David R. Henderson  

How the Web Has Changed Journalism

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It's probably obvious to most readers just how much the web has changed journalism. But my recent debate with David Cay Johnston both on Econlog (here and here) and over at Cafe Hayek is a nice illustration.

Think how the world changed between February 1995 and April 2008. Why those dates? Because it was during that time, according to Wikipedia, that Johnston was the tax reporter for the New York Times. Here's a link to his New York Times articles.

Imagine that I had read a news item by Johnston in the February 1995 New York Times and I found a conceptual flaw in the item. Let's say that I wrote a letter to the New York Times laying out the flaw. The first thing to notice is that I would need to quote enough of his piece so that I could explain the flaw. I wouldn't be able to link to the piece because links didn't exist. Then I would have to use part of my word count explaining the flaw. The second thing to notice is that the odds are that the Times wouldn't publish my letter. Also, there's a good chance that Johnston wouldn't see my letter. And, even if he did, he could ignore it. If the Times didn't publish the letter, then very few people would even know about my criticism.

Now fast forward to April 2008. That was only 6 months before I started blogging and so one can easily imagine that I had started by then. I see a flaw in a Johnston article. I publish a criticism. The first thing to notice is that I publish a criticism. Many people can read it and a fair number do read it. Also, I put a link on Facebook so that other people can and do read it. Also, some other people, in this case Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, link to my criticism so that more people read it.

Notice how, in getting my criticism published, I am far ahead of the pre-Web era.

The second thing to notice is that David Cay Johnston feels the need to respond. So he does respond. Then people can judge how good his response is. But it's not over. I can respond to his response. And so on.

The Web has not created an even playing field. But it has reduced the tilt.

I wonder also whether this "reduction of tilt" explains part of David Cay Johnston's upset. I point out a flaw in his piece and not only does he claim that this flaw is not there (something that's a completely legitimate point for him to make if he believes it), but also gets quite upset that I didn't realize that he wrote about the point in another article not at issue and also bases much of his argument on a whole body of work in the past that is also not at issue.


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
David Cay Johnston writes:

Mr Henderson, since my first reporting nearly 50 years ago I have responded to readers. I participated in my early 20s in one of the first news councils and have written journalism criticism for more than three decades in the Columbua Journalism Review, American (née Washington) Journalism Review and feed/back, the Califirnia Journalism Review, for which I also raised money.

My newspaper exposes of bad journalism include revealing in 1973 news manipultions by Gross Telecasting, ultimately forcing its six stations to be sold to avoid loss of its license, which I believe is a unique result of investigative reporting.

The secret efforts by the apartheid regime to influence American journalism including trying to buy the Washington Star and then acquiring the Sacramento Union (a stunningly dumb move for a foreign government seeking to influence US national policy and politics) were front page news by me for several years on the LATimes.

I lecture on four continents about how-to commit journalism, ethics, use of data and understanding numbers. Many of these lectures teach how to engage readers and deal with them.


At the NYTimes I was a staunch advocate of an ombudsman -- and a sharp critic of both the inept implementation of its post-Jayson Blair ethics rules and the way the first ombudsman acted, violating the most basic rules of journalism.

So you can see that what you wonder is not at all how you imagine.

David Cay Johnston writes:

Addendum

My home number and address have always been in the phone book, even when I had children at home and was writing about serious criminals. And I called back virtually every reader who ever contacted me by phone as well as those who wrote, if they supplied contact information.

David R. Henderson writes:

@David Cay Johnston,
Your efforts in this respect are admirable. But I’m not imagining. That whole hypothetical discussion in 1995, even had you responded, which you’ve now convinced me you would have, would have been carried on just between us.

David Cay Johnston writes:

Wrong yet again.

If in my judgment -- or that of my editors in news -- you had something significant it might have opened a whole vein of reporting. The whole point of news is to find what is not known and significant.


