Opinions, “bias,” explanation, and journalism

Politifact’s Bill Adair writes:

In my courses at Duke, I begin each semester with a diagram I call the “Continuum of Journalism,” which includes a range of journalistic genres: op-eds, investigations, fact-checks, you name it. The continuum could easily be rebranded “The Bias Meter.” At one end is what I’ve labeled “Objective News”—stories that strive to present all points of view. At the other end is “Opinion,” which includes articles by columnists, op-eds, TV and film reviews, and newspaper editorials. Pieces on the “Opinion” end of the spectrum help us to explore our feelings on issues and sharpen our political views; they soften our perspectives, or crystallize them. We like bias in these types of articles, and know to expect it.

I wouldn’t use the term “objective news” to mean what he’s using it to mean. Maybe “straight news reporting” or “traditional news reporting” or something. And that approach, whatever you choose to call it, is not free from bias. But this spectrum is still useful. It’s not bias on the horizontal axis, but the extent to which the author is relying on a process designed to constrain or deemphasize or balance out their own individual assessment. In opinion, the whole point is to offer that assessment. In analysis, it’s the author’s assessment, tempered by a desire to explain competing perspectives from reliable sources. In straight news reporting, that authors’ and editors’ perspectives still play a role (no one is bias free) but the reporter follows a process designed to emphasize established facts that can be clearly attributed. (To better clarify this distinction I’ve been mulling over an analogy to regularization in machine learning. I’ll try and write that up soon.)

Here are some of my posts on similar topics:

Related(ish), and something I liked a lot from a while back… Here’s Matt Yglesias on a podcast explaining explanatory journalism:

“Oftentimes to really understand the news story that just gets on your radar you have to know some things that happened months ago or days ago… Explanation is about surfacing all of that amassed knowledge that the obsessive has and then organizing it so it makes sense to an intelligent, curious person who doesn’t happen to have been following this for a long time… If you ask someone who is very well versed in a subject to explain what is going on, that person is going to offer their view. Now, hopefully they will offer it in a fair-minded way, in a calm way, they will be persuasive, they will have evidence, they might even tell you that some other knowledgable people have a different perspective on it. But if you are knowledgable and you are explaining something to someone, it’s kind of crazy to try to hive off your understanding of what’s actually important and going on here, because otherwise why did we ask you at all?

Putting innovation in the foreground

Four loosely related pieces that I’ve read lately:

A great Quartz profile of economist Mariana Mazzucato:

The central premise of Mazzucato’s work is about the role of the state in innovation. She is an ardent believer that governments should do more than play a passive role in fixing market failures, and be allowed to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit to steer the direction of innovation and economic growth.

The Richmond Fed interviews Enrico Moretti:

In the first three decades after World War II, manufacturing was the most important source of high-paying jobs in the United States. Manufacturing was geographically clustered, but the amount of clustering was limited. Over the past 30 years, manufacturing employment has declined, and the innovation sector has become a key source of good jobs. The innovation sector tends to be much more geographically clustered. Thus, in the past, having access to good jobs was not tied to a specific location as much as it is today. I expect the difference in wages, earnings, and household incomes across cities to continue growing at least for the foreseeable future.

In The Atlantic Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison call for the creation of an interdisciplinary field called “Progress Studies”:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

Before digging into what Progress Studies would entail, it’s worth noting that we still need a lot of progress. We haven’t yet cured all diseases; we don’t yet know how to solve climate change; we’re still a very long way from enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today; we don’t yet understand how best to predict or mitigate all kinds of natural disasters; we aren’t yet able to travel as cheaply and quickly as we’d like; we could be far better than we are at educating young people. The list of opportunities for improvement is still extremely long.

And Nick Bloom, John Van Reenen, and Heidi Williams have an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on innovation policy:

Innovation is the only way for the most developed countries to secure sustainable long-run productivity growth. For nations farther from the technological frontier, catch-up growth is a viable option, but this cannot be the case for leading-edge economies such as the United States, Japan, and the nations of Western Europe. For countries such as these, what are the most effective policies for stimulating technological innovation? In this article, we take a practical approach to addressing this question. If a policymaker came to us with a fixed budget of financial and political capital to invest in innovation policy, what would we advise?

