The Corner

Journalists & Math

There was some chatter around here — I know I was the chatterer — about Stuart Buck’s and Megan McArdle’s dissent from the latest bout of media handwringing on economic data. They’ve now written an op-ed together fleshing it all out.

One conclusion worth discussing is this:

When we wrote this up on our blogs, many conservative readers attributed the misleading figures to liberal media bias. But it is more likely ignorance than malice. Every year, scores of fledgling journalists pour out of liberal arts programs. Though many will need to pick through mountains of statistics in search of the truth, few have been taught the skills to do it.

Me: I think they’re absolutely right and I know lots of anecdotes on this score to confirm their theory. But, I think they’re a bit too quick to dismiss liberal bias. Imagine a scenario where the Detroit Free Press reporters came to their editors with data showing that incomes had soared under George W. Bush. My guess is their editors would immediately say “this is fishy” and ask the reporters to double check.

There is a confirmation bias in the editorial process at most media organizations and it pushes in a generally liberal direction. If a Republican had been in the room during the “60 Minutes” memogate fiasco, wouldn’t it have been far more likely that someone would have said, “You know, maybe we should double check this. These ‘typewriter experts’ don’t sound right.” When it comes to reporting on abortion, guns, economics and a host of other issues red flags are less likely to go up over assertions of fact which “sound right” to the editors.

Stupidity and ignorance is a problem in every institution. But not all stupidities are caught equally when there’s groupthink at work. 

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