The Role of the Media in Development Aid

So USAID asked me to speak at one of their conferences last week about the role of media in development. Being utterly unqualified for this task did not stop me from doing it, and below is an adaptation of my little talk!

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Think of all all the companies you know that didn’t exist 30 years ago and are now worth more than a billion dollars. It’s easy, right? Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Whole Foods, Uber, we could go around the room for ages.

Now think of all the development NGOs or national nonprofits that didn’t exist 30 years ago and now get more than, say, 100 million in donations.* Doctors without Borders: 1971. Human Rights Watch: 1978. Amnesty International: 1961. Greenpeace: 1969. And those aren’t even the big-big ones. Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Care International, we’re talking World War II or before.

And what’s weird about this comparison is that in those 30 years, we’ve made significant progress some really hard problems. A lot of countries that were desperately poor three decades ago aren’t now. But, somehow, we haven’t created social institutions at the same pace we’ve created profit-making ones.

I think this is, at least partly, the media’s fault. The media struggles, has always struggled, to tell good news, to tell slow news, and to tell stories that happen more than once. That’s exactly what social progress consists of, and it’s why an alarming percentage of people think we now live in a world that is poorer and more dangerous than it used to be, neither of which are true.

But I think this is getting better! If you want to understand the role of media in development, you have to understand how it is changing.

1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete

The first change is the most obvious: Social media. We all know that Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to communicate directly with their audiences and bypass traditional media. However you feel about Kony 2012 or the ice bucket challenge, they’re not the last nonprofits that are going to go viral. The media only came to those organisations, those issues, after the rest of the world already knew about them.

This direct communication makes the media increasingly obsolete, and gives institutions the opportunity to play on their turf. Last year the World Bank did an analysis of all the pdfs on their website and found that 87 percent of them had never been cited; 31 percent had never been downloaded at all. If the World Bank wants to get its research, its conclusions, more widely talked about, it doesn’t need to call the New York Times or the BBC. It needs to record Ted Talks, to make animated explainers, to bundle its research into infographics, tweets, summaries for distinct audiences. For organizations with something to say, the media isn’t an amplifier for telling their story, it’s just part of the background noise.

2. Traditional media is getting slower

There was this story in the New Yorker in September about how Salt Lake City beat homelessness. The city was spending $20,000 per homeless person on emergency services, extra policing, jail time, temporary shelters. A free apartment cost just $8,000 per year. Salt Lake City decided to simply give each homeless person a free apartment, no (well, few) questions asked. The homeless population fell by 72 percent.

This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic innovation that development is made of. Since it came out, the story has gotten tons of attention. I mean, the Daily Show did a segment on it.

In journalism school they used to tell us the old cliche that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history‘. For media companies these days, it seems like that’s not enough anymore. ‘27 Maps that Explain America‘, ‘What We Know About Inequality (in 14 Charts)‘, these are not attempts to tell you something new, but to reframe, contextualize, what you already know.

When Vox media, one of the most prominent digital-native startups, got an hourlong interview with President Obama, they barely asked him anything about current events. They asked him about the state of the world, what Americans get wrong about foreign aid, why he’s been so polarizing. They specifically designed the interview to be evergreen, reflective, to offer insight to the news cycle rather than stay in front of it.

For development practitioners, this should be hugely encouraging. You don’t have to package your organisation around a news event, include those cheesy anecdotes (Sally walks two hours every day to school…’) at the beginning of your annual report. You can tell a longer, slower, larger story (‘why weren’t the roads paved? It all starts in 1978…’)—and the media will help you.

 

3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.

Last February, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times left to work for a ‘nonprofit news organization‘ explicitly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. Since it launched, its stories have appeared in The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.

It’s not just newspapers, not just criminal justice reporting. ProPublica, a progressive nonprofit, works with NPR to do stories on pharma company payments to doctorsgovernment cuts to workman’s comp (yes, there are charts). As early as 2005, ABC News was running stories produced by International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO.

It goes the other way too. Human Rights Watch has deliberately started doing work that is, if you took the logo off it, indistinguishable from journalism.

 

All three of these changes tell the same story: The media is getting squeezed into a narrower and narrower band. As revenue shrinks and newsrooms atrophy, the things that journalism used to do—publicize institutions, bring attention to societal changes, retell press releases—are being done around it.

