Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘journalism

Wasting a reader’s interest

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A personal annoyance in the writing of others, is when they waste my time, interest, or concentration. This not (necessarily) because the topic is uninteresting, not because the text is poorly researched, not because there is a severe clash of style preferences,* whatnot—but because the text contains too much that is off-topic, sprinkles a minimum of information in a sea of text, is written without regard to how it will be read, … This in particular in the initial portions of the text.

*As might be the case with many of my own text vs. much of the potential readership.

A good illustration is found in the documentation of my Linux-system: When listing the options for many programs, some nitwits start the respective description with a “This option” (or a similar formulation), as with e.g. the “man page” for xwininfo:

 [...] 

-id id This option allows the user to specify […]

-name name This option allows the user to specify that […]

-root This option specifies that […]

-int This option specifies that […]

-children This option causes the root […]

-tree This option is […]

-stats This option causes the display of various attributes pertaining to the […]

-bits This option causes the display of various attributes pertaining to the […]

-events This option causes the selected window’s […]

-size This option causes the selected window’s […]

[…]

Note how not only “This option” is repeated again and again, but also how further words with little impact often follow, and how much repetition there is. Further, how unnecessary filler is sometimes present even when the author manifestly can do it more economically. (Compare the equivalent formulations “This option allows the user to specify” and “This option specifies”, which are both used in the text.)

The effect? The user starts with the option (e.g. “-stats”), finds the next few words to be pointless, and either looses his concentration or wastes his time. Trying to scan this type of documentation is outright frustrating to me, because: (a) My brain is hit with a steady stream of “This option”, “This option”, “This option”, ad nauseam. (b) It is often impossible to just keep my eyes on the options, scan downwards, and get information about the option at the same time. When I want to just move my eyes down, I instead have to move them to the right, back to the left, then down, etc.

The first sentence, in full, for the “-name” option is “This option allows the user to specify a target window id on the command line rather than using the mouse to select the target window.”. Consider instead “Specifies a target window id on the command line rather than using the mouse to select the target window.” or even “Specifies a target window id.” or possibly even “Target window id.”—all of which would work better in the context of Linux documentation. Note how the important information is pushed forward and how fewer irrelevant words are present. If more details are needed, they can be given in subsequent sentences.

Journalistic writing is particularly troublesome, including through mixing in irrelevant human interest angels. However, its paramount example is what I would consider the “anti-hook”—an introduction to a text that kills the wish to read said text.

Consider e.g. a poor “New Yorker” piece: The article is preceded by a summary that actually caught my curiosity (“My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest.”).* Alas, my interest was soon killed again…

*I do not think highly of what I have seen from this magazine in the past, I visited for the specific purpose of finding an example to use, and was surprised to actually see my interest caught, if ever so briefly. As is, I hit the jack-pot in terms of an example.

The first paragraph has nothing obvious to do with the promised topic. It starts with “The piping on the red snowsuit was yellow, and on the green snowsuit it was blue: fire-engine red, sunflower yellow, summer-grass green, deep-ocean blue, the palette of preschool, the colors in a set of finger paints.”, and continues with another 86* words of a similar style and low relevance.

*All word counts by copy-and-paste into the command wc.

The next paragraph, surely, proceeds with the topic? No, it does not. Here follows more about snow suits and teddy bears. The third paragraph? Starts with a recollection of giving birth… But, true, here the best friend and laptops are actually introduced. Paragraph four is mostly filler, detailing how the author started the lap top, using 241 words, including formulations like “I plugged in a power cord attached to an adapter the size of a poundcake, but when I pried open the laptop sharp bits of steel-gray plastic broke off like chipped teeth, and the hinges cracked, and the screen fell away from the keyboard and dangled, like a mostly decapitated head, the Anne Boleyn of Apples.”—for the love of Steve Wozniak!

802 (!!!) words precede the point where the author actually starts to read what her friend left behind. (“‘Transitions’ turned out to be notes she’d taken on a book published in 1980 called ‘Transitions: […]”) Of course, this is a point of the text that I would normally not have reached. Instead, I would likely have bowed out after the first paragraph, annoyed at having my time wasted and knowing from experience what such a first paragraph typically implies about the rest of the text. On a generous day, or with a less disastrous intro, I might have extended a second chance and read the next paragraph too, but that would be the absolute limit.

