Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Press Releases: False Equivalency

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Lots of ink has been spilled over Nate Silver and his uncannily accurate statistical predictions of how the presidential race turned out. We need not repeat the hagiography here.
We also need not delve deeply into the repetition of the mainstream media's reporting of the hand-wringing and finger-pointing now under way in conservative circles, including the media branch of the right wing, Fox News.
What's being overlooked in Silver's results — and the results of the election itself — is the power of the conservative media over the rest of the mainstream media (and the mainstream's utter abandonment of truth-seeking in favor of he-said-she-said coverage).
After all, national media outlets had access to all the data Silver did — the polling results and the history of how well those polls predicted past elections. Heck, the national media had access to Silver's actual analysis of it, which was posted publicly on the New York Times website.
And yet, while over the course of weeks and months every measure Silver used consistently showed Obama ahead of Romney, the mainstream media continued to paint the race as tight. It plain wasn't.
Since June, Silver's predictions showed Obama always winning more than 283 electoral votes, and Romney never winning more than 255. (Winning takes 270.)
The low point for Obama was on October 12, when he had 61.1 percent chance of winning, and Romney had 38.9 percent.
That same day was the only day Silver's model predicted that Obama would get less than half the popular vote — 49.8 percent, to Romney's 49.1 percent. On October 11 and on October 14, Obama was at 50 percent. (Silver didn't do a prediction on October 13.) And every other day, Obama was predicted to get more than 50 percent of the popular vote; Romney hadn't previously — and wouldn't again — registered over 49 percent.
What made the mainstream media portray this race as close, then? The principle of false equivalency.
This is the same problem that plagued climate-change reporting for years. One side said climate change was a looming emergency; another side questioned whether it was happening at all. And the reporters and editors doing the stories put their hands up and said things like, "We report. You decide."
Except they didn't report. Not really. They didn't seek truth about the topics they were discussing. They didn't, for example, until very late in the game, begin even talking about Nate Silver — and then, often only to ask him if he even knew what he was doing (and why his results were just so partisan).
This is false equivalency. Nate says one thing; Karl says another. "We report. You decide." So the race appears close because Thing 1 and Thing 2 say differing things, rather than because the facts support a claim that it's close.
This sort of thing is more of a problem when talking about climate change. (It is happening; I've personally seen it, and evidence is all around us.) For years, reporters sought out people who said things that might be interesting, and did not concern themselves with determining who, if anyone, was speaking actual objective truth.
It's common to blame this on lazy reporters; the truth is elsewhere. The reporters are not lazy but in fact, in a downsized, pay-cutting media landscape, running their asses off. They're so overworked they lack the time to research, question, examine, and think for themselves. That's why you thought Romney might still win; and that's why major action on climate change is not happening.
ALSO OF NOTE The Nieman Media Lab piece by Ken Doctor observing the striking similarities between the losing Republican Party and the dwindling American daily newspaper. (Think of the target audience: old, white, male.) Very well worth reading for anyone who is thinking about what else this election might mean for the vaunted American news industry.