Today, my workplace sent me this article about the impact of the economy on the services that we offer.
At first I was excited because my work actually contributed to the article. It was a real manifestation of “letting the data tell the story,” my self-proclaimed mission in my fourth job title at the organization. I had gotten a frantic call from one of the interviewees shortly before the interview asking for clarification on some of the numbers. Direct contribution of my work! And numbers!
And then… the one distinctive sound number that appears in the piece is wrong. By 25%.
It’s a relatively innocent mistake, since the number quoted (56,851) is the in-house meals number, a far cry from total meals served (69,904). And the first number does appear on the report I created, though clearly labeled as distinct from total meals. But still. The article goes on to mix apples and oranges all over the place, and it’s hard to say how much of that is on the interviewee and how much on the interviewer.
It doesn’t really matter. I was bugged for a bit, but I’ve gotten over it. The essence of the article and its message got through. And insane Internet commentary (redundant) notwithstanding, it’s all good.
The problem is that it almost immediately occurred to me that this always happens with newspaper articles. I can’t remember the last time a newspaper article got everything right. A key standout in memory from earlier this decade is this article (p. 2 under “People in the News”) in which, in May 2002, the Brandeis Reporter labeled both Drew Tirrell and I as recent successes from the class of 2001 in the recent 2002 college national championships.
It’s like news media exists, at its very centrifugal function, to get facts wrong. Sometimes the facts are essential (sufficiently to warrant a correction), but this is almost never the case. They are usually the second or fourth or sixth most important facet of a longish article about many things. Never critical enough to bother correcting or bringing up; just off enough to spoil the whole experience for the subject of the article without being changed for any of the readers.
In isolation, any given instance of this wouldn’t be such a big deal. The problem enters the picture when seemingly every single report can be assured to have at least one key fact incorrect. The whole fabric of the presentation on the world thus takes on an aspect of fabrication… and readers (or viewers or other consumers of media) are then absorbing the misleading presentation whole cloth. It’s like a pseudo-reality is being spun, through neglect and oversight, out of thin air.
I would say “no wonder the newspapers are dying”, but that would of course overlook the fact that the link is online and may recorded in the ether longer than any shred of the original paper it was printed on may last. For all I know, mistaken numbers about our meals program are being beamed into space as part of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence as we speak. Aliens will soon land, wearily stretching, disembarking, and expecting a set of facts wholly inconsistent with the reality they witness.
Of course I’m exaggerating, letting little details get carried away with the whole picture. But a day after Election Day, with my observation of all the problems that come with an unchecked, unvetted system of recording key information, I’m keenly attuned to the problems that can result from constant misrepresentation. And maybe it’s not the misrepresentation I care about so much as the casual carelessness of it, leading to an inevitable acceptance of such. It’s surely better than some sort of malignant intentional deception (and there’s plenty of that to be upset about), but the carelessness strikes me tonight as nearly as damning.
I grew up on my father’s retellings of one of his father’s pivotal stories, that of the horseshoe-nail that lost the kingdom. I didn’t grow up with horses and their shoes and their shoes’ nails like my Dad did in Carson City; the story was initially foreign and strange to me. The story is one of these classic snowball-type stories, where one small issue becomes cataclysmic… a careless stable boy forgets one horseshoe-nail, because of which the horse loses its shoes, resulting in the person riding it being unable to reach the castle, resulting in the message not get through to the king about an invading force, resulting in the king not readying the force that would defend the kingdom. The kingdom is lost because of the horseshoe-nail – attention to detail is key. There were small variations, I’m sure, but this is the version I remember. Ironically, of course, the details of the precise twists in the story matter very little.
And maybe that’s the point. People don’t have time for detail and nuance when they’re busy watching the big stuff (and perhaps creating their own realities anyway). People wanted desperately to be unabashedly happy today – even though Prop 8 wasn’t defeated, most of my co-workers refused to show anything but jubilation in the wake of Obama’s election. There was no time for muted response, little demonstration of the sobering reality that Obama will be facing massive challenges and is likely to start making decisions that will alienate many of his starry-eyed supporters. There was only that victory-lap kind of swagger. And I admit – it will be nice to not have to automatically cringe when the President of the United States speaks. So far, this is by far my favorite President of my conscious lifetime (Carter’s still probably winning for my technical lifetime, until Obama proves otherwise). But favorites amongst a terrible crowd are a far cry from euphoria.
Not surprisingly, I’m having a hard time distilling my message down to a succinct point. This post feels disjointed and rambly, maybe in part because the television has been competing with my brain in the background (someone else is watching, so I’m not just being an idiot for failing to shut it off). The TV is talking about sustaining the momentum of Obama’s euphoric supporters. The TV is also drawing comparison’s between Obama’s election in ’08 to Nixon’s election in ’68.
Who says the media can’t reconcile subtlety and nuance? They crash discordant things that make no sense together with blunt force! That’s almost the same thing.