From a very superficial skimming through the rest of the text, is appears to be similarly low in information, filled with poor writing and verbal diarrhea, and dealing more with the author than with the friend… I am not a fan of the 500-word essay, as should be obvious from my own writings, but forcing this woman to write nothing except 500-word essays for a few months would do her a world of good.

This example is the more absurd as the author appears to have cared a great deal for this friend—and she still unleashes such an abomination of a text on the world in her “honor”…

Of course, such extremes are rare even within journalism; however, the attempt to use some type of hook is quite common—and it usually backfires. A hook is a legitimate means of starting a text, and is often one of the first recommendations a beginning writer gets, but it must serve its purpose—to actually hook the reader. Moreover, there is a wide variety of cases when a hook is, at best, a waste of time, because the reader already intended to read the text.* For instance, above, I was made curious by the summary, I hoped for something that matched this summary, and the first paragraph was then entirely off topic (and highly dubious in other regards too). If the first paragraph was intended as a hook, it was a complete failure, because (a) I did not need to be hooked, (b) I had an interest that it failed to meet and stimulate, (c) it turned me off from reading the rest of the text. (In contrast, the summary could have made a good hook, had it been the first paragraph.) Similarly, if I have made a search for a topic, then I visit the links found to learn about the topic. A hook will not serve to deepen my interest—only to waste time before I actually get to the information…

*It could even be argued that hooks are always ill-advised, because the hook will only ever have an effect when it is read—and it is only read when someone actually starts on the text. However, some allowances might be made for scenarios like a news-paper reader filtering which articles are worth reading and which not. (If you find something looking like a hook in my texts, it is more likely to be coincidence than design.)

Similarly, if not strictly speaking a hook or anti-hook, some texts waste a lot of the reader’s time with explanations of why it would be beneficial for him to read the text that he is already reading, or why the topic would be important. Why not assume that the reader, who is already reading the text, is sufficiently interested in the topic?!?

Another variation (that I have often seen in Germany) is an article that has a certain title, a summary that is a more verbose version of the title with some new information added, and a first paragraph that does the same to the summary, effectively being nothing but another summary. The result is a great amount of repetition and redundancy that wastes time and my interest. For a hypothetical example:

Man bites dog

Yesterday, a man in Kentucky bit a pit-bull in the leg for urinating on his bicycle.

A Kentucky sales clerk lost his temper yesterday, as Fido, a peaceful pit-bull, urinated on his bicycle. He then viciously bit poor Fido in the leg. Fido was saved as its owner bravely intervened.

[Paragraphs two and onward]

Note that the information added at each step is not necessarily that relevant. For instance, that the man was in Kentucky will rarely be of value at such an early stage of the text, and the suspicion of mere filler is warranted. (But mentioning it in the main text might be valuable.) For instance, what does it matter what the dog was named? In contrast, that Fido was a pit-bull can be interesting in the context of who-bit-whom, and the urination aspect could partially explain the unexpected behavior—and both facts are reasonable inclusions.

Consider instead either dropping the summary or removing the first paragraph and its implied second summary. The casual reader, who uses them to decide whether to read on or as a means to get an overview without reading on, will only need one of the two. The more intent reader sees his time wasted. For a short enough main text, removing both might be the best solution.

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 10, 2019 at 10:37 am

Some thoughts around a personal anecdote / suppression of information

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Looking over some old posts, I found a footnote dealing with suppression of information from a discussion:

As aside, there might be some PC-extremists that actually deliberately use such formulations, because they see every sign of sex (race, nationality, religion, …) as not only irrelevant in any context, but as outright harmful, because “it could strengthen stereotypes”, or similar. Not only would this be a fanaticism that goes beyond anything defensible, it also severely damages communications: Such information is important in very many contexts, because these characteristics do have an effect in these contexts. (And it is certainly not for one party do selectively decide which of these contexts are relevant and which not.) For instance, if someone cries, the typical implications for a male and a female (or a child and an adult) are very different. Ditto, if a catholic and a protestant marriage is terminated. Etc.

This brought to my mind an incident with a colleague* some years ago, which well illustrates the problems of such information suppression—and does so even in the face of the most stubborn PC objections**.

*And, yes, he was fairly strongly PC. In another incident, he tried to defend the throwing of eggs at immigration critics when we discussed free speech—he did not seem to see the contradiction with his alleged support of free speech…

**E.g. “that the implications of a male crying are different is just a result of societal brain-washing; ergo, it is even more important that we leave such information out, in order to reduce the brain-washing”.

