Category Archives: Journalism

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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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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Is It Even Fair to Compare AIDS Between Countries?

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The methodology section got cut from my New Republic article, so I pulled it out into its own little blog post.

The first thing you notice about HIV statistics is how slippery they are. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s AIDS surveillance says there were 46,268 diagnoses of HIV in 2010. The online Atlas provided by the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS says there were 46,043.

It’s the same in Europe. Each country reports its own HIV statistics independently, then they’re gathered and re-reported by the European Centers for Disease Control. The Robert Koch Institute (Germany’s equivalent of the CDC) says 3,034 people were infected with HIV in Germany in 2008. The ECDC says it was 2,850.

Last year at the Smithsonian, I saw this documentary on exoplanets. Rocks in other solar systems don’t emit light, so the only way we can detect them is their tiny pull on the light waves coming from faraway stars. I was—am!—totally stunned at how we can see something so remote, so invisible, with our meager little tools on our provincial little planet.

I had a bit of the same are you fucking kidding me wonder talking to scientists about how they track the AIDS virus, and I could have easily gone another like 2,000 words on methodology alone. Public health is one of those achievements of modern civilization that gets (deserved) credit for stuff like eradicating smallpox and preventing cholera, but we should also give snaps to all the work that goes into just tracking and reporting diseases, just knowing what’s out there.

The data isn’t always available for every country, and it’s not perfectly comparable across them, but I’m glad someone out there is looking at all these little points of light, waiting for one of them to wobble.

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What Did We Learn from the Whole Donald Sterling Thing?

 

There’s this old friend of mine from Seattle who only contacts me like three times a year. Not to say how she is or to ask what I’m up to or to show me her pregnant selfies or whatever, but to tell me what I should be mad about. ‘A state senator compared homosexuality to alcoholism!’ ‘A soccer star told a journalist he doesn’t want his son to grow up gay!’ ‘A sitcom star established a foundation to defend same-sex marriage!’

They’re always like this, variations on ‘someone you’ve never heard of has beliefs you don’t agree with’, and I never know how to respond. I think I’m the only gay person she knows, and she’s sending me these dispatches in a spirit of solidarity and lets-make-it-betterness. But what should I actually do with this information? I guess I could boycott the companies or the states or the sitcoms where these un-agreed-with beliefs are coming from, but … I dunno, do I have to? It seems like kind of a big commitment to only buy stuff from people whose social beliefs I agree with. Do I have to like ask the guy who brews my flat white how he feels about transgender pronouns?

Which is why I don’t really know how I feel about the whole Donald Sterling episode. Obviously about the man himself I feel sheesh what a dick. But I’m still sort of amazed at how much time and energy we all spent reacting to this one guy’s dickishness. Now that some of the foam has subsided, I’ve decided that I think the following things:

