about and somehow, in a very short period of time, turn it into a story that makes sense, is readable, keeps the interest of the public – and, oh, by the way, is an at least-some-what accurate representation of what really happened (if anyone can *tell* what really happened).

    Someone quotes Michael Crichton making these points. Well, let me tell you a story. Crichton's first big book was The Andromeda Strain. I read it and enjoyed it. Then I gave it to my father, who was a physician. He got all hung up on one central mystery in part of the story: The virus (or whatever you call it) in the story gets loose in a town and kills everyone except for a drunk and a crying baby. The mystery of what those two have in common goes on for many pages. My father's reaction was: What's the big mystery, they both have pH imbalances in their blood (which, in fact, the characters in the story – all supposedly highly skilled doctors – eventually figure out).

    Now, Crichton actually *was* trained as a doctor, and knew this perfectly well. But he wanted to spin an interesting yarn, and it wouldn't be interesting if he just revealed everything immediately.

    I had a similar experience with a book in which a character supposedly fluent in Hungarian fails to recognize a word so common in Hungarian that I, understanding just a few words, knew immediately.

    I wish reporting, on all kinds of subjects, were better than it is. But no reporter has the time or ability to learn the details of all the fields relevant to stories as they appear, or even the right language to talk about them. Sure, if a journalist specializes in some field, he should – and if he's anything but a complete hack, he will – learn about the field. But even then, the vast majority of his *audience* won't understand it either, and a single short story gives no space for explaining it.

    And, no, no special pleadings that *your* field is so important that *everyone* needs to have an understanding of it just to survive in today's world. Sorry, it isn't. The vast bulk of the population can and does get along quite well not knowing the difference between the roles of the judge and jury, or what a compiler is, or Newton's Law of Gravitation, or any of a million other basic facts. Oh, maybe they learned these things in a classroom once, but since they haven't come up in their lives in decades, they've long forgotten them. On the other hand, like the journalist, they probably have all kinds of knowledge that you don't. If you had to join iron and copper pipes, what problem do you have avoid? How would you avoid it? I happen to know the answers because a plumber told me while doing some work on my house. It's actually pretty important….

    — Jerry

  42. En Passant  •  Sep 3, 2013 @9:21 pm

    Clueless reporters are unwitting puppets for politically ambitious liars, often for the same lying scum that the reporters would actually oppose if the reporters were to give their personal opinion.

    A particularly egregious example was the bare faced lie about "185,000 Crack babies" perpetrated by William Bennett, then "drug czar" around 1988-9.

    At the time, Dr. Ira Chasnoff, a Chicago pediatrician, studied maternity hospital records of neonates in some 36 Chicago area hospitals exposed in any way or form to any drug whatsoever during their mothers' pregnancy. These were based on self-reports of mothers to the hospital intake questions like "did you use any drug at all during your pregnancy, even once?"

    Chasnoff reported a finding that about 11% of neonates in those Chicago area hospitals were potentially exposed to some drug during pregnancy by virtue of their mothers using that drug at least once. William Bennett took that number and ran with it to conclude that 11% of neonates in the USA were born addicted to crack cocaine annually. He issued press releases hawking headlines like "375,000 Crack babies born hopelessly addicted to cocaine every year!"

    Clueless reporters ran with Bennett's story, which he compounded at every opportunity. He cited Chasnoff's article in Pediatrics as source for his lie. Clueless reporters lapped it up and spread the ridiculous scare stories further, resulting in a substantial moral panic among the naive public.

    Dr. Chasnoff was eventually reported in some circles as being less than happy to be so mis-cited, misrepresented and misquoted. But he could do nothing about it.

    Bennett gloated all the way to the next casino with a bar. He had successfully fomented a public moral panic and furthered his sorry career.

  43. Xenocles  •  Sep 3, 2013 @9:23 pm

    "A typical reporter has to take some facts about a situation he initially knows nothing about and somehow, in a very short period of time, turn it into a story that makes sense, is readable, keeps the interest of the public – and, oh, by the way, is an at least-some-what accurate representation of what really happened (if anyone can *tell* what really happened)."

    This is a really nice way of saying that reporters are bullshit artists, but you haven't quite made me admire them.

  44. Bobby  •  Sep 3, 2013 @9:41 pm

    Niggas…. Pleaze!

  45. Allen  •  Sep 4, 2013 @12:00 am

    Jerry, galvanic action, which leads to rapid corrosion. You use a special union that joins the two without metal to metal contact.

    Which if a reporter is writing a piece on plumbing problems he could contact a plumber who would succinctly explain it. Or the reporter could just wing it and get it wrong.

    To me that's the problem. Many of the stories that are out of whack could have been prevented by a simple phone call to a practitioner in that field. Why many reporters don't do this more remains a mystery to me.

  46. flip  •  Sep 4, 2013 @2:37 am

    @Allen

    Many of the stories that are out of whack could have been prevented by a simple phone call to a practitioner in that field. Why many reporters don't do this more remains a mystery to me.

    It's pretty obvious. Legwork requires time, and time is expensive. With dwindling profits, newspapers cut back on how much time per story they're willing to spend. A writer who knows their subject can knock out a few paragraphs pretty quickly. A writer who doesn't must spend time getting up to speed; as well as the time spent actually writing the piece.

    I think in order to solve the problem of bad journalism we first have to be willing to invest in those who don't churn out stories but give the staff the time they need to do it properly.

  47. XS  •  Sep 4, 2013 @2:55 am

    My experience is limited to sitting in the City Council Chambers on meeting night with two reporters from local papers, listening to what is being said and then, the following day, pick up the paper and be amazed at how wrong the reporters got it. It's like they were not even there. City staff tell me that the editors never call or come in to verify information. If other businesses produced product like newspapers produce stories there'd be nothing that worked.

  48. Bob Brown  •  Sep 4, 2013 @3:41 am

    @Jerry: "You (the generic you) couldn't hold a job at a second-rate news organization for long."

    That is the product of the south end of a north facing male cow! I know this because I have actually held such a job. Now I teach computing at the university level.

  49. Paul E. "Marbux" Merrell  •  Sep 4, 2013 @4:55 am

    @ Allen: Being picky, it's a galvanic reaction, not a galvanic action.

    On journalists, I recently ran across an interesting (but long) article on a BBC blog dealing with historical ineptitude in the UK's MI5 agency. It included a delightful quote written by another author, referring to a prominent British journalist who got lots of headlines but seldom got his facts right as:

    A kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking.

    BUGGER: Maybe the Real State Secret Is That Spies Aren't Very Good at Their Jobs and Don't Know Very Much about the World.

    To me, the official urinal label seems particularly apt for most mainstream media outlets in the U.S. It doesn't seem to matter which political party has taken possession of the White House; incredible leaked disinformation is routinely reported as fact without substantive criticism.

  50. AlphaCentauri  •  Sep 4, 2013 @5:12 am

    Reporters often do call experts to contribute information to stories — but if they quote those experts inaccurately they make them look like idiots to their peers. They end up with a small group of reliable sources they quote over and over, apparently because those sources have learned how to funnel facts to reporters in ways they can't screw up, or because they want the publicity enough to take the risk. If you talk to a plastic surgeon and screw up the details, the readers will not see the error and will only conclude that that plastic surgeon is "famous."

  51. azazel1024  •  Sep 4, 2013 @6:10 am

    It is not legal coverage only. It is political, military, socioeconomic, religous, etc, etc, etc.

    Yellow journalism and ignorant journalism are the norm.

    "Thinking Man's news" is as difficult to find as is "Thinking Man's Science Fiction Television shows and/or movies". The reason why is, because they don't sell well. There aren't enough people interested in the truth or a very close version of it. Most people prefer to be pandered to, sensationalized, etc.

  52. Clark  •  Sep 4, 2013 @6:26 am

    "Thinking Man's news" is as difficult to find as is "Thinking Man's Science Fiction Television shows and/or movies".

    I think that thinking men often turn to novels instead of TV.

  53. Kilroy  •  Sep 4, 2013 @7:04 am

    who needs journalists anyway, when I need news, I just turn to Twitter. #amirt?

  54. bralex  •  Sep 4, 2013 @7:48 am

    …can't…resist…piling…on…

    yeah, I'm a health physicist, and do radiation safety and emergency managment. I die a little inside with every Fukushima story – not so much because of the problems (huge!) but because the reporting is so wildly inaccurate.

    I think it comes down, as someone mentioned above, to legwork and details – they are usually important, take time and therefore money to get right, and get skipped much of the time.

  55. bralex  •  Sep 4, 2013 @7:53 am

    hah…just looked at bbc (I'm not going to try tags, so frightened!).

    The article on the front page doesn't really have paragraphs, but the radiation levels mentioned have the wrong units (article states mSv, should be mSv/hr) – I'm sure noone here cares but it amused me that I'd find that so soon after posting.

  56. Zack  •  Sep 4, 2013 @7:55 am

    @Bralex: For most of these issues, a 5-minute google search would've revealed the truth. Or a 5-minute conversation with the legal department at the company. And I'm fairly sure that most professionals would be happy to give brief consults to the media on the truth, even if that consultation was unpaid- precisely because of the massive amounts of faulty reporting that occurs.

  57. Jonathan Gladstone  •  Sep 4, 2013 @8:27 am

    Anything to do with statistics, statistical studies (including census results) or scientific studies (whose results are usually interpretations of statistical data). Anything to do with causality, as someone said earlier about wet streets and rain. And it's not just the journalists, it's often the (purported) scientists too. Arrrrrgh!

  58. CJK Fossman  •  Sep 4, 2013 @8:27 am

    Reporters often do call experts to contribute information to stories — but if they quote those experts inaccurately they make them look like idiots to their peers.

    And sometimes corporate shills masquerade as experts. The most notorious example I know about is Florian Mueller, whose predictions in Oracle v Google and TurboHercules v. IBM turned out to be entirely wrong. We now know that he is or was paid by Oracle, Apple and Microsoft.

    If you wanted to compile a list of evil software companies, those three would make a pretty good start.

  59. Dan Weber  •  Sep 4, 2013 @9:02 am

    I was once sitting next to a guy, well known in the computer security field, be pestered by a reporter's assistant for help explaining basic terms. The guy finally got upset enough and said "if your boss doesn't know these things he probably shouldn't be writing the story."

  60. Erwin  •  Sep 4, 2013 @9:09 am

    …to be fair…I suspect that we get the news we pay for. The major innovation I've heard of in the news industry is a shift towards part-time and 'pay per story' employment. Teaching computing at, eg, the university level probably (a) lowers your salary by about 30% relative to industry and is still 2-3X the typical journalist's salary.*

    Yes. Any competent researcher outside their field could consult an expert and make more sense out of many subjects than the typical journal article. But, they probably couldn't do it for the same or lower cost.

    –Erwin
    *By experiment, if you hire candidates willing to accept 30% lower wages for an equivalent position, the degradation in average competence is significantly more than 30%. Now, eg, university-level computing versus journalism is not an equivalent position, the general observation is likely to hold.

  61. R R Clark  •  Sep 4, 2013 @11:09 am

    Unless your job specifically relates to current geopolitical affairs, the news about your particular area of expertise is not aimed at you. Similarly to how I would not read a news article on an investigation and be outraged by the fact that they did not specify that a warrant was obtained in order to conduct the search(es), I don't necessarily know that the latest climate science findings are bogus. I am an investigator and not a climate scientist, although the disciplines do have substantial overlap and I am actually trained in the scientific method and hold a science degree. But aside from the fact that temperature fluctuates over epochs and that we're currently in a warming cycle, I don't know more about climate science than my neighbor's kid. I actually probably know less since it's been a while since I went through physical sciences courses.

    Writing an angry post about how journalist X got it wrong is different in both outcome and impact than writing an angry post about how journalist X got it wrong *again* and ensuring that Journalist X's editor sees that post by printing it out and mailing the document to said editor with "For the Editor's Attention" on the front of the envelope. The former is merely blowing off steam. The latter is educating and potentially correcting the issue. There are more productive ways to blow off steam, like going to the gym and hitting the bag. Those calories will never see it coming!

  62. D Stone  •  Sep 4, 2013 @11:15 am

    The same article was in my local rag. According to the by-line, you can blame Associated Press for the confusion, as they seem to have provided the original text copied by CBS2

  63. bralex  •  Sep 4, 2013 @11:42 am

    @R R Clark – while the news may not be aimed at the expert vice the general population, the errors that creep in tend to create and/or feed misconceptions that can be quite serious. The example I mentioned (fukushima and unit errors) was trivial, while others feed irrational fears of radiation (be rationally afraid instead!). The misconception that a jury establishes establishes law is far less trivial than mine.

  64. Piper  •  Sep 4, 2013 @1:12 pm

    Apparently the rant was recorded: Carmona's n-word-peppered rant toward Johnson was captured on a four-minute audio recording on Johnson's iPhone without her boss knowing in March 2012 and was played for a federal jury last week.

    "You and (a previous employee) are just alike. Both of you are smart as s—, but dumb as s—. You know what it is … both of you are n——, y'all act like n—— all the time," Carmona said to Johnson, according to audio evidence played in court and obtained by CNN.

    Carmona called Johnson the n-word eight times during the recording.

    "And I'm not saying the term n—— as derogatory; sometimes it's good to know when to act like a n—–, but y'all act like n—— all the time … both of you very bright, but both y'all act like n—— at inappropriate times," Carmona said in the audio recording.

    From the stand Tuesday, Carmona explained tearfully that he was only trying to help.

    "I come from a different time … What I'm trying to do is help … that's the transition… (this case) has showed me I got to take stock in that at my age," said Carmona, 61.

    With any sort of corroboratory evidence/behavior, hostile work environment could definitely apply.

  65. John Kindley  •  Sep 4, 2013 @4:23 pm

    It appears that Elie Mystal at Above the Law can also now be counted among the legally illiterate: http://abovethelaw.com/2013/09/jury-rules-that-black-people-shouldnt-say-the-n-word-either/

    Didn't he go to Hahvahd?

  66. Ken White  •  Sep 4, 2013 @4:28 pm

    Holy shit but the commenters there are dicks.

    I think Ellie's headline is significantly less misleading when read with his entire piece, which contrasts with the news pieces above.

  67. James Pollock  •  Sep 4, 2013 @4:56 pm

    "Holy shit but the commenters there are dicks."

    I'll have to take your word for it. The comments wouldn't load for me.

  68. AliceH  •  Sep 4, 2013 @6:22 pm

    It's not just subject matter expertise; there's also the matter of what the filters do the story.

    I used to take dictation at Western Union from reporters overseas (in the dark ages before the www). I'd make some notes for myself, then in next week or two, I'd take a trip to the library periodicals section to find "my" work in print. I found it very disturbing to find that substantive alterations were frequently made to direct quotes from their news sources. That still shocks me.

  69. Allen  •  Sep 4, 2013 @10:53 pm

    Paul, RHS=LHS.

    It seems to me professional courtesy is not being extended. But, that is dependent upon people acting professionally.

    For example, I retired recently from a 30 year career and I have certain knowledge and expertise. I am embarking on a second career, where I might need some advice from an attorney maybe that Mr. White knows. I'd e-mail him, and might ask him for a referral. Then I might extend my expertise to him, as a matter of gratis. He could discount me, pass me on, free will.

    The fact that reporters are not relying on professional courtesy means they can't get it. Thus the slow bleed.

  70. R R Clark  •  Sep 5, 2013 @6:03 am

    @bralex

    The legal system is, at times, befuddling and confusing even to people who work with it every day. Whereas even if you are a nuclear engineer (and one of my good friends is and we've talked about Fukushima at length) there's nothing particularly unsettling about Fukushima (save perhaps gross mishandling by TEPCO) and that even if the journalism surrounding it had somehow managed to generate rational fear instead of irrational fear, the negative impact is virtually identical.

    Whereas the negative impact of this misreporting in this instance is rather clear, as the intent isn't actually to generate fear.

    At any juncture wherein you find yourself seeking to generate fear, your control of whether or not that fear is rational or irrational is practically non-existent and even if you had complete control, the type of fear is likely irrelevant to you. Which brings us to a fairly neat conclusion: it is not actually the place of journalists to generate, propagate, or promote fear.

  71. bralex  •  Sep 5, 2013 @7:04 am

    @R R Clark – very good points. I do see some dichotomy between "routine" and "sensationalist" journalism – where the latter is focused on the "gotcha," fearmongering, celebrity screwups, etc. I did just read an xkcd (#932, http://xkcd.com/932/) that pretty much summed up this story.

  72. Darryl  •  Sep 5, 2013 @8:55 am

    My favorite is when the news media reports that someone was "sentenced to X years' probation." While that may be technically accurate, it doesn't inform you of what the underlying sentence was (which was suspended conditioned on them successfully completing probation).

  73. babaganusz  •  Sep 5, 2013 @11:27 am

    Mr. Marbux: many thanks for that link.

    R R Clark:

    it is not actually the place of journalists to generate, propagate, or promote fear.

    i want to spread that gospel. every newscritter (and consumer of newsproduct) should repeat it five times daily, to each other, in public and in private.

  74. babaganusz  •  Sep 5, 2013 @12:39 pm

    the "competence in/knowledge of a profession/subject" thread resonates with a similar vein under Ken's 'Cops and Second Chances' page, where Gare Reeve said:

    We CAN'T be so short on qualified police candidates that we …

    (and i later spewed something questioning this phrase, or at least its phrasing…)

    anyone familiar with studies addressing how adequately/efficiently "gaps are filled" (to go about as vague as possible) in any industry/science/field? granted, one presumably has to start with a likely-subjective foundation of the field's monolithic goal/purpose/strengths… is the question i'm flailing for already well-encapsulated by/within a particular -logy?

  75. James Pollock  •  Sep 5, 2013 @3:16 pm

    "it is not actually the place of journalists to generate, propagate, or promote fear."

    No, but it IS occasionally the duty of journalists to generate caution, or respect for a danger.

1 Trackback