What all these pieces share, despite quite different topics and philosophies, is their foregrounding of innovation. This is, in my view, an underrated vector along which to categorize thinkers. We tend to obsess over peoples’ ideological perspectives with respect to markets or business or the size of government but we don’t do the same for innovation. We ought to. One of the most underrated divisions in politics, I’d suggest, is the degree to which people prioritize innovation and technological advancement.

Update: Cowen links to a reading list on technological progress.

Update 2: so does Collison.

And another.

A very good paragraph on superstar firms

Neil Irwin, writing at The Atlantic, excerpted from his book How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World:

And among economists, the evidence keeps building that the concentration of major industries among a handful of superstar firms might be connected to deep economic dysfunctions. When there are fewer employers in an industry, for example, they have more power to depress workers’ wages. Big dominant companies might focus more on defending what they have than on generating the kinds of innovations that drive economy-wide productivity growth. And the rise of superstar firms is likely related to the rise of superstar cities and the hollowing out of many local economies.

This is important and persuasive work—much of which I’ve written about in my day job as an economics writer at The New York Times. But in all the piling on, I fear something really important is missing from the conversation. The rise of superstar firms is rooted in fundamental technological and economic shifts that are mostly desirable. And policy changes aimed at limiting the downsides of corporate concentration—an important goal—wouldn’t restore an economy built on local, artisanal companies. They would instead leave us with a slightly larger variety of very big, technologically advanced companies dominating the corporate landscape.

Emphasis mine.

I’m broadly supportive of using public policy to address market power and industry concentration, but within the political sphere calls for those policies seem, in my view, to ignore the point that Irwin makes above.

Journalists as analysts

This is a great thread from Ben Casselman, economics reporter at The New York Times and formerly FiveThirtyEight, on working with data.

Casselman is careful to note that he’s not an economist and that losing sight of that would lead him to err. But the approach he outlines — humble, integrative, quantitative — is why I suspect analytical journalists can outperform experts in some circumstances in terms of reaching better empirical assessments. See here, here, and here.

After social media

A couple pieces that made me a bit hopeful for the internet:

Can “Indie” Social Media Save Us? – New Yorker

Could the IndieWeb movement—or a streamlined, user-friendly version of it to come—succeed in redeeming the promise of social media? If we itemize the woes currently afflicting the major platforms, there’s a strong case to be made that the IndieWeb avoids them. When social-media servers aren’t controlled by a small number of massive public companies, the incentive to exploit users diminishes. The homegrown, community-oriented feel of the IndieWeb is superior to the vibe of anxious narcissism that’s degrading existing services. And, in a sense, decentralization also helps solve the problem of content moderation. One reason Mark Zuckerberg has called for the establishment of a third-party moderation organization is, presumably, that he’s realized how difficult it is to come up with a single set of guidelines capable of satisfying over a billion users; the IndieWeb would allow many different standards to emerge, trusting users to gravitate toward the ones that work for them. Decentralization still provides corners in which dark ideas can fester, but knowing that there’s a neo-Nazi Mastodon instance out there somewhere may be preferable to encountering neo-Nazis in your Twitter mentions. The Internet may work better when it’s spread out, as originally designed.

Will social media die as private networks become more popular? – Metro

Data collected by the Pew Research Centre has showed that social media user growth is plateauing among most age groups. Twitter’s active users actually declined in the US in 2017 whilst teenagers are either leaving Facebook in droves or are becoming ‘Facebook-nevers’ having never signed up to the platform. ‘While the idea that social media could go out of fashion or that popular sites could suddenly disappear may seem unthinkable, it’s possible to discern the beginnings of another radical change bubbling under the surface,’ Alex Warren, author of Technoutopia: How Optimism Ruined The Internet, says.

One final bellwether: I started using Feedly this week (Teams) and for the first time I’m seeing an RSS reader that’s not just a sad clone of Google Reader but actively better. Who knows, maybe blogging will even come back into fashion…