So if development NGOs want to get their message out, they need to meet the media where it is and where it’s going. Get stories directly to the people you’re trying to reach, let the media come afterwards. Tell the story of your issue—homelessness, teen pregnancy, water scarcity—not your organization. And if you don’t like the way the media is telling your story, tell it yourself.

 

* I stole this thought experiment from Gerald Chertavian, the guy who runs the charity Year Up, who I interviewed for a story the week before the talk.

 

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Every Year, 13,000 People Die of AIDS in America. Fewer than 1,000 Die in Europe. What Gives?

Hopefully the title of this animation sounds familiar!

Yep, so I made a little explainer video based on that article I wrote for the New Republic last May. Apologies for, well, basically everything. The pipsqueak voiceover, the muddled visuals, the inconsistent 3D, they’re the best I could do.

I don’t know why I love making these so much. The process is so slow, the rewards so incremental, compared to writing. Presenting information visually is in some ways easier and in some ways harder than writing it, but I have so much less practice! I’ve been telling people stuff my whole life. Showing them, I’ve been at it less than a year.

There’s no physics inside a computer. Objects don’t have weight, they don’t know the others are there. An object can be in one place, then 1/24th of a second later (or 1/30th or 1/60th or 1/1000th, it’s up to me!) a completely different one, in a different color, with a different shape. When Hiccup rides Toothless in the How to Train Your Dragon Movies, they’re not really touching, not in any recognizable physical sense, the animators have just placed them, lit them, put effects on them, that trick us into thinking they are.

What I like about this is that it’s exactly the same as every other art form. George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men aren’t any realer than Hiccup and Toothless. Lennie can be tall and fat on one page, then, on the next, bright purple, female, with tentacles and the flu. Writing, painting, animating, whatever, they’re all equally unlimited. The hard part in animation is making objects look like they have weight, mass, purpose. The hard part in writing is the same: We have to care where these objects are placed, where they go, how they bump into each other.

I’m sounding grandiose now. I don’t mean to compare myself to real animators, real writers. Everything I’ve done has been riding on the dragon (sorry) of reality, a story that’s already happened, the relationships between the objects established, arranged to be retold. All I’m saying is, when you think of the sheer fucking blankness of a unwritten novel, an undrawn animation, it’s amazing people can make us feel anything bumping these silly little objects, characters, into each other.

Anyway, shut up, Mike, it’s just a stupid little animation. I hope people enjoy this! It’s an issue I became totally obsessed with when I was writing my story, and it deserves to have more, smarter people obsessed with it. I tried really hard to treat this video, these unbearable statistics, with the respect they deserve. There’s a tendency for these animations to appear cute and light, and I’m genuinely sorry if any of this comes off as inconsiderate.

I want to especially thank Forrest Gray, who let me use his beautiful song ‘Sunset’ for the music bed. He also Also Dan Deacon, who in addition to being broadly awesome, releases the stems of his songs on Soundcloud under Creative Commons so people like me can use them. Thanks guys!

And of course, a huge (re-)thanks to all the brilliant and kind epidemiologists who let me interview them for my story.

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Should journalists care how their stories are shared?

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The latest episode of NPR’s Invisibilia is about Daniel Kish, the famous ‘blind dude who can ride a bicycle‘.

How does he do it? It’s all in the clicks. Kish uses echolocation—yes, just like a bat—to feel the contours of his environment. According to the episode, neurologists are discovering that blind people’s brains are capable of way more ‘vision’ than we once thought they were.

That’s all super fascinating. What’s a bit troubling is the way the story is framed. Invisibilia packages Kish’s story as a fable about expectations. For most blind people, we expect them to be helpless, to be led around by the arm. For Daniel, his mother expected him to take care of himself. As early as five, he was climbing trees and barreling down hills on his bike. In this telling, it was the expectation, not the neurology, that allowed him to be so much more capable than other blind people.

Kish is—again, according to the episode—part of a growing movement among blind people to teach kids echolocation and independence much earlier. There’s a scene (do podcasts have scenes?) where Kish forces a blind kid, convinced he’s incapable, who almost never leaves the house, to climb a tree, 40 feet up, literally the blind leading the blind. The kid resists, then climbs, then falls, then gets up and tries again. Kish expects him to climb, to see, and eventually, he does both.

