Wednesday, November 18, 2009

It's the context, Stupid!

NOTE: I originally published this on another blog, here.

There’s a reason people don’t trust journalists anymore.

OK, there are several, many of which have to do with political hacks arguing about bias, but there’s a more fundamental problem with journalists. The pursuit of objectivity creates subjectivity.

It’s easy for most of us to look at a situation and say “here’s how it happened…” and much like the game of telephone, how the story is told depends on who is telling it. This is how it works. The complexity in our brains means that no two people tell a story the same way without a script.

And there it is: the script. The common component. The one thing that can make my version of the story the same as your version. But what if the script is flawed?

This morning I listened to a story on NPR’s Morning Edition. A very trusted news source with trusted journalists that anchor the show. One of the stories that came out had to do with new figures that came out yesterday. Now, I don’t remember the precise wording, but this is the form they used to present the information:

“Medicare fraud more than doubled this year from 3.7% to 7.8%. Officials claim that the increase is due to new (more strict) accounting rules.”

The journalist argues that the news of the day is the higher percentage of reported fraud. The changed accounting rules is the rationale given by the officials, whose word must be seen in light of their potential bias. But there’s a gigantic hole in this argument: namely the context. The context for the news of the day is just as important as the news itself.

Context is important. If we think about it, the increased number, by itself is not news. Imagine this weather report:
“The Doppler projects 72 degrees. “
When? For how long? When won’t it be 72? Will it always be 72? And what about precipitation? In this way, the context for the fraud is the important part of the story. Now imagine this:
“The Doppler projects 72 degrees. The guy who reads it claims that the unseasonable warmth is due to weather coming from the south, off of the Gulf.”
Suddenly, the obvious conclusion about the nature of weather becomes someone’s claim or projection. Does this mean, that when the temperature only reaches 71, we’ll complain about ‘the guy who reads it’ and how completely wrong he was?

If we were honest, we’d adopt the story’s context as natural, just as we do with most anything else. Here’s what they could have said:
“Changes in accounting rules adopted earlier in the year have revealed a significant higher number of Medicare fraud cases from 3.7% to 7.8%.”
This statement adopted all of the information given in the previous statement, but places “today’s news” (the increase) in context with “yesterday’s” (the changed accounting rules). If we think more deeply about what was done in the first statement, a true event (the changed accounting rules) was placed within the contexts of an argument for why things changed. This not only calls into question the government’s defense for its new number, but it compromises the actual facts themselves. It suggests that “some people” think it has do with changed rules—and further implying that others might not. But did the rules actually change? Yes! Of course they did! Would they affect the number? Yes! They’re more strict! They are intended to actually find more cases of fraud. That the number grew means that the rules and the regulative body are actually doing their jobs! Today's news reveals that yesterday's news is succeeding at its intended purpose and what is revealed today must be taken as more accurate. This would then generate new thinking on fraud and the like.

So, despite the obvious context of the story that they could be writing, the journalists, in their effort to avoid subjectivity, present the news in a way that actually contradicts the nature of the event. By compromising the context of the story and projecting bias onto the regulatory agency, the journalist turns a story about more accurate numbers of Medicare fraud into a misrepresentative story about increased fraud. That this year’s number is larger does not demonstrate increased fraud when the measurements have changed, only that we should adjust our understanding of fraud to recognize a different percentage. Let’s go back to my weather analogy:
“The Doppler projects 72 degrees.” Was yesterday’s report.
“The Doppler projects 20 degrees.” Is today’s report.
Hmm. We might be tempted to wonder why these numbers are so drastically different. Our first inclination is to blame the Doppler itself. But along comes ‘the guy who reads it’ who explains that the Doppler was on Fahrenheit yesterday, but was switched to Celsius. In fact, ‘the guy’ actually told us yesterday that he was switching the numbers, but we didn’t think it would make very good news, so we buried it at the end of the report. So what does the journalist do?
“The Doppler projects 20 degrees. This is a 52 degree drop-off from yesterday. The guy who reads it claims that he switched the analysis from Fahrenheit to Celsius.”

Of course this scenario is absurd, but no less absurd than the notion that we can talk about today’s events without talking about its context, let alone an accurate accounting of yesterday’s events. Because the rules changes themselves are less sexy, we don’t actually process them as happening. We don't adjust the reality then, when we should. This means that when the results of the change differ from our pre-existing expectations, we’re perplexed and turn into inconsolable weepers.

There is an obvious connection to our churches and their existing expectations. For many, our evaluation tools haven’t changed from the 1950s or ‘60s. This provides for inaccurate assessments of the current base of Christians as well as potential members. For some, the switch over from membership to Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) was seen in just the same light as these changed accounting methods. The numbers are compromised because we attack the messenger or we see it as the work of “those higher-ups in New York”. When we do that, we don’t take all of the conversation in context, and we fail to recognize the truth of the situation.

But I think this speaks more broadly to the way we interact with the world. We actually do have a subjective view of the world: we’re optimists that believe in Jesus’ coming to save the world, and in our part in building up the Kingdom of God here on earth. We aren’t called to be objective about this.

But we’re also called to better understand the Scripture and God’s call for us. We shouldn’t get ourselves into the he-said/she-said style of journalism. If we did, we might find ourselves presenting the gospel from last week this way.
“Jesus left the Temple with his disciples. The Jewish Rabbi claimed that the Temple would be destroyed. Critics of the Rabbi and his followers protested this evaluation, suggesting that…”
I can’t imagine any of us wants to see The Story reduced in that way.