Letters to the editor, BTW, go to editorial, which is entirely separate from news. I have always advised readers to write to the byline and section editor where the byline appeared.

Rich Berger writes:

This is pretty amazing to read. I cannot believe the inability of Mr. Johnston to understand your point. He believes that the NYT seeks out information that contradicts their leftist viewpoint - ha!

Alex Stewart writes:

Is David Cay Johnston really so unaware of how the world has changed around him?

David Cay Johnston writes:

Mr Berger, Please send links or heds from three to five news articles in the Jan 11 NYTimes which demonstrate what you assert with a sentence or two of what you see as leftist. Based on your post I am sure you will have no difficulty finding many more examples from today' news sections.

john hare writes:

David Cay Johnston,
I find you to be remarkably thin-skinned for one that engages in public debate.

In other fields involving engineering and hard science, we find appeals to authority to be a leading indicator of inaccuracy and obfuscation of the main points. Appeals to self authority even more so.

It may be that I would agree with you, or it may be that I would agree with David if the three of us were to sit down in person and define our points clearly. Since that is almost certainly not going to happen, you might consider the possibility that you didn't bring credibility with you to this site. Any credibility you have is what you develop here. Mine for instance, is fairly low on this particular blog,so I don't expect agreement on any of my points. That it is different on other sites with other topics has no bearing on current credibility. You are in a similar boat.

David Cay Johnston writes:

Mr Hare,

What you see as thin-skinned is to me engagement. If I was thin-skinned I would not routinely engage with people, which very few journalists do.

Just as I am a fearless in my reporting, I don't shrink from taking on people who make factually baseless statements about my work, especially where I show facts and the critic only asserts. In the context here, that means Mr. Henderson who asserts, then when challenged and shown in detail numerous facts showing him that he erred ignores this and continues to make naked assertions.

Facts matter. So do reputations. All I have to make a living is my spotless reputation and my wits. I guard them. That means when I err I own up to it promptly and forthrightly. And when someone makes a fact-free assault on my work, which is exactly what Mr. Henderson did, I respond.

Facts trump assertion. Mr. Henderson has cited no facts to back up his naked assertion. With Mr. Bodreaux, I have shown the logic problem in his assertion supporting Mr. Henderson, which so far has drawn neither a counter argument or an acknowledgement that he did not carefully consider his position before publishing.

I get criticized all the time. It goes with ground-breaking journalism based on original research rather than the standard "he said" journalism. When a critic us right I thank them for their insights.


Glen writes:

"If in my judgment -- or that of my editors in news -- you had something significant it might have opened a whole vein of reporting. The whole point of news is to find what is not known and significant."

I think you're missing the point. In the pre-Internet era, whether Henderson's view was seen by the public depended on the judgment of you and your editors. Now the gatekeepers are gone, and readers can decide the significance of his viewpoint for themselves.

David Cay Johnston writes:

Glen,

Thank you for pointing out that I did not specifically address that point. One of the many benefits of the Internet is that we can have a much more robust and varied civic debate.

I should have explicitly written that I agree with that point.

Rich Berger writes:

Mr. Johnston

If my assertion that the NYT does not publish articles that contradict its leftist point of view is correct, I would not be able to find any. If I am not correct, it should be easy for you to cite counter examples

David Cay Johnston writes:

My request was for three to five news stories from the Sunday paper that show a leftist viewpoint. If your assertion is correct that should be easy to show given the abundance of news articles in the Sunday paper.

Bryan R writes:

Mr. Johnston;

I worked at a newspaper, so I may have some insight on "leftist bias" point that other posters may not have.

You know as well as I do that bias can easily creep in on a macro level, even when the paper has completely unbiased stories on the micro level, and that it is impossible to "pick" the leftist ones out from any given paper.

It isn't that any single story comes from a leftist vantage point. The bias comes from gatekeepers at newspapers deciding what topics receive their limited attentions (as you yourself state). Those topics are often ones with significance or importance to the editors or writers.