You can see what’s heartwarming, what’s enlightening, about all this. A blind woman describes how echolocation allowed her to ‘let go of the arm’, to go places without her husband leading her. Kish leads a group of blind people on long hikes each year, along ravines, with nothing but canes and clicks to guide them.

Once I was done learning and thinking (and, at one point, crying—that woman and the arm!) I started to find it really troubling. Not the episode itself—like everything on NPR, it’s professional, meticulously researched, you feel smarter for having heard it—but how, I fear, it will be retold.

The show includes dozens of caveats. Many blind people have other disabilities that make it difficult to gain more independence. Echolocation is really hard to learn as an adult. Even once they learn to ‘see’ through echolocation, blind people are still significantly disabled, will still require assistance, will still do things more slowly and more carefully. One of the hosts of the show, her dad is blind, she rejects the idea that all he’s missing is someone to berate him into climbing a tree.

But of course the episode’s reservations are not what you take away from it. What you learn is, ‘blind people have the ability to see’ and ‘our expectations are making blind people helpless.’ That’s what you’re going to repeat to your friends when you talk about it. If anything from this episode travels, it will be those two ideas, caveat-less.

It reminds me a bit of the 10,000 hours thing. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers popularized the idea that most of the people we consider as having ‘inborn talent’—Tiger Woods, Mozart, Bobby Fischer—have in fact worked incredibly hard to refine and develop it. No one just picks up a tennis racquet and is suddenly John McEnroe, not even John McEnroe. Being good at something, no matter your inherent coordination or musicality, means practicing and practicing and practicing.

In its original conception, it’s a pretty small point, a slight tweak to our understanding of talent and practice, far from a revolution in it. Yet all the caveats in Gladwell’s original article, the deliberate smallness of his argument, the concept of 10,000 hours has traveled without them. People have written responses—and a whole book!—arguing that yes, some people are born better at things than other people, that no, you will not become Mozart at something just because you practice it a lot. That’s not a response to the Gladwell expressed—he’s said he agrees, that his 2008 self would have too—but the version of it that traveled, the one we all retold to each other.

I wonder if journalists think about this, the inevitability of it, as they’re doing their work. Caveat all you want, many people will still conclude from that NPR episode that you should never help another blind person across the street, that the ones who can’t by themselves are constrained by their own un-adventurousness, not their physical limitations.

This is entry like 10,000 in my ongoing journalism is hard stomachache. Should NPR not have made this episode just because it will be distorted when we all truncate and tweet it? Fuck no, it was great, I’m super glad I heard it. Should they have included more caveats, been even more reserved in their conclusions? Meh, who wants to listen to an episode that’s all preamble and meta-discussion and asides? Kish’s story is gripping; the tellers of it can’t restrain themselves just because their listeners might draw the wrong lessons from it.

Maybe I’m not making an argument about them, maybe I’m making one about us. I don’t have any blind friends or family members. I don’t know anything about neurology or echolocation or tree climbing. I’m profoundly un-educated on every single issue contained in this podcast. What makes this kind of journalism so great, and so troubling, is that it makes me forget that.

Photo by the wonderful Luise Schröder!

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Lifehack: Stop Fucking Lifehacking

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I’m not very good at going to the gym. I never do the same thing twice, I don’t keep track of how much weight I’m lifting or how many times. I go three days in a row, then skip three. I go longer when I’m listening to a good podcast, shorter when I’m not. If I didn’t sleep well the night before I half-ass the entire endeavour, yawning, tweeting, lifting the lightest possible weight the shortest possible distance.

Sometimes I get into these self-improvement frenzies where I look up what I’m, like, supposed to be doing at the gym. I should use free weights. But never on the same day as cardio. And body weight exercises are better anyway. I should stretch when I arrive—no, afterwards—oh wait, I should never stretch. I should go for an hour. I should go shorter, but more intensely.

I implement these little exercise hacks, tell myself I’m optimizing my time. I stick with them for a few days, a week, before I drift back to my routine of doing what I feel like, changing every day.

I’ve been doing this informal survey at the gym the last few months: When I see someone in super-good shape, I go up to them and ask what they do here, how often they come, what they lift and lower, how many times.

So far (and yes, I realize this is completely un-scientific), they’re pretty diverse. Some of them just do body-weight shit, some of them just free weights or machines or they mix all three. Some do cardio, some don’t, some stretch, some don’t, some do hella reps, some do few.

