Monthly Archives: November 2014

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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