  • These episodes have a cycle to them, and this one has basically ended, but let’s take a second to remember just how big a deal this was for like two weeks there. In Zimbabwe I was watching CNN International in my hotel room and they interrupted some documentary on African entrepreneurs to go live to the NBA Commissioner’s press conference.
  • We all know this is how the media works; I’m not going to pretend to be all shock-horror that we don’t subsist on a news diet exclusively composed of kidnapped Nigerian girls and Syrian civil war victims. Maybe we should be focusing more on instances of racism in our own country, maybe this is how it gets solved, I don’t know.
  • But man, in the eye of the shitstorm, it was hard not to notice that Sterling got away with being racist for decades (denying housing to black people, treating his black employees terribly). We only went for our torches and pitchforks when he said something racist. I’m all for witch-hunts when prominent figures use their influence nefariously, but we need ways to find better witches.
  • There’s also this weird thing where the shitty stuff he said wasn’t at a podium or some Rich People Event or in his official capacity as a sports owner or businessman, but in a private conversation, with his girlfriend, when he had no idea he was being recorded. I don’t want to be all ‘Sterling is the real victim here!’ Like I said, the dude sucks. But we are rocketing toward a society where we have the technology to record each other all the time, and we need to take brace positions for that shit.
  • I was talking to a friend of mine the the other day who works at a speech recognition software company. I asked him how long it will be until our phones can record every conversation we have all day and send us a transcript every night, with stats about our word use, suggestions for follow-ups (‘John said he’s starting a new job on Monday. Ask him how it went!’), calendar reminders; Her without the romance. He said about two years.
  • That’s probably optimistic, but I, as a person, am not ready for a society in which I’m being recorded all the time, where everything I say out loud becomes a searchable, Dewey decimaled record of my opinions and commitments. I don’t know that we, as a society, are either.
  • But back to Sterling. Obviously what he said and thinks and did regarding race is deeply wrong. But even before this imagined panopticon future comes to pass, maybe we should think about what we do with and during these little outrage cycles. Twitter already feels like it’s about 50 percent ‘here is something you should be offended by!’ There are a million Donald Sterlings in the world. The next time some CEO announces or tweets or tells his girlfriend something we find repugnant, how much time should we spend chasing it down? What is a proportionate punishment for these statements and beliefs? Are the -isms the only sins for which we should demand penance? If Justin Bieber tells his Facebook followers tomorrow that he opposes the $15 minimum wage in Seattle, is that an unfollowable offense?
  • Look, I am a member of a secular liberal society. I like our values, I think they are worth defending, I think people should be shamed and fired and lose business for violating them. I also, however, like my time and my energy and my attention, and sometimes I want to save them for things that make me happy. I am glad that someone is calling out Donald Sterling and Rush Limbaugh and that lady who made that mean joke on Twitter, but I’m not convinced that it needs to be me, that I have to jump into the pig pile whenever I hear something that, if a friend said it, they wouldn’t be anymore.
  • Maybe that makes me part of the problem. Maybe failing to participate in the internet’s perpetual Intolerance Watch means that I am myself intolerant. Maybe I should be the next one pilloried on Twitter. Maybe I deserve it.

Last week, two friends of mine were turned down for an apartment in Berlin because they’re gay. ‘I’m a family man’, the owner told them, ‘and I want to sell my apartment to someone who will start a family there.’

This is obviously bullshit on a number of levels, least of which the fact that they’re actually starting adoption proceedings as soon as they buy an apartment.

‘Tweet that fucker’s name!’ I said, livid.

‘What’s the point?’ they said. ‘He’s allowed to. Homosexuality isn’t a protected ground for discrimination in services in Germany. It’s his house; he can sell it to whomever he wants. The law’s the problem, not this one guy.’

So I’m not publishing this dude’s name. But am going to tell my old friend in Seattle about it.

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Why I Show Drafts to My Sources

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I majored in journalism. I worked at the student newspaper at my community college and then my real one, then did internships at two daily newspapers. Then I gave it up, I moved to Europe, I went to grad school and I ended up working at NGOs for the next eight years.

Since 2012 I’ve been sort of doing journalism again. Nothing serious, just little essays about stupid shit I did as a teenager or a friend of mine who was briefly a prostitute. Lately I’ve been getting slightly more ambitious, writing about foreign countries I visit for work and, this one time, how HIV is way worse in the US than in Europe.

If it’s not already obvious that I’m an amateur from my essays, it certainly is from the methods by which I produce them. I interview people too long, ask them stupid questions, forget to call them ‘doctor’, bug them with too many follow-ups. And I also, the biggest sin of all, send them drafts of my essays for comments before they’re published.

This is highly un-standard operating procedure. In journalism school the rule was, you could check direct quotesi.e. the stuff in quote marks, not paraphraseswith your sources, and you could fact-check your numbers with them, but giving them actual excerpts from your story would compromise the independent, objective role of journalism.

The reasons behind this rule are obvious. Can you imagine an investigative reporter writing an exposé of a corrupt governor and checking it with him beforehand? Journalism is supposed to, like the old saying says, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Giving a source advance warning of your story, a chance to revoke their quotes or edit your conclusions before it’s published, profoundly undermines that role.

