Morality Tales vs. Data Tales

ddj

I recently wrote that I think the Upshot (a data-driven, policy endeavor of the New York Times) is at least 5x better than most New York Times articles. I also think Vox.com is better than most other left leaning publications. Neither are perfect, of course, but it seems like a positive step for journalism as a whole.

The general recipe for their best pieces is this:

  1. Strong data analysis of an issue.
  2. A (fairly) evenhanded description of the pros and cons of the relevant policy choices.
  3. A liberal leaning human story that supports the more liberal policy option.

Ideally, I’d love for the human story to be a little more neutral in which direction it pushes the reader; on the other hand, fair enough; these are liberal publications with generally thoughtful viewpoints, and it’s not crazy for them to use stories that bring these viewpoints alive.

Interestingly enough, I’m not aware of a conservative journalistic project (with a similar reach) that constructs its articles in this manner. This seems to be a pretty big oversight.

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In contrast to data drive journalism, too much of regular journalism consists of morality tales dressed up as facts. To use Kling’s three axes model, conservative journalists tell morality tales where the threat of civilization going to hell dominates the narrative. Liberal journalists tell morality tales where threat of someone being oppressed dominates the narrative. And libertarian journalists tell morality tells where government is mucking everything up.

For me, this tendency was probability best seen in the various accounts of the banking crisis, where different journalists either blamed the finance industry (liberal narrative), blamed the homebuyer (conservative narrative), or blamed the government (libertarian / conservative narrative).

I’m not an expert here, but I found the dissenting report by three members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to be good writing in that it elucidated all the various causes that led to the crisis. The report details how bad actions from the finance industry, homebuyers, and the government, coupled with international capital surpluses and animal spirits – all led to the financial crisis.

Even if you disagree with their recommendations, they at least took a lot of effort to tease out all the various causes. Moreover, regardless of how you weight these causes, if you’re solution set fails to acknowledge and address all causal factors, your remedy will be incomplete, which will lead to more suffering.

Unfortunately, most morality tale journalism: (1) fails to surface all the root causes of the problem (2) fails to elucidate the potential policy options and (3) simply tells a human story that aligns with the tale the reporter wants to tell.

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Here’s a potential solution: someone should create a Media Turing Test software program. The software could analyze the article and score it on the three axes. Editors could reject any pieces that scored too far along an individual axis.

Here’s a better solution: stop paying for biased media. If there’s no demand for it, media companies will not deliver it.

Unfortunately, I hold little hope that demand will dry up anytime soon.

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