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Todd Morman 

In Search of Precision Journalism

There are days you've got to feel for the folks who run The News & Observer. Just imagine it--publishing a daily newspaper, answering to the accountants and simultaneously dealing with the dizzying variety of viewpoints in the Triangle.

It can't be easy.

When you screw up--and you're sure to screw up sometime--the criticisms come fast and furious. Why didn't you cover my event? Why did you leave this important information out? Why are all of your headlines obviously pro-war? Why is your paper so damn liberal?

Whew.

You'd probably get a little defensive, too.

There are days, however, when news outlets screw up so badly and distort a story so obviously that all thoughts of sympathy fly out the window. At those moments, the fury of angry readers is more than justified and editors would do well to don their asbestos suits.

January 19, 2003 was one of those days.

As the Indy's Patrick O'Neill pointed out last week, on Jan. 19 The N&O dramatically underreported the number of people who'd gone to D.C.--in freezing weather, no less--to protest Dick Cheney's war. Many local liberals were furious at what they saw as an attempt to minimize dissenting voices, made worse by the contrast between The N&O's low estimate for the crowd that had gathered simultaneously in Durham. The N&O saw only 350 people; the Herald-Sun reported "more than 1,000."

On the same day, The N&O also angered conservatives by completely ignoring a large anti-abortion rally--including an appearance by U.S. House member Walter Jones--right across the street from its own offices.

N&O executive editor Melanie Sill admits that her paper dropped the ball in both Durham and Raleigh.

"We didn't provide enough coverage of either event," she says, "but it was more in the category of an oversight. It was a busy news day. We had a big troop deployment. Obviously, in one case we had an early crowd estimate. We reported early numbers."

"I don't ever try to say we're always right or we never make mistakes," she adds. "It makes us a better paper if we admit when we're wrong."

So can we expect a correction noting the paper's error in reporting the size of the Durham anti-war crowd?

Er, no. Sill says there are no plans to run a correction.

"The reason we make corrections in the paper is to put the accurate information in front of the public. But we don't know how many people were actually there, so we can't give them the correct information."

That's a strange rationale, to be sure--not least because it leaves a known factual error uncorrected in The N&O's archive. Journalists are fond of saying that newspapers are the rough draft of history, but one can only wonder how future scholars will be able to write an accurate account of the movement against Bush II's bombing of Iraq from articles that contain obvious distortions.

Sill says the paper's recent mistakes were heavily discussed by the staff, but denies that N&O editors and reporters have either a pro-war or pro-choice bias.

"On both of these issues--how people feel about abortion and how people feel about war--our paper has done a good job. I feel good about how our paper covers those issues."

But, she adds, "sometimes we misjudge. We've agreed we're going to have more discussion of planned protests."

Protest organizers looking for coverage will probably continue to find Sill a difficult person to convince; she calls staged protests "fairly routine" and is wary of devoting too much space to them.

"The anti-abortion protest is an annual event, and we had a 'Q' coming out the next day about abortion," she says. "There are so many things that go on in the Triangle, and we don't have an unlimited number of reporters. There are things that are media events, and you have to ask yourself, 'How much news is in it?'"

Of course, much of what passes for, say, election news is also driven by elaborately staged events--events The N&O rarely hesitates to put on its front page. Why is it news when a politician creates a carefully controlled, content-free photo op, but not news when a thousand people come together in the dead of winter to agitate for political change?

Forget left versus right. What we have here is bias against boring people. The people who actually care about politics. The people who, you know, read newspapers.

Do the math

The crowd size game provoked heated controversy in Durham, as elsewhere, but there's an element to the protest numbers story that hasn't been fully explored.

"Where do these estimates come from?" an N&O reader wrote after the Jan. 18 event. "What methods are used to develop the estimates? How confident can we be?"

Good questions. How did N&O staff come up with that 350 figure for the Durham crowd, anyway?

"I'm sure they got it from police," replies executive editor Sill.

Police? Doesn't The N&O train its reporters to estimate crowds?

"No," says Sill. "We train our reporters to find people who are the official crowd estimators."

If the idea of a newspaper encouraging its staff to trust "official crowd estimators" rather than their own eyes strikes you as odd, you're not alone. Philip Meyer, Knight Chair at the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communication and author of the book The New Precision Journalism, takes serious issue with the reliance on "official" sources for crowd numbers.

"It's a basic rule of the field--if your mother says she loves you, check it out," he says. "When you have the chance at direct observation rather than taking someone's word for it, direct observation is preferable."

Meyer says that learning to estimate crowd size is "a piece of cake."

"The best way is aerial photos. But you can also count the number of people in a given area and extrapolate. I used to have my students do it with the bricks in Howell Hall. As a journalist I would trust my own count by that method more than I would any official estimate."

So why don't reporters do it? Perhaps it's a combination of deadline pressure and laziness. Or perhaps it's the memory of the lawsuit Louis Farrakhan threatened to file against the National Park Service after Park Police estimated the 1995 Million Man March at only 400,000 men.

Meyer has his own theory. Journalism schools deliberately shy away from teaching math-related subjects out of fear that enrollments would drop, he says, adding that UNC dropped its quantitative research methods course for undergraduates about 15 years ago.

"People who choose journalism often do it in order to avoid more technical fields that are more difficult to learn," he says. "The marketplace reflects that. Whenever I teach quantitative methods, I get the complaint from students, 'I don't want to do this. I chose journalism because I'm not good with numbers.' My reply is that one reason I'm here is to disabuse them of the notion that journalists can get by without numbers."

Meyer obviously feels strongly about the subject. "I think that minimum competence in math should be a requirement, but I don't know any journalism school that does that."

Well, that's sure interesting news. Still, it's hard to believe that anyone who passed sixth grade couldn't get a handle on systematically estimating the size of a crowd. Reporters--and editors--are clearly dropping the ball by relying on "official" sources to provide such simple and important information. EndBlock

  • In Search of Precision Journalism

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