The only real theme to emerge from these conversations is that the dudes who are in good shape, who seem to be winning the aesthetic Olympics, they come a lot. Of the maybe 20 or so dudes I’ve talked to about this over the last six months, most of them come five or six times a week, and they stay at least an hour, some of them two, each time. Within that, it’s pretty diverse what they’re doing, but they all have that in common. That, and the six-packs.

And this is kind of what I’ve concluded about the gym, about this sort of health-and-wellness lifehacking in general: It doesn’t actually matter what you do, as long as you do it regularly. I have managed to go to the gym about three times a week for the last three years. Would I be, I dunno, 12 percent buffer if I was more diligent about what I do there? Lift more, sweat more, concentrate more, focus on feel the burn rather than contemplate the podcast? Sure!

But if I had done all that, I doubt I would have gone as regularly. I have a crazy-short attention span. Doing the same thing over and over, focusing on how Sisyphean it is rather than distracting myself from it, that’s never going to work for me.

It’s the same with food. Probably twice a week I throw a sweet potato or two in the oven, come back an hour later, grate down whatever cheese I have in the fridge and eat it, skin and all. The other day I was in another hackfrenzy and I looked up the best way to roast sweet potatoes. There it was on Food Lab: They taste better the longer they stay between 135 and 170 degrees.

So I did it, I quartered them, submerged them in hot water for an hour, then baked them for another hour. And were they better? Definitely! Am I going to start doing them this way every time? Fuuuuuuck no.

Half the reason I eat so much vegetable these days is because I’ve figured out the easy ones to cook (It’s not just sweet potatoes: Cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, basically any vegetable, douse that shit in olive oil and salt, bake for an hour, blanket with cheese and go to town). If I really tried to make this optimal—the two hour cooking time, the extra dirty pot, the chopping—I wouldn’t do it as much.

And this is what I’m constantly battling in myself, this idea that I’m not being optimal enough. It’s not enough to go to the gym, I have to squeeze every calorie, every protein fiber, out of my time there. I get the guilties about not doing Zero Inbox, or Crossfit, or being paleo enough. It’s not good enough to eat sweet potatoes with grated cheese on them, I have to eat less cheese, Maillard the shit out of those starches.

I’m trying to be OK with this, to stop trying to hack my habits to perfection. I have a friend who lost a bunch of weight a few summers ago by eating steamed chicken breasts and broccoli soup for like two months. And it worked! If I saw him in the gym at the end of that summer, I totally would have interviewed him. Problem was, the minute he started eating like a person again, he went right back to his old weight. That might have been the ‘perfect’ diet for losing weight, but it wasn’t the perfect diet for sticking with long-term, which is the only metric that means anything.

I stopped judging people at the gym a long time ago. If you’re the kind of person who can only talk yourself into getting exercise if you’re going to sit on the stationary bike and read a romance novel, barely get your heart rate up and leave after 30 minutes, go for it. I sound like I’m being passive-aggressive, but seriously, good for you. I have the attention span of a tiny rodent. If you have the one of a large reptile, and you love doing the same thing every time, 60 reps with each weight, the same on both sides, genuinely: Well done, son.

I am sure that there are articles in Men’s Health and on the Well blog and from your friends on Facebook that will tell you you’re doing it wrong. And I guess you, like me, probably are. But if that’s the routine you can stick to, that’s how you’re going to do this three times a week for the rest of your life, that is fine, that is enough, that is what ‘working’ means. And sometimes, I think it’s working for me too. As long as no one ever makes me give up cheese.

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I’m on a podcast!

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Slate’s The Gist interviewed me about my development article!

Here’s the link, I start at 13.40…

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Rolling Stone, Serial and the Advantages of Uncertainty

Gerry Spence’s How to Argue and Win Every Time—which I read when I was 13 and remember as vividly as other kids remember To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever—has a whole chapter about how one of the keys to persuasion is admitting the weaknesses in your own case. Spence was a celebri-lawyer in the 1990s, he defended Imelda Marcos, and the example he uses in the book is a dude who got hit by a car crossing the street.

The guy was ruined-drunk at the time, and the prosecutor planned to use this information against him at trial. Instead, Spence, his lawyer, not only admitted that his client was drunk in his opening statement, but made it the center of his case. Who’s more deserving of the protection of the law than someone in a vulnerable, confused physical state? Spence won.

