Stats can lie

by bicyclemark 4 Comments

David Simon, creator of The Wire, was on Bill Moyers journal this past week.? Before getting into the world of writing and directing television, he was a journalist in Baltimore for many years. At that job he got to watch how the police force, city government, and school system work, or perhaps we could say, don’t work.

At one point in part 1, Simon touches on a topic that says alot about how our world works – the use of statistics to justify some plan or political goal.?? Specifically he says:

You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America… anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people at that institution will be at working trying to make it look like progress has been made when actually no progress has occurred.

Simon gets into how when the mayor of Baltimore wanted higher arrest numbers and the police department wanted to show those stats, they would go around arresting anyone they could including people sitting on their front steps (loitering in a drug-free zone). But he points to how the same logic applies in the school system where students are taught only what they need to get test answers right and increase the test scores. Or how the media are more concerned about winning awards and pleasing managers rather than doing difficult investigative reports and connecting those reports to the bigger picture.

As Simon mentions, this same way of thinking can be found in the current financial crisis… showing good numbers to please investors even if those numbers are based on toxic assets and loans that people can’t pay back.

Its enough to make a person think twice when they rely on the old logic “Just the facts m’am”, as journalists so often have throughout history. Stats can be , and often are,? used and abused. It takes alot more than stats to tell a story and understand an issue.

On Route to Re:publica09

by bicyclemark 0 Comments

I’m on my way to Re:publica 09 in Berlin! Haven’t had a chance to sit down and just think for many days and well.. the travels continue for the next few weeks. Still, I wanted to take the opportunity to mention that I’m speaking giving a workshop on thursday at Re:publica, 14h. My topic is Twitter and Journalism, how the two help each other; what problems and benefits twitter has for journalism and media work.

I don’t suppose the thing will be streaming, maybe? Someone (me or someone in the comments) will post a link if so. (8am EST)

I’m always excited to go to Berlin. But knowing that some of my most favorite hacker and nonhacker internets friends will be there, makes it all the more fun.? And of course there will be podcast interviews and topics inspired by Re:publica.? See you in Germany!

PRess Freedom Index 08

by bicyclemark 1 Comment

Hard to believe another year has gone by and it is time once again for the Reporters Without Borders PRess Freedom Index.

The list itself doesn’t contain anything too shocking compared to last year, but I went looking for countries that had experienced the most change in ranking. Lebanon, having had a relatively less violent year than last, jumped several spots to 67, which it shares with nations like East Timor which has also experienced slightly more stability this year. Meanwhile nations like Ivory Coast and Indonesia dropped down several spots to around 110, reasons for which I can only speculate stem from internal strife along political and ethnic lines.
RSF points out that economic prosperity does not equal a freer press, with the United States coming in at 36th tied with nations like South Africa and Bosnia. Or everyone’s favorite economic powerhouse, China, which comes in at 167.. a number one can only hope will be influenced somewhat this coming year as the government is said to be implementing more press freedom in the wake of the Olympics. Venezuela also continues to have a poor showing towards the bottom of the list, though its no surprise as the president there often gets involved in media politics.

The index features, with the exceptions of New Zealand and Canada, only European nations in the top 20. Immediately following in 21 and 22 there are the Caribbean/Central American nations of Jamaica and Costa Rica.

One final point on this year’s press freedom rankings, the list separates some nations by within territory and extra-territory or beyond its borders. This is very interesting to observe, for example Israel itself comes in at 46, whereas extra-terroritorial Israel, which includes Palestine where indeed a journalist was killed in the last year, they rank 149th. Along the same lines, the extra-territorial US is ranked 119. Which reminds me, Iraq is once again almost at the bottom of the list as, despite claims by many US politicians that things are going great, it is still extremely difficult to be a journalist in that country.
Those are my observations regarding the report, read the rest for yourself.

So Long Agricultural Free Trade

by bicyclemark 1 Comment

In a few hours I head to Brussels where I’m participating, for the second year in a row, in European Youth Media Days.? This year I’m helping coordinate and speaking as part of a workshop on Food Prices and the Media.

In preperation for this event I’ve been stepping up my own research into the global food production system over the past 100 years and the current breakdown it is experiencing.? Although the conference is Europe focused, I’m finding alot of useful and I would argue, applicable examples and analysis from North American news sources.

My hope is that one thing young journalists at this event will think more about is what lay behind the story of food prices. I have no interest in the typical commercial media exercise of finding a person-on-the-street and asking how they feel about prices. A more useful exercise would be to look at who benefits from increased food prices, and even before that, how was the global agricultural system organized that it could fall so hard, so fast.? From there the connections should be made to climate change, CO2 emissions, the lack of emphasis over the last decades on growing local and crop diversity. All these things happened for a reason, and if we’re to solve this problem as a society, we need journalists to do more than just point to the price tags and stick a microphone in front of consumers.