Our discussion (paraphrased from memory and into English):

He: Huh! It says in the paper that a German killed his daughter over pre-marital sex.*

*Or something similar of the “honor” variety, e.g. having the “wrong” boy-friend.

I: Really?!? Was it a “German German” or a Turk* or something?

*Contextually taken to be someone of Turkish ethnicity living in Germany.

He: Yeah, well, um, yeah, I mean, it waaas a Turk, but I did not want to, um, say it like that…

Firstly, such attempts at censorship waste time, can cause unnecessary confusion, and can make something seem more “newsworthy” than it actually is. (Note the idea that “man bites dog” is news, while “dog bites man” is not. In this case: while honor killings are rare even among Turks, they are virtual unheard of among “German Germans”.)

Secondly, and more importantly: by not providing such information, limits on (in this case) the group of perpetrators are removed and a greater number of innocents are potentially implicated. It is true that those uninformed or weak in critical thinking might build an image of the typical Turk as an “honor murderer”, and I can at least understand the PC case for wanting to avoid this.* However, by not keeping the limiting information, aspersions are now cast on the group of men or the group of fathers: if there was a danger before, it remains and it is extended to a larger group—and the proportion of the innocent in this group is higher yet. This is particularly unfortunate in this specific case, because of the great amount of Feminist propaganda directed at painting a faulty** picture of men as abusers of women—to the point that “mäns våld mot kvinnor” (“men’s violence against women”) is one of the most common phrases in Swedish politics, bordering on being a slogan. To boot, this abuse is often implied to serve the deliberate purpose of oppressing women, for which the above killing would have been a splendid example.

*But I stress that I do not agree with it: Presuming to be a filter of information or an arbiter of what others are allowed to know is inherently dangerous. (If in doubt, because it rests on an assumption of knowledge and understanding on behalf of the presumptive arbiter that could be faulty—and, indeed, virtually always is faulty with the PC crowd.) Moreover, I very strongly disagree with denying knowledge (or e.g. self-determination) to those with a brain in order to protect those without one. (And if we try to separate people into groups by e.g. the ability to think, how can we be certain that the arbiter and the criteria are sufficiently good?) Then there is the issue of filtering out information that does apply to a very significant portion of the group. (E.g. through denying that crime rates in a certain group are far higher than in the rest of the population.)

**In reality, women are violent towards men slightly more often than vice versa, and men are far more likely to be victims of violence overall.

From another perspective, if he had been right in censoring the ethnicity of the father, why was he not obliged to leave out “father” (and the implied “man”)? Why not say “parent”? What makes the one piece of information acceptable/relevant/whatnot and the other not?

In some cases, information is sufficiently prima facie relevant or irrelevant that a decision is easy. For instance, that is was a parent (or other close relative) has an impact on the type of crime, and that it happened in (or in relation to) Germany made the incident more personally relevant* than had it happened in some random place in the world. On the other hand, the hair-color of the involved persons would almost** always be irrelevant, except in as far as it revealed*** something more significant. More generally, it can be tricky—especially, when different people have different priorities, interests, and “open questions”.

*At least for some people and/or for some types of news.

**I point to The Red-Headed League for a fictional counter-example, and note that there might, in real-life, e.g. be situations where violence involving people of rarer hair-colors might be more likely for personal reasons.

***For instance, if the hair-color is locally rare, it might point to a tourist or an immigrant, either of which has a considerably higher degree of prima facie relevance. (While this is unlikely to apply to Germany, it might very well apply to e.g. Nigeria and Japan.)

While I can see the case against providing too much information, I see a stronger case against providing too little and would prefer if e.g. journalists erred on the side of too much. Say that a man has beaten a woman: What is the effect of just saying “man” and what of saying “an uneducated, unemployed male alcoholic with a prior criminal record”?* Whether that much information will always be relevant, I leave unstated, but more information would help to build a more nuanced world-view and to foil attempted distortions of said world-view, e.g. by countering propaganda claims like** “all men are rapists” and attempts to hide negative information about certain groups***.

*When e.g. “college professor” applies, it is no less worthy of mention.

**Note that this works in the context of Turks too. For instance, the (hypothetical) knowledge that this was a first-generation immigrant would have lessened the risk of unfair suspicions against those with a longer familial history in Germany. An (equally hypothetical) knowledge of alcoholism would have lessened the risk even for many first generation Turks. Etc.

