Sunday, March 28, 2010

I Would Be Happy to Be a (Paid) Pundit and/or a (Professional) Journalist; That Said…

“That said” has become one of my favorite expressions lately. That said…

The other night, I was having a conversation with a professional political analyst whose judgment I value highly, and one of the subjects that happened to be fit for this family-friendly blog—it was a Friday dinner fueled with cocktails and wine—was the noticeable difference between op-eds and even reporting in mainstream journalism on one hand and analysis on the other. Our first conclusion was that the former dug up facts that suited conclusions dictated by ideology and conventional wisdom while the latter tried to let the facts dictate the conclusion.

Confession: We were being unkind and judgmental; we both know many a journalist or talking head who is more than a match for the better-than-average political analyst. (on fact, some of our best friends are…) And you know how badly financial analysts failed their clients during every economic bubble. Perhaps, then, the takeaway is this: The facts, ma’am, just the facts.

But no, the analyst had a further insight: It’s the context created by the analysis that matters, since the consequences of any investment accrue to the investor and the investor alone. At the end of the day, the call is almost trivial,, since it is the responsibility of the investor and the investor alone. The analyst can only provide the context.

Is that a copout? I don’t know. You make the call.

A collateral point that I noticed later is that it’s much easier to agree on the context than on the conclusion. And that, my friends, is the fundamental basis of a civil discourse. JM, with whom I so often have to agree to disagree, will agree to that.


Janne Morén said...

I'd agree that it's overly judgmental to say opinionators and journalists normally cherry-pick their facts.

But both journalists and analysts sometimes (and opinionators almost always) get to pick their subjects. Which will tend to be subjects they can make an agreeable point with. That selection bias has much the same effect as picking your facts.

Some pundits have recently noted how conservative catholic blogs and opinionators are dealing with the festering child-molestation scandals by simply ignoring it. Totalitarian dictatorships (are there any other kind?) such as USSR and China make routine work of keeping disagreeable subjects out of the press.

And of course a financial analyst that doesn't want to say anything bad about a specific stock can simply choose to not report on the company when really bad info comes in, or postpone it for use in an aggregate report on the sector later on (when the info is too old to have an impact).

Of course, it's rather hard to create reasonable rules for subject picking. What would such rules look like - if you cover a story on cat food, you must henceforth cover every cat-food related incident for the next six months?

Jun Okumura said...


I agree with your point about choosing subjects. However, journalists often do not get to choose—it’s hard to ignore events like national elections and major airplane accidents—and wind up covering subjects that they know next to nothing about. In the case of foreign correspondents, it’s not unusual that they do not have a functional grasp of the local language. If journalists have to do this on short notice, there is no way that they can do the research to create the proper framework, or the context, in which to come up with their conclusions. So, they tend to go with conventional wisdom. The conclusion is dictated by conventional wisdom, and facts are chosen and interpreted accordingly.

Of course there are many versions, often wildly different, to conventional wisdom on many subjects. Journalists are wise to stick to those that are specific to their respective audience. Fro example, the Sea Shepherd story looks very different from Japanese and Western perspectives and reports will reflect that difference. Of course in this case, Norwegian journalists will likely abandon their usual adherence to what I’ll loosely label here as the Western ethical consensus, and their reports will reflect that divergence.

I’ve done a lot more thinking on this matter and related points, and it’s not easy to lay it all out in a comment. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve done enough thinking to do it in any way near to my personal satisfaction. And I’m aware that the behaviors of few journalists fit my description perfectly. NYT’s Norimitsu Onishi, I felt, had an excellent understanding of whatever he was doing; his choice of subjects, facts, and the spin that he gave to the facts as well as his implied conclusions appeared to be dictated by temperament and ideology.

Financial analysts are usually well-versed in their subjects. Counterintuitive conclusions are more appreciated. Moreover, they can be wrong only so often before they lose their jobs. They work with a narrower margin of error regarding their conclusions than journalists. Of course they will use qualifiers and other verbal tricks to fudge their calls and expand that margin. Sometimes, they’ll do that literally; a twenty-yen spread on a six-month call for the yen-dollar exchange rate looks perilously close to an “I don’t have a clue” confession.

I’ll try to come back to this subject again in a separate post.

Janne Morén said...

For journalism I was thinking a little larger scale than the individual journalist. For instance, a left-leaning newspaper may dedicate the page 1 headline, a whole spread and an editorial to a company using day laborers to break a strike, while they relegate news about union workers beating up unorganized immigrants in order to force them to join to one paragraph in the crime notices section on page 28.

And an investment and financial analysis firm may decide that, in the interest of good relations with a major client, they will simply not cover a particular subfield (development of a particular kind of drug, say) that is expected to generate bad news for that client. Or, a recent example noted by a few science bloggers, the report on the drug trial is so intent on sidestepping the trouble that you have no idea the trial actually failed unless you read through the whole thing to the bottom. A quick look at the headline and summary and you'd think it's on track for release.

Jun Okumura said...

Can’t agree with you more on the points that you make, Janne.