So I get why the rule exists. But not all journalism is political analysis or corruption investigations or public-figure profiles. In the last few years, the rise of ‘explainers’ (Ezra Klein, Nate Silver) and the general trend toward narrative-izing academic findings  (Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, TED Talks) have demonstrated the utilityand the demandfor works of journalism that see their sources as collaborators rather than antagonists.

Me, I’m paralyzed-scared of getting anything factually wrong in my essays. As I mentioned the other day, for my HIV piece I read probably 150 documents and interviewed like 18 people. Many of these people and documents didn’t agree with each other, or emphasized different historical or demographic factors as the key to explaining the higher rates of HIV deaths in the United States (‘It’s the health care system!’ one of them would say. ‘The health care system doesn’t matter!’ says another ).

Weighing that up, then cinching it into a few thousand words, then trying to make it readable for people who are less obsessed with this topic than I am, there’s no way to do that without leaving some conclusions and explanations on the side of the road. The only way to make sure I got my conclusions right was to share them with the people who provided the basis on which I made them.

So I sent my essay to six of my sources. Everyone got back to me. All of them had comments and corrections, all of them were reasonable, and all of their changes got included in the essay before it ran.

Most of the corrections were related to terminology. ‘Your story says there were 15,500 people diagnosed with HIV in 2010,’ one of my sources wrote. ‘What you mean is infections, not diagnoses.’ That’s actually a pretty important distinction, and the kind that traditional magazine fact-checkers might not notice.

I also let them alter their direct quotes. I was a bit nervous about this, since In journalism school they taught us that anything in quote marks is sacrosanct.  ‘I have you on tape with this exact wording,’ is what they told us to say when sources backtracked on their interviews. ‘You knew you were talking to a journalist.’

But what’s the point? Like the others, the changes in quotes they suggested were grammar and terminology and clarification, not self-preservation. One of my sources told me that when you’re on Medicaid it’s difficult to move ‘from one place to another’. She wanted me to change it to ‘from one state to another’.  Should I have stood on principle on not changing the quote? Her suggestion is more accurate than what I had originally anyway.

Knowing I was going to send a draft of my article to my sources made me write it differently, made me work harder to fairly summarize what they said. It’s possible to get all your facts and your quotes correct and your conclusions wrong; having expert eyes on the full content, the tone and the structure and the corny jokes, made me think harder about what I was actually saying, not just the numbers I was using to say it.

There’s also the issue of courtesy. Academics, authors, people who work at AIDS clinics, they’re busy; the ones I spoke to spent unbelievable amounts of time, one-on-one, walking me through the basics of the field in which they are experts, my own little Socratic seminar. They sent me their academic work and their data and their annual reports, knowing that I was going to quote and paraphrase them without a chaperone. I paid them nothing for this, not even the guarantee of being name-checked in my article. The least I can doas a person, if not as a journalist—is to show them in advance how I will represent them, give them a chance to correct what I got wrong or over-condensed.

I’m not arguing that every single piece of journalism should be checked with the subject of it. I was talking with a magazine editor the other day about this, and he said ‘whenever you write a profile of someone, they end up hating you. That’s how it works.’ No one wants to read a piece of propaganda, or be fed conclusions that have been vetted and authorized by the people they are concluding about. Fair enough.

But the ethical prohibition on sharing drafts of stories with sources comes from the assumed un-alignment of interests between the journalist and subject. The subject of a profile or a political story or business news has an interest in putting out a particular version of themselvesthe hero, the victim, the striver, the successful startup, whatever. The journalist has an interest in telling the truth, or at least in finding the angle that’s going to get their story read and shared and talked about.

But in the case of explainers and science journalism and (some types of) feature stories, the interests of the journalist and the subject are aligned. Both want to bring the truth to a complex subject. Both want to bring attention to a field or a finding that was previously unknown. Both want to frame the narrative in a way that will get the general public interested. The bestselling Freakonomics was written through collaboration between a journalist and an academic. The documentary Food, Inc was created with the oversight of two of the subjects (Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser) interviewed in it. I think that adds to the credibility of the finished works, rather than diminishing them.

I didn’t share my HIV story with all of my sources. The CDC, who graciously provided me with Excel after Excel of estimates and back-calculations, and was generally lovely to work with, all they got was the figures from the story and an outline of my general points. Even I’m savvy enough to know that they have interests beyond the accuracy of the story.