***For instance, hiding the ethnicity of criminals does not just protect the innocent members of that ethnicity from unfair suspicions—it also creates a too positive view of the group as a whole. Such a view can lead to poorer decision making, especially in politics. To boot, it can lead to unnecessary personal or group conflicts, e.g. when person A has access to information that person B lacks and B incorrectly assumes that A bases his opinion in the overall issue on bigotry/racism/sexism/xenophobia/… or lack of information. (Ditto, m.m., for groups A and B.) I note that both the Swedish and the German press appear to systematically suppress the ethnicity of perpetrators and suspects.

From yet another perspective, these tactics need not be very helpful. For instance, above, I immediately considered it more-likely-than-not that a non-Western immigrant was involved—even in the face of an explicit mention of “German”*. I asked; many others would have jumped to the conclusion and kept it to themselves. Moreover, even I might have asked the wrong question… Was ethnicity the core issue or might it have been religion (or yet some other factor)? Here I saw another case of a Turkish honor killing, where it might (or might not) have been better viewed as a Muslim or a Turkish Muslim honor killing. Having more information, e.g. not just whether the father was a Turk but also whether he was a Muslim, would, again, have given me a more nuanced world-view. This applies the more to those who jump to the conclusion, because even when their conclusions are correct (e.g. “was a Turk”), they need not hit what was actually important.

*While the use of “German” (or “Swede”) to refer to ethnicity is increasingly (and irrationally) frowned upon, the context made ethnicity more likely than nationality, because the clear majority of all people in Germany are German citizens, leaving ethnicity as the natural intention with cases within Germany. Similarly, I suspect, an “Italian-American” is more likely to spontaneously mention that he is Italian (even when not a citizen) than that he is a U.S. citizen (unless he is abroad).

As to what to do instead, if the PC fears are valid? Focus on developing critical-thinking skills, raise awareness of fallacies (e.g. “confirmation bias”), and further the understanding of some very basic ideas like “what applies to some group members do not necessarily apply to all group members”, “that most members of group A are also members of group B does not imply that most members of group B are also members of group A”, “individual variation very often trumps group membership”, “correlation does not imply causation”, and variations. A greater ability to discriminate would also be positive, notably in knowing what criteria are important and what unimportant—but also including ensuring that everyone knows some basic differentiations, e.g. that “Arab” and “Muslim” are not synonymous, that neither (ethnic) Turks nor (ethnic) Iranians/Persians are Arabs, and similar.

Excursion on information and identification:
One concern with being liberal with information is the increased risk of someone intended to be anonymous becoming identifiable. This is a legitimate reason why e.g. journalists should show some restraint, but they should do so on a case-by-case basis. (And I cannot recall ever having heard either the PC crowd or a journalist raise this concern as a reason to censor ethnicity.) For instance, the number of Swedes living in Wuppertal is unlikely to be very large, and just combining “Swede” with “Wuppertal” would limit the candidates correspondingly. Throw in just one or two additional facts and that might be enough to pin-point me—and if it does not, the number of candidates will be small enough that each of them could be considered the match by third parties. I point to the case of a physically assaulted innocent man as just one example of why this can be dangerous.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 6, 2019 at 1:23 pm

Journalistic fraud II

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Yesterday, I published a text on gross journalistic fraud; today, I am met with news sources claiming that RTL* has discovered at least seven cases of deliberate manipulation by one of its employees**… According to e.g. [1] (in German), the proofs are sufficiently clear that the employee has been summarily fired. Further checks of work stretching back twelve years is under way.

*One of the largest German TV senders.

**Original sources use “Mitarbeiter”, which is vaguer than “employee” and might well refer to a non-employed collaborator. Depending on (unknown) context, another translation might be better.

While these individual cases do not necessarily say anything about the typical reporting,* they are a very bad sign—and they do make clear that we must not “believe everything written in the paper”, be it literally or metaphorically. Moreover, they point to a considerable need for media to improve its fact-checking.

*There are thousands of journalists, TV reporters, and whatnots active on a daily basis in Germany alone. Even a small percentage of fraudsters will lead to a non-trivial number of cases.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 14, 2019 at 5:47 pm

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Journalistic fraud

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As a frequent* critic of journalism and journalists, I surprisingly managed to miss one of the biggest journalistic disasters in decades—the outright, large scale fraud perpetrated by Der Spiegel reporter and repeated award-winner Claas Relotius. (See e.g. an extensive Der Spiegel text [1] and other texts linked from there, as well as English Wikipedia [2] and German Wikipedia [3].)