The more I think about the Rolling Stone case, the more I think the critical error wasn’t that the reporter failed to check out the details of the rape survivor’s story (though she should have), but that she didn’t tell us the weaknesses in it herself.

In other words, I wonder if we’d still be having this scandal if the RS article included a big fat caveat, if it admitted the limitations of this kind of reporting up front, something like

Look, we didn’t contact the people accused of rape in this story because Jackie didn’t want us to. Given the sensitivity of rape accusations and how traumatized she already is, we didn’t want to re-victimize her by potentially exposing her to more abuse by her rapists. Furthermore, we weren’t able to confirm some details of her account. Regardless, it is not up to us to investigate whether or not she was raped. That is the job of her university, and they have failed spectacularly.

I’m speaking from a counterfactual here, so of course I have no real argument that this would have made a difference. But one thing I’ve realized in the last few years is that when you learn a piece of information can be as important as the information itself.

This is (to make a totally inappropriate transition) I think what makes Serial so great and so popular. The host isn’t playing us clips and going ‘Look! He’s innocent! This is a travesty!’ She gives us the evidence from the prosecution, from the defendant, and goes ‘all of this could mean something … or not. Maybe he’s a misunderstood young man. Or maybe he’s a sociopath!’ She isn’t trying to simplify her case, she’s deliberately admitting the complexities and inconsistencies in it. And by doing so, she not only maintains the mystery of what happened, but of what kind of show we’re listening to. She’s bringing us into the reporting process with her, and giving us some of its power.

What’s happening now is that other reporters are re-doing the Rolling Stone article themselves, interviewing the accused rapist and other people who were there. We’re essentially re-investigating the case, en masse, in real time, and in public. There’s a good reason the justice system does not work this way—one, it is shitty, and two, it results in false certitude, each reporter defending their own source as the ‘credible’ one. Here we are focusing on the events of one particular night in September 2012. Meanwhile, the overall point of the story, namely that universities do not take rape claims seriously, regardless of their veracity, has been lost.

I wrote something earlier this year about how what got Jonah Lehrer in trouble, what makes Malcolm Gladwell so (occasionally) infuriating is this failure, to bring us into the process, to share the knots in their stories and their doubts in themselves to untangle them.

I don’t want to pile on Erdeley. She’s probably having the worst week of her life, and her sin—promoting a false anecdote to illustrate a real problem—is understandable, if not defensible. I just wish she would have shared it with us herself.

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Being a Journalist is Scary

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Like everybody else this week, I read the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia, how women who were raped there had their complaints minimized and ignored.

On the content of the article itself, there’s little to say that isn’t obvious: The crimes are horrific, the university’s response was appalling, the systems for preventing and adjudicating rape claims are pathetic. It’s self-evident that all of that should be fixed.

But as I read it, that’s not what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the tremendous power of journalists, and how scared I am that I am now sort of one of them.

The first power of journalism is highlighting. The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, chose the University of Virginia, from all the colleges across the country, to investigate. Maybe UVA has the biggest rape problem in the nation and maybe it doesn’t. But by pulling out this one university for scrutiny, everyone who read that story, me included, has the impression that it’s the fucking worst ever and has to be stopped.

The second power is condensing. I’m sure Erdely spent weeks at the school. She must have interviewed dozens of people, heard hundreds of stories. She has chosen, as a journalist, as a person, which of those to retell.

There’s a part in the story where she quotes a letter from the fraternity where the rape happened, responding to her investigation.

UVA chapter president Stephen Scipione recalls being only told of a vague, anonymous “fourth-hand” allegation of a sexual assault during a party. “We were not told that it was rape, but rather that something of a sexual nature took place,” he wrote to RS in an e-mail. Either way, Collinsworth says, given the paucity of information, “we have no evidence to substantiate the alleged assaults.”

I’m sure the letter was longer than that. Maybe Erdely sent him 10 points for clarification and he responded to each one in turn. Maybe he detailed the history of the fraternity’s response to sexual assault, how it has changed over time. Erdely quoted the part that was relevant and moved on.

The third power of journalism is conclusion. The way the facts are presented, how they are ordered and described, Erdely has done this in a way that makes ugh these fucking people the only sensible response.