Sometimes I think about this old Yogi Berra quote, about his relationship to the press: ‘You shouldn’t have printed what I said. You should have printed what I meant.’  (See, this is why you shouldn’t use direct quotes from memory. I can’t find it on Google. It might not have been Berra, and was probably phrased differently. Anyway!)

I remember reading it on a 365 Dumb Quotes calendar we kept on the kitchen table as a kid. These days, it doesn’t seem so dumb.

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Filed under Journalism, Personal, Random, Serious

Why Journalism is Expensive

ben-hur-image

Right, so I have this story in The New Republic about how and why the HIV epidemic was so much more severe in the United States than Western Europe. It’s nothing earth-shattering, just me listing the higher prevalence, incidence and death rates between countries and giving some (pretty speculative) reasons for them. Standard statistical explainer-type stuff.

Except that this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this, and I spent the whole time researching and writing it absolutely stunned at how much work it was, and the bottomless amount of time it sucked out of my life for the last two months.

One thing I always knew, but didn’t like know-know, about journalism is how much time you spend just getting people to talk to you. One of the tropes of these kinds of stories is saying ‘I called up [name of incredibly prominent and busy researcher or author] to ask him about this’. If you ever listen to the Freakonomics or Planet Money podcasts, that’s always how they introduce their sources—‘I called up Ben Bernanke to talk about why my change gets lost in the dryer’ or whatever.

I now realize that those three words—‘I called up’—are a synonym for ‘I wrote an introductory e-mail to the media relations department describing my project and my publication, then spoke to them on the phone, then submitted a list of questions, then scheduled the call two weeks in advance, then had the call, then sent them the quotes to approve.’

And those are just the times when you get to the right person. The more typical response to one of these ‘can I talk to you about your work?’ e-mails is ‘this isn’t in my field of expertise, try my colleague’. Then the colleague goes ‘oh I actually don’t work on that anymore, try this former colleague’, but then their contact info is out of date and on and on and on.

And this is all totally understandable. Journalists have nothing whatsoever to offer their sources. People literally talk to me out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re busy, they’re doing much more important work than talking to me on my little Skype-machine. Large organizations like the WHO and the CDC have staff members divided into very specific subject areas—that’s how professional organizations work! The only one with an overview of the research on a particular topic is the department head, and he (understandably) does not feel like giving over a significant portion of his day to some random voice on the other end of the telephone.

Gmail tells me I sent 57 requests for interviews or data since February. I downloaded 170 academic articles, popular publications and NGO reports (not that I like read them all or whatever, but still). I had 18 in-person or phone interviews, lasting anywhere from 1.5 hours (thanks Dr. Sabin!) to 20 minutes (Chris Beyrer talked to me from a hotel room in Geneva at 8 in the morning, getting ready to chair a meeting at the WHO).

And that’s just the main sources. The data-hunting, the interview prep and transcription, the actual writing—you open your laptop on a Saturday morning, crack your knuckles and before you know it it’s dark outside.

I’m not saying this because I want to brag about how much work I did (on the contrary, I could—should!—have done way more), I’m saying it because these stories are all around us now, and no one seems to be making any money off of them, and one of the reasons they aren’t is because the work that goes into them is invisible.

In his memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal talks how, when they were making Ben-Hur, their funder almost backed out when he realized they would be shooting more than three hours of film. Film was super expensive at the time, and the funder, some George Soros type, figured, well, it’s a three-hour movie, so three hours of film ought to do it. When they told him they would need hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of film for all the extra takes, he freaked out: ‘What do you need all this film for if you’re just gonna throw it away?!’

Journalism has the same problem. What you get—4,000 words summarizing some historical and epidemiological stuff most people already know—is totally out of proportion to what it costs to make it. Part of the reason my piece was so ‘expensive’, to be fair, is that I’m an amateur. I spent days tunneling down into statistical rabbit holes that petered out, some of my interview subjects didn’t turn out to be all that relevant, I polished and re-polished sections of the article that eventually got cut. But no matter how good you are at this, a three-hour movie is always going to require more than three hours of film. 