*See e.g. [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9].

Notwithstanding that I am half a year late to the party, there is plenty here that I wish to discuss, especially in the light of the “Lügenpresse”* and “fake news” controversies.

*A derogatory German word for the press, often used by populists. A reasonable literal translation is “press of lies”; a more idiomatically plausible, “liar press”.

Until now, I have considered “Lügenpresse” to be mostly a misattribution of intention, where the true issue is not deliberate lies but a mixture of differences of opinion, the indisputable ideological slant of too many journalists, and the ever-manifesting absurd incompetence of journalists—a failure to apply Hanlon’s razor by those critical of journalism. Events like these make me wonder. Is this a single, regrettable instance*, or is it just the top of the ice-berg?

*A cliched, almost knee-jerk claim by German organizations, when exposed to criticism, is that a particular problem is a “bedauerlicher Einzelfall”—this even when there is good reason to believe that the problem is either occurring often or a sign of a more pervasive underlying problem.

Journalistic fraud does exist, two of the more well-known instances being Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night and the scandal around Stern* and Hitler’s diaries, and I see at least two causes why it might be relatively common today: Firstly, the move towards more free-lancing journalists and the need to be published to earn money, including that some online sources (e.g. Slant) pay writers based on clicks on their articles. If fiddling with the facts, or even outright invention, brings a better chance of being paid and/or more payment, then it can safely be assumed that some** will cheat. Secondly, many journalists are strongly Left-leaning, engaged in the PC movement, and/or see themselves as world-improvers. Looking at such people elsewhere, notably in the blogosphere and in general politics, they often have a “the end justifies the means” attitude and are very prejudiced about what their opponents and perceived enemies actually believe, say, do, whatnot. As with them, it would be unsurprising if some journalists fell for the temptation to fiddle with the facts to show the “truth”—e.g. that a “known” xenophobe who denies being one is “revealed” through some fake statements or untrue allegations.*** In addition, there is great reason to believe that “artistic liberties” are common, e.g. through exaggeration, presenting speculation as fact, oversimplification, paraphrasing while claiming to quote (also see an excursion), misleading translation,**** quoting out of context, use of unattributed and unverified material from others to flesh out own researches, … While these are typically less harmful, they often still leave readers with a faulty impression and are highly disputable from an ethical point of view.

*Another German magazine and one of Der Spiegel’s main competitors.

**How many is a very different question, and only speculation is possible without actual investigation. I do note, however, that some press reactions mentioned in [3] could point to a fairly large problem, including that Georg Altrogge claims that Der Spiegel could have provided fertile ground (“Nährboden”) for cheats through its story-telling attitude, that Michael Hopp admits to having cheated extensively (“immer viel”) himself, that Dirk Gieselmann (another award-winner) has been fired from several magazines, …

***This not to be confused with blanket claims that e.g. “X is a xenophobe”, “X is extreme Right”, etc., which do abound but might be explainable through prejudice or ignorance even when actually incorrect. These too are a problem, but they are not necessarily fraudulent. To boot, many U.S. claims about e.g. “racist” are rooted in a lack of understanding what “racist” means, including confusing it with “racial”. (A good example is a reference to the German AfD as “far Right” that I saw while reading up for this text. The claim is at best an exaggeration, even the uselessness of the term “Right” aside, but might well be explainable by the foreign source being ignorant of German politics and/or simply having uncritically listened to one of AfDs many, mostly Leftist, detractors.)

****During the invasion of Iraq (when I still occasionally watched TV), the German news senders often distorted English originals. My memories are understandably vague, but consider e.g. a scenario where a U.S. spokesman says “we do not know” one day, which is rendered as “the U.S. denies”, and the spokesman says “now we know—and it is true” a few days later, which is then rendered as “the U.S. has been forced to admit”. This is not to be confused with mistranslations out of ignorance or carelessness, which are quite common too.

Fact checking is a critical issue in journalism: Apparently, Der Spiegel has one of the largest fact-checking departments around and prides it self on its attention to detail. That it did not do its job well enough is quite clear, and this has been a source of criticism. However, I might be willing to overlook this instance—the main purpose of “internal”* fact-checking is to discover errors made by honest authors, e.g. through sloppy work, memory errors, or similar. Indeed, some amount of fact-checking is needed even by the author, himself. Detecting whole-sale invention or large-scale deliberate manipulation is a secondary purpose, potentially a lot harder to do, and there were no obvious signs that a greater-than-usual diligence was needed here**. When we look at the overall situation, however, it is quite dire: The lack of fact-checking, insight, and critical thinking displayed again and again, in article after article, is horrifying. A reasonable famous example is the 1990s reports of women overtaking men in distance running, which I dealt with in parts of an older text on simplistic reasoning. Or consider the time when I encountered an FAZ*** article speaking of the age (!) of the universe in light(!)years. Or consider the many, many variations of the long debunked 77 cents on the dollar fraud, which simply does not hold up to critical thinking. Or how about my discussion in [9]? This is a massive problem in the world of journalism.