I do not believe that Erdely has wielded these powers irresponsibly. She has taken an important issue and presented it grippingly and urgently. I trust that she has fairly summarized the e-mail from the fraternity president, that she investigated the veracity of the claims made against it.

I’m not even making an argument here, just an observation: The power that she, this one person, holds is profound. Rolling Stone reports, rather gleefully, that the governor of Virginia has issued a statement in response to the story. The university has suspended all its fraternities, amid protests from (justifiably!) livid students.

The J-school cliché is that journalism is supposed to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. That appears to be what happened in this case. Erdely could have told a similar story (I fear) about many universities across the United States, but she didn’t, she chose this one. And, in so doing, afflicted it.

But what are the mechanisms to prevent journalists from afflicting the afflicted? From choosing their targets unwisely? From condensing ungenerously? Rolling Stone has every incentive to play up its stories, to megaphone the ways it changes the world from which they are drawn. This is what journalism is supposed to do, what journalists are always telling us is its primary virtue, the one making up for all of its vices—its celebrity news, its comic strips, its listicles.

Rolling Stone, every magazine, has no mandate to provide proportionality, only entertainment. And outrage, like humor, like crossword puzzles, is one of its forms.

Except in extreme cases—libel, fabrication—the only accountability mechanism for journalists is their own story. Erdely didn’t quote that e-mail from the fraternity president (I assume) because it was long, it was boring, it wasn’t in her voice. She didn’t include all the stories she heard from her other interviews because they would have been detours from her primary narrative.

We condense, we highlight, we conclude, as people who want to tell a story in its shortest and interestingest form. This process is, by nature, intrasparent and autocratic. We’ll never know everything lost from Erdely’s story due to her cuts, nor the criteria she used to make them. We share her conclusions, but we easily forget that it was she who fed us the information on which to make them.

Shit, I sound like I’m criticizing her, don’t I. I’m really not. These are just the structures she works in. The same ones that, I guess, I do now too.

I read Erdely’s article the same week that something I wrote for The New Republic got a lot of attention. People have e-mailed me to thank me, to ask me to give them advice and interviews and speeches and join their organisations. I’m happy that something I wrote has been enjoyed by other people across the internet, but I am also nervous. These powers wielded by Erdely, by journalists everywhere, now they are mine. I am not confident that I am ready for them.

I’ve already talked about my own unworthiness here, how I try to make my summaries transparent, my judgements accountable to those upon whom I make them. I could have been more of a dick in my article, I tell myself, could have condensed less charitably, could have wrung the evidence for my own perspective more tightly. Maybe you already think I have.

The reason I am scared is that there would have been no punishment for doing so. A slightly boringer story, maybe, a polemic, something that could have been titled ‘the case for’. As a reader, that incentive is enough. As a writer, sometimes I fear that it is not.

Update: Oh man, so this non-argument of mine just got pretty darn concrete. I’m going to leave the text as it is—I’m too lazy to change it and no one reads this blog anyway!—but it looks like Erdely’s story is less a hypothetical parable about the powers of journalism than an instance of this power improperly applied. Me making this all about my own fears and insecurities still applies. 

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Plagiarism Needs a Better Definition

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There’s this parable that economists always tell.

Your car breaks down and you take it to the mechanic. He opens the hood and looks at your engine for a few seconds. Then he takes out a little hammer and taps it on the top. Suddenly it works again.

‘That’ll be $100,’ he says.
‘But all you did was make a little tap!’ you protest.
‘The tap, that’s $1,’ he says. ‘Knowing where to tap, that’s $99.’

Like everyone else who writes for a living, I’ve been reading the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism allegations with a knot in my stomach.

Here’s what we know so far:

In 2012, Zakaria blatantly yoinked a Jill Lepore (love her!) paragraph in an article he wrote about gun control. He got busted and he apologized.

Dude has written for legit every publication, so his current employer and his alma maters investigated his old work for copy-pastage. They apparently didn’t find anything because Zakaria was back at his desk after a few weeks.

Then, this summer, two bloggers with awesome pseudonyms started looking into his work more closely. They found dozens—no, seriously, dozens—of instances where Zakaria paraphrased from other authors without giving them credit.

Check out this clip from his book, with questionable phrasing in yellow:

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He also pilfered some figures from Michael Lewis’s (love him!) investigation of California’s financial problems.