That, the extra footage, the outtakes and the failed experiments, can be reduced, but they’ll never be eliminated. And eventually, someone will have to agree to pay for them.

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Filed under Journalism, Personal

I’m in a magazine!

article_inset_hobbs_514No, like a magazine-magazine. People will be reading me during takeoff and landing and in dental offices for days, son

So I’m getting AIDS tested the other day in Berlin. I’m sitting in the waiting room and feeling like a Bad Gay, because I’ve lived here for three years and this is my first time getting tested. I’m surrounded by all these scared-straight brochures about HIV and AIDS in Germany. Prevalence rates, treatment options, prevention methods, names and addresses of support groups. “Since the start of the epidemic,” one of them says, “more than 27,000 people have died of AIDS in Germany.”

Wait, that sounds triumphantly low for a country of 80 million people. I pull out my phone and check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, which tells me that, in the United States, 636,000 people have died since the epidemic began. That’s 23 times higher than Germany, for a country with four times the population.

This makes no sense. Germany has big cities, it has gay men and sex workers and drug users, it has all the same temptations for them to be uncareful that the United States does. How could so many fewer people have died?

Maybe it’s a fluke. I visit the Public Health England website and it says 21,000 people have died of AIDS there in total. If the rates were the same as the United States, it would be 128,000.

The further down the Google-hole I go, the more mind-boggling the numbers get. Since the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS has claimed more people in New York City than in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland combined.

The next day I start asking epidemiologists about this divergence. The first thing they tell me is that it is real, even accounting for differences in methodology. Scan the columns on the stats sheets—incidence, prevalence, deaths—and you find the United States with a two-digit lead going right back to the start of the epidemic. Still now, no matter how much we’ve learned about how to prevent and treat AIDS, the United States loses more than 15,000 people to it each year. Germany and the United Kingdom lose fewer than 800.

The second thing they tell me is why.

My editor at TNR was great—cool about the fact that I’ve never done this before, patient with my rank amateurishness and constant ‘you can’t cut that no please don’t!’ tantrums. I only know one way to write a sentence (Refer to self, item list. Refer to self, item list.), and he taught me at least like two new ones. The fact-checker was super nice, too. I got a lot of stuff wrong (C. Everett Koop is with a K?), and she had a way of pointing that out that didn’t make me feel like I was an idiot. Even though I sort of am. So thanks guys!

Before I even sent it to TNR, I got comments on it from friends and family. So Ian, Nathan, Lane, Alison, Mom, Dad: Thanks for being the people who told me that it wasn’t ready for the rest of the world yet.

And most importantly, I need to thank all of the epidemiologists and researchers and authors I talked to for the story. I interviewed about 18 people, some of them for more than an hour, and everyone was, without exception, patient and gracious and charming and fascinating, and I hope I’ve done justice to the great work they put into producing the information I’m stealing and paraphrasing.

I don’t do this for a living, so being published anywhere, anyhow, is really special for me. That someone would take the time to put something I wrote on actual pages, to ensure that I get my facts and my words right, to help and hope that I get better at this, it’s  just, wow.

I’ll be posting some outtakes and further thoughts on the process and the article in the next few days. But for now, I’m going to take like six minutes to just sit here and feel super lucky that I got to do this. Then I’m going to start working on the next one.

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Filed under Essays, Journalism, Personal

Interview: Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

I did an interview with Drew Philp for The Billfold about what it’s like to live in Detroit.

I want to ask you about the ruin-porn thing, people coming to Detroit to take pictures of the abandoned buildings. Why do you think this is such an attraction for people?

So there’s this ruin-porn narrative where Detroit is just fucked up and crazy. And there’s also this narrative that white kids are saving the city. Neither one of them deal with the historical realities.

I live next to an abandoned house. Maybe it’s aesthetically beautiful. But the reality is that if that house burned down, it’s going to take mine with it. If I’m not home, it’s going to kill my dog. This is not an interesting thing to think about when you have to live here.

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious