Why FiveThirtyEight will save objective journalism

The medium may not be the message, to cite the Marshall McLuhan quote no one really understands. But a new medium can be a game-changer, particularly when it comes to whether news will be based in fact, speculation, or punditry.

The telegraph pushed news away from the scandal sheets of the early 19th century to something a little more sedate. The wire services had to create an economy of scale (sell enough to pay for the wires) by selling to clients of all political persuasions. And telegraph wires weren’t always reliable. Get the facts across first, or they might not get there at all.

Fast forward to the Golden Age of newspaper columns, and you’ll find how easy it is to get lazy and get by on a bit of nifty wordplay. During the Gulf War, I was astonished to see big-newspaper columnists getting away with columns based on flimsy history and the occasional scoop of news from a friend of the second cousin of a plumber who fixed a toilet at the Pentagon.

It’s a cheap way to get people talking. And that’s what cable news became. No one should be surprised to see 24-hour vitriol or wild guesses about the fate of an airplane.

Today’s media are sensationalized. They’re clickbait, promising you The 25 Things That Will Arouse You, Change Your Life and Cure Stomach Flu. (That’s one reason I’m happy to be at OZY, where we’re going in a different direction.)

But now there’s another new medium. It’s statistics. And it’s the medium in which Nate Silver has launched a revolution worth enlisting in.

Silver has already dramatically demonstrated that dispassionate number-crunching demolishes political punditry when it comes to showing what’s going on in political elections. And yet he says his accomplishments there have been overstated:

It wasn’t all that hard to figure out that President Obama, ahead in the overwhelming majority of nonpartisan polls in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin, was the favorite to win them, and was therefore the favorite to win the Electoral College.

Instead, our forecasts stood out in comparison to others in the mainstream media. Commentators as prestigious as George F. Will and Michael Barone predicted not just a Mitt Romney win, but a Romney sweep in most or all of the swing states. Meanwhile, some news reporters defaulted to characterizing the races as “toss-ups” when the evidence suggested otherwise.

Will and Barone, of course, were engaging in some wishful thinking. Would Silver have done the same if the situation was reversed? I seriously doubt it. I don’t know Silver’s politics (I might have a hunch), but he belongs to a dwindling class of people for whom their credibility is more important than their rooting interests.

Now Nate has taken the ball over to ESPN. But he’s not just going back to fantasy baseball or sticking to politics. He’s covering it all with an enlarged staff.

And he’s got the right balance of humility and boldness. He respects journalism traditions, and he knows no one with a spreadsheet can give the same insight into a war zone or a locker room that a good reporter can provide from the scene. But he sees areas that can be improved.

Math is the basic one. Twice in my journalism career, I’ve had to explain that 1/4=0.25. Twice. “How many cents in a quarter?!?!”

The math at FiveThirtyEight is more advanced than that. And it’s math that we Gen Xers were never advised to take. We were all pushed to take precalculus and calculus. Need another math course, even though you’re a humanities major? Oh, here you go — more calculus!

Now we know. We should’ve been taking stats. I’m kicking myself and trying to teach myself on the fly, taking bits of what I learned from “computer-assisted reporting” workshops and a remarkably unhelpful book on stats and Excel.

But the revolution here isn’t just about math and better analytic tools. It’s about objectivity.

Back to Nate’s manifesto, which should be required reading in journalism school from now on:

There are some handicaps that conventional journalism faces when it seeks to move beyond reporting on the news to explaining it. One problem is the notion of “objectivity” as it’s applied in traditional newsrooms, where it’s often taken to be synonymous with neutrality or nonpartisanship. I prefer the scientific definition of objectivity, where it means something closer to the truth beyond our (inherently subjective) perceptions. Leave that aside for now, however. The journalistic notion of objectivity, however flawed, at least creates some standard by which facts are introduced and presented to readers.

Journalists can look at this manifesto in fear. This has never been an easy job. Now the standards are going up. Want to support a conclusion? You may not be able to rely on a safe quote from a talking head. You might need to prove it.

Here’s the good news. Just as reading a good writer will help the reader become a better writer, scouring FiveThirtyEight should help us all become better acquainted with the new tools.

Check out this piece on spring training, even if you’re like me and no longer invest any time in fantasy baseball. Look at the tools on display. And the footnotes. In one story, you’ll learn more about correlations and regression than you will from this book I need to return to the library.

FiveThirtyEight’s journalists are raising the bar. And they’re helping us over it. Let’s go.

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