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Then Zakaria issued a suuuuper half-assed rebuttal (‘These are all facts, not someone else’s writing or opinions or expressions’) that was torn apart by theOur Bad Media bloggers (seriously read it, it’s the best post of this whole episode).

So those are the charges. Now we can start debating how pissed off about them we want to be. The Columbia Journalism Review (love you guys!) just put out a longform-ish dissection of what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism.

Lots of the debate, like every debate ever, hinges on definitions. Plagiarism sounds like a binary distinction—you copy-pasted or you didn’t—but looking at it so technocratically allows writers to do what Zakaria did, make slight modifications to other people’s sentences to slip past plagiarism-detection software

The real issue here is lack of attribution, which is just a Zakarian weasel-word for ‘stealing other people’s ideas’.

Let’s go back to the Michael Lewis example. I’m not particularly offended by the fact that Zakaria took a few of Lewis’s words and put them in the same order. As Zakaria himself points out in his rebuttal, there’s only so many ways to say something.

But dude, Lewis worked to get those numbers. Using them to make a broader point about municipal finance, the difficulty of balancing a budget in as a medium-size American city, that was Lewis’s idea to find those numbers and use them as an argument.

The defences of Zakaria usually stick to the technical definition. Here’s the CJR again:

Jacob Weisberg, head of the Slate Group, defended Zakaria’s mistakes as “minor, penny-ante stuff” unworthy of the “plagiarism” label, according to The Daily Beast. “I’m not sure we have a strict operational definition of plagiarism at Slate,” he added in an email to CJR. “To me, plagiarism involves not just using someone else’s research or ideas without credit, but also taking passages of prose and distinctive language.”

Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s editor at the Washington Post, prefers the term ‘improper attribution’, which sounds about as serious as a parking ticket.

I was listening to a badass podcast this morning called ‘America’s Diversity Explosion Is Coming Just in Time.’ The interviewee, a Brookings Institution researcher named William Frey, wrote a book about how America’s changing racial and age-al makeup is going to remake the country for the next generation. It’s a provocative argument, and he uses hella stats to make it: About 80 percent of people over 65 are white, compared to about 50 percent of people under 17. Fifteen percent of all marriages are multi-racial. Blacks vote for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 87 percent.

All those numbers are publicly available, they’re mostly from the Census and shit, but knowing where to look, pulling them out, putting them in that order, drawing conclusions from them, that is work. This dude has read and thought and written way more about this than I ever have, and it would be such a dickmove for me to copy the work part and then be like ‘the numbers were there all along!’ Zakaria is deliberately mixing up the tap with knowing where to tap.

Which leads to my proposal for how we should consider these cases in the future: What would the original author think if they read your summary? If Frey, the Brookings dude, read the above two paragraphs, where it’s clear that it’s his ideas and my summary, I don’t expect he’d feel robbed. Even if I happen to have used phrasing similar to his or a few words in the same order, it washes out under the credit I’ve given him.

When my development article came out, I sent it to the authors whose books I’d summarized. I wanted to share it with them, not just the story but the experience of getting their ideas and examples out to a broader audience. I wasn’t worried they’d find the article, I was worried they wouldn’t retweet it.

Part of the reason I do this is just basic politeness and golden-rule-following, but it’s also a sort of self-regulation mechanism. Knowing, before I even start writing, that the authors I’m discussing are going to read what I say and think about them, it makes me more careful—not just in my phrasing but in my conclusions.

That’s why I’m always arguing for more collaboration between journalists and their sources. Personally, I’m utterly terrified of accidentally plagiarizing something. I know the ‘I forgot to add a footnote!’ excuse sounds like ‘I have lots of black friends!’—but losing track of sources, forgetting that a sentence in your notes is someone else’s words and not your own, it’s a genuine risk. Working with the sources of your ideas is the only reliable protection against inadvertently stealing the expression of them.

I’m not suggesting the plagiarized-from authors should be given responsibility for Zakaria’s fate, or that every single article should be approved by its sources before its released. But read those passages above (especially the one from his book! Phwoof!) and ask yourself, ‘if you wrote the original text, would you feel comfortable with Zakaria’s version?’

Personally, I wouldn’t be pissed that he stole my words, I’d be pissed that he stole the thing I was using my words to describe. Detecting plagiarism doesn’t require more sophisticated software, it requires more sophisticated ethics.