I find individual stories are often completely free of any obvious bias and the writers and editors do a good of job of ensuring it. But the underlying confirmation bias is there.

RPLong writes:

Johnston - As Prof. Henderson says in his comment, your efforts to reach out to your audience are admirable and far beyond those of "the average writer of articles," at least in my experience.

Prior to the blossoming of "the economic blogosphere," I used to attempt to reach out to economists who published articles in the popular press to ask for additional information on the subject matter (research material I could follow-up on and the like). The good ones were always happy to send me a brief email or letter pointing me in a good direction; the bad ones never replied at all.

But today, if I take the time to make a thoughtful comment on an economics blog, the author - no matter how famous and esteemed in his or her field - will quite often give me a very personal and in-depth reply.

For a know-nothing nobody average-joe like me, this development has been nothing short of a revolutionary boon to human knowledge. Imagine how our (or at least my) ancestors would have felt if they could reach out to the foremost experts in any field, ask a question, and receive a personal response often within 24 hours.

I love that about the modern world, and about EconLog in particular.

David S writes:

OK, I'll bite:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/opinion/paul-krugman-for-the-love-of-carbon.html

(Just start with the title...)

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/speaking-while-female.html

(Just start with the title...)

http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/big-movies-plunged-into-our-wrenching-history-did-the-golden-globes-award-them/

(You and I come into these conversations hoping to focus on new movies with special cultural and social relevance, and for much of the year we’re hard pressed. But December gave us plenty: “Selma,” “American Sniper” and more.)

The choice of what has "special cultural and social relevance" is somewhat political as well.

You could argue that these are "opinions", which they are. But those are all opinions shown on the front page. Every opinion is from the Left viewpoint.


David Cay Johnston writes:

David,

Look carefully at the URLs for those items you posted. They are not NEWS articles. THey are opinion pieces. Film critics also write a form of opinion, as do all reviewers.


And to be clear, the NYTimes also publishes conservative columnists, including Ross Douthat and David Brooks, and guest columnists.

David S writes:

As I stated in my post:

You could argue that these are "opinions", which they are. But those are all opinions shown on the front page. Every opinion is from the Left viewpoint.

[N.B. This commenter, David S, is not David Henderson and has graciously agreed to use the nick David S instead of just David. I am relabeling his prior posts in this thread for clarity. --Econlib Ed]

David Cay Johnston writes:

David S

In web publishing it is true that the HOME page has a broad mix, but that does not elevate form over separation of news and opinion, which have separate staffs and are parallel in the heir archival structure.

You will also notice opinion is in its own little space off to the side with a rubric making sure readers know it is opinion

In the printed paper the opinion pages are separate and clearly marked.

No one in news gives a damn what opinion says. In my career I have read editorials and opinion columns that denounced my work as well as praising it. But mostly reporters do not even read the opinion pages.

Again I challenge you to find NEWS articles which support your assertion and that of the other poster here.


robert writes:

Here is a sample:
Speaking while female. When was the last time they had a piece about speaking while male? I have learned to be very careful about what I say at work. I no longer tell jokes or make jokes of any kind. Might be an opinion piece, but I found it under business.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/speaking-while-female.html?_r=0


I could find more, but the part about the train in Florida not be hugely expensive with very little benefit for the cost. It does not reference the train system in Miami that has not provided the benefit for the cost.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/us/politics/shifting-tone-republican-governors-will-face-a-test.html?src=mv

Where are the articles about intolerance for Republicans in social sciences at the Universities. How about articles about the harassment my wife experienced when riding the public bus in downtown Rochester? I’m sure that wasn’t a one off event.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/us/atlanta-mayor-kasim-reeds-dismissal-of-fire-chief-kelvin-cochran-ignites-religious-bias-debate.html?src=mv

Where is the discussion of the cost and the national debt? How about quality of care.
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/10/27/us/is-the-affordable-care-act-working.html?ref=us#/


I put very little effort into this. I hope it helps. I believe we are all trying to improve our conditions; however, I do feel that there is a gentrified attitude that tries to find evidence for our existing biases. I think David is right the internet is providing a peer review process, which will make the product better. I know my work is better when I have someone review it. After reading about Enron, it was definitely true that they manipulating the energy market in California. We do need regulation, and it should be well written based on facts. Too often, it feels like Yankees and Red Sox fans having arguments.

David Cay Johnston writes:

Robert,
The first piece is labeled opinion. Not relevant to my post or Rich Berger’s assertion. The Times publishes a variety of viewpoints, as anyone who actually reads the paper every day knows, though for sure not much from fringes left or right.
The second is a news article. It is not about the cost-benefits of a rail project but about how Republican governors are changing their approaches. It has lots of telling details. One of those details is about the rail project. It comes with a hypertext link to hundreds of previous articles about rail projects. Among them is this explanation of Gov. Scott’s decision to reject funding for the Tampa-Orlando rail: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/us/17rail.html
Nothing in this example supports Rich Berger’s naked claim that the NYT makes no effort to report anything that would counter what he asserted is a leftist viewpoint. The piece is written in the neutral language of reportage. It could be used as a textbook model of how to take complex and subtle information and turn it into a narrative that people can grasp.
On the third article you voice no complaint about it per se, only that you wish there were other articles on a different but related issue.
Well, high up the piece contains this:
**Conservatives and religious organizations were outraged. The Georgia Baptist Convention has organized an online petition demanding that the firing be reversed. The evangelist Franklin Graham, in an opinion piece for a religious news site, called Mr. Cochran the “latest target of politically correct bullying against Bible-believing Christians.”
On Twitter, State Representative Christian Coomer, a Republican from Cartersville, Ga., called Mr. Reed the “anti-free speech, anti-religious freedom, anti-free press mayor of Atlanta.”**
That language lends no credence to Rich Berger’s assertion.
And, seriously, do you expect any newspaper, even the Rochester D&C, to write about what some stranger said to your wife in a bus? Really? How about reports in what drunks in bars say? Or lunatics? Or who said what in a domestic disturbance?
As to the core of your complaint, the issues have been covered repeatedly in other articles, which anyone who reads the NYT every day knows.

For example, a news piece explaining “the overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/18/arts/18liberal.html

Or this news piece by reporter John Tierney, who as a columnist in later years established his bona fides as a libertarian: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/18/education/18faculty.html

And this book review – an opinion piece, to be sure – that really undercuts Rich Berger: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/03/books/03infl.html

Your fourth example is an explainer examines what is known (after less than a year) about the Affordable Care Act. The précis states that “it has also fallen short in some ways and given rise to a powerful conservative backlash” and in the text “contrary to what some liberals predicted, the law has not been a boon in every way for the insurance industry.”
That surely undercuts Mr. Berger’s assertion.
And how did you miss this, assuming you read the very long piece? --
**Hospitals are being hurt by a provision of the law that cuts their Medicare payments by $260 billion over 10 years. But they have benefited from having more insured customers who can pay their bills. That has been especially true in the states that expanded Medicaid to more people, as was allowed under the law.
The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that hospitals will save $5.7 billion in so-called uncompensated care costs this year because more people have insurance.” And nearly three-quarters of those savings, $4.2 billion, has gone to the 25 states and the District of Columbia that expanded Medicaid at the beginning of 2014.
Whether such benefits continue remains unclear. But for now, the law is providing a “tail wind” to hospitals, said Michael D. Gregory, a portfolio manager for Highland Capital who invests in health care. **
The best evidence to date – and it may change with time – is that the ACA is bending the cost curve favorably. (I would argue that it would bend a lot more if we got rid of taxpayer subsidies for the superfluous health insurance industry, which adds costs.)

At nytimes.com/topics you will find thousands of articles -- news and opinion are both in the database but clearly labeled – that examine costs issues under these hypertext links:
Health Care Reform
Health Care Reform (Background)
Health Care Reform and Contraception
At the first if you put in the word “quality” you will find 3,544 articles, the very first of which -- an opinion piece -- is headlined “Do No Harm? It May Be Hard to Avoid With Health Law’s Medicare Cuts.”

If you go through the thousands of articles you will see that cost issues are all examined in news articles citing a wide range of sources and issues.
The national debt is a different subject and you can, at topics, find thousands of articles on it.
I wonder if you understand that a major driver of our national debt is health care? As I showed several years ago, we could have universal care (we are the only major country without it) and costs would be so much lower that in 2010 we could have eliminated the income tax; for the current year we could cut it by a very large share. For each dollar the other modern countries spent per capita in 2010 in purchasing power equivalent dollars we spend $2.64, a huge drag on our economy. http://reut.rs/1kuKMv5
So nothing you cited as examples from the NYT supports Rich Berger’s assertion as it applies to news and to my challenge, which you responded to. Read exactly what he asserted – that he finds it laughable that I believe the NYTimes “seeks out information that contradicts their leftist viewpoint…”
Anyone who reads the daily news report knows that is rubbish. Even if you believe there is a leftist viewpoint his assertion is nonsense.
Some years ago I sat down on a coast-to-coast flight with the paper in hand, placing it on the platform between our seats in first. The man next to me commented gratuitously that no one should read the NYT because it had no reporting and was all just stuff made up by leftists.
I said I had just bought the paper on the way to the plane and had no idea of that and could he please show me. I cajoled him until we were well into the flight to keep looking for examples. Finally he came upon Krugman’s column. “There – pure opinion,” he said.
At that point I pointed out it was on the op-ed page (and later cited the many facts in the column). I also told him at that point that I was a Times reporter.
I asked him about a front page story that I had read while standing in line to board. He said it was perfectly balanced and thorough and very informing – which was exactly what I thought because it was on a very hot button topic where a single ill-considered word or even comma could result in accusations of bias.
It became clear that my seatmate, an MBA, did not understand the difference betweens news and opinion pages. He also said during the remaining hours that he found many of the other articles deeply informing and that he had learned a lot, citing specifics. He said the only bias he saw was in Krugman’s column. He also said he had never read the NYT, but was an avid Fox News watcher.
BTW, many liberals and progressives see the NYT as quite conservative (in both news and opinion) and complain that it gives far more attention to right wing arguments than center or right.
The measure, however, is whether the news report shows the neutral language of reporting and conveys information from across the spectrum. It does, as shown very well by your news examples.
Now, for sure, anyone can find AN article that is flawed, probably several every month or even week. All human institutions have flaws. Many news articles are reported, written and edited in hours, hence the “first rough draft of history” line.
Compared to other institutions, though, newspapers have a much better track record of addressing their mistakes (see the 14k front page NYTimes self criticism after Jayson Blair, the LATimes special section on the corrupt Staples affair, the 48k Philadelphia Inquirer story on its political reporter secretly being the mistress - and later wife – of the boss of the south Philadelphia Democratic machine) and many other examples, including many by me. And in addition journalists support magazines called journalism reviews that critique their work.
I know of no other commercial enterprise besides news where the lowest staffer can get in the face of the highest editor or producer and where ethics get debated routinely every day. But mistakes, sure. And as the newsroom saying goes:
Doctors bury their mistakes
Lawyers see theirs off to jail
Only journalists sign theirs
Confusing the clearly labeled opinion pages with news is becoming a widespread problem, one of the downsides, perhaps, to the more robust civic discussions the Internet makes possible.
Asserting without factual basis – as Rich Berger did -- is a huge problem on the Internet that pollutes public understanding. Our debate should be rooted in verifiable facts, not naked assertion.


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