Under the current definition, plagiarism asks whether two authors are tapping in the same place. We need one that acknowledges the work of knowing where to tap.
Photo by Seung-Hwan Oh

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Follow-up to my ‘development can’t work’ story: Two ideas to make it better

Here’s a little addendum to my story in The New Republic: Two development ideas I’m (cautiously) excited about.

The more I look at development, the more I think the age of the game-changer is over. Sixty percent of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries; only 14 percent of them are in fragile of conflict-prone ones. The countries still getting aid are getting less and less of it. Charles Kenny, who wrote an entire book about how much better the developing world is now than it used to be, points out that in the 1990s, 40 percent of aid-receiving countries relied on donations for more than one-tenth of their budgets. Now, that’s below 30 percent, and dropping.

Not that we should ignore the Afghanistans and Burundis of the world, but by 2030, up to 41 countries are going to move into the middle-income bracket. Increasingly, their challenge, as ours, will be the distribution of resources, not the creation of them. The development technologies of the future aren’t going to be boreholes and school buildings. They’re going to be labor inspectors, census bureaus, government administrators, state pensions: All the boring stuff that makes our own countries function.

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‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’

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That’s me in an article for The New Republic out today. It’s basically my (unworthy) attempt to write a New York Review of Books essay. I barely interviewed anyone for this, just read and thought and typed.

I know that goal-reaching is boring to read, but the whole process has not gotten any less special for me. Editors who interrogate my drafts like tiger moms, fact-checkers who don’t let me get away with anything, online teams who package me with stock photos and tweet me around the internet, I love being a part of it.

I want to talk about the (scant) reporting I did for this article, toward the end of the process, and how I feel about the final product. The first section of the essay deals with an NGO called Deworm The World, the brainchild of Michael Kremer, a Harvard professor who found that deworming pills improved education outcomes for kids in Kenya way more than free textbooks did.

Since Kremer’s Kenya studies, his idea has caught fire, and both the Kenyan and the Indian government have launched large-scale deworming programs on millions of kids. But, as I found out when I called him and Evidence Action, the NGO that has taken up his work, they’re no longer measuring whether deworming improves school performance. They’re administering deworming tablets to 17 million kids in India without testing whether they’re actually having an effect on the kids, rather than just the worms.

This was the first time in my little pretend-journalist experiment where I had to call someone up and tell them, to their face, that I disagreed with what they were doing, that I would be saying this in print, in front of the whole country.

And part of me feels bad about what I wrote. Kremer is a brilliant guy, and was way friendlier than I deserved when I called him up and told him all this. Evidence Action is part of a movement to bring scientific rigor to development aid, something I wholeheartedly support, even if I disagree with the specifics of the way they’ve upscaled.

The internet is not a good place to make a narrow point. We don’t have small disagreements or different preferences, we go on ‘tirades‘, we ‘slam‘ each other.

The truth is more complicated—and much less interesting. If you listed all of the things that I believe and all the things Kremer does, 99 percent of them would line up. Describe to me every project that Evidence Action is doing around the world and I would probably throw dollars at the vast majority of them. I’m not saying that he’s a fraud, or that the charity is bullshit, or that we, the world, should abandon deworming as a development approach.

My point, like I guess everything once you strip the headlines and the retweets away, is pretty small: I do not believe the evidence for deworming rises to the level where its effects on education should no longer be measured. That’s it, that’s the whole argument. He has evidence for his side, I have evidence for mine. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe he is, we both agree that more testing should be done. Even if his project fails, if deworming has no effect on education whatsoever, Kremer and Evidence Action are responsible for treating worm infections in 17 million Indian children. That’s more than I’ve ever done with my life, and that achievement shouldn’t be discarded just because the TED Talkiness of their impacts is more complicated than they originally presented them.

We shouldn’t let them off the hook either, though. There’s an understandable human impulse to rush to rules from particulars, and we’re allowed to criticise people who make this sprint without the proper self-scepticism. But we also need to keep our own scale in mind, keep our criticism from spilling out from action onto character.

Anyway, this is all just a long and tortured way of saying, let’s all be nice to each other! I hope readers will forgive my tirades, and I, for my part, promise to forgive those who tirade against me.

 

photo by the wonderful Guy Billout

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