*E.g. by a magazine with regard to its authors, as opposed to by a magazine with regard to politicians.

**In contrast, with Hitler’s diaries such diligence was quite obviously needed, and there we have a true fact-checking scandal.

***The most prestigious daily paper in Germany.

Indeed, the disputable attitude towards fact checking, critical thinking, etc. is displayed by two quotes from [1]:

The fact-checking and research department at DER SPIEGEL is the journalist’s natural enemy

A sound attitude would be the exact opposite: It is the (competent and professional) journalist’s best friend.

You [the editor] are more interested in evaluating the story based on criteria such as craftsmanship, dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images than on whether it’s actually true.

WTF!!! I am at loss for words to express how idiotic, how mindlessly unprofessional, how fraudulent this attitude is. To boot, claims like “dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images” bring us to another problem with journalism:

The focus on entertainment over information. The purpose of journalism is to bring information to the people—not entertainment and certainly not fake news. If I want to be entertained by something not true, there is always “Harry Potter”. A journalist (ditto, m.m., a news-paper or magazine) who forgets this is not worthy of his job.

Worse, this attitude usually leads to horrendously poor writing, as exemplified by several of the quotes of Claas Relotius articles that I encountered: this is supposed to be award-winning journalism?!? This cheesy, uninformative, emotionally manipulative nonsense!?!?

To get a better impression, I tried to read one of his works, specifically the infamous El Paso text/“Jaegers Grenze”* (co-authored by Moreno) that brought on the revelations. I started skimming after about a quarter and stopped reading entirely about half-way through: as far as journalism goes, it is horrible, even the fraud aspect aside. It is uninformative, speculative, jumps randomly from sub-topic to sub-topic, lacks a clear purpose, is filled with uninteresting trivia, and has a style of writing more suitable for a pure work of fiction—but it fails to reach the level of good fiction. This is the type of writing that makes me loathe reading the works of journalists—even were every word true, it would be a poor read. Still, Relotius won award after award… These awards might show an even greater problem than Relotius cheating: an anti-journalistic, pro-entertainment, and reader-despising attitude obviously present in journalism in general.

*In German. Beware that a warning note by Der Spiegel states that the text remains published until an internal commission has finished its investigation, with the implication that it might be removed afterwards.

Indeed, many of the articles on the scandal are themselves proof of poor journalism and writing, e.g. an apology piece on Fergus Falls, where there is an undue* amount of first-person perspective, irrelevant detail, and misguided and amateurish “human interest” angles, as e.g. with** “He laughs when I ask him if he’s angry. We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor. “I first thought the article was a piece of satire,” says Becker. “I don’t feel offended at all.” He says he thought the writer was friendly – and he still does today. A nice guy. Becker says he’s worried about him.”—further proof that the typical journalist is best kept away from journalism.

*Not all first-person perspective is undue, e.g. because a certain text deals with or draws on personal experiences, attempts to differ between fact and own opinion, tries to give the author’s take of an issue, … This is the case with many of my own texts (and this sentence is it self an example of a valid use) and the quotes of what Becker said above are examples of legitimate uses, because his side of the story is the topic. However, this is only rarely relevant to journalism, which should strive to be as disconnected from the author as possible (for instance, if the journalist had made Becker’s statements, they would have been out of place). Moreover, very many journalist uses miss the point entirely, amounting to irrelevant nonsense—as e.g. with the above “We’re eating pizza at a restaurant on Union Avenue that belongs to the mayor.”, which is pointless “human interest” blurb for the dumbest of the readers.

**The quoted text in original used “type writer” quotes around the statements by Becker. If they appear as “fancy” quotes, WordPress has distorted them.

If we look at the tendency of the fakery by Relotius, there are some that could be seen as potentially distortive Leftist propaganda including “Touchdown” (a piece on Kaepernick), “Jaegers Grenze” (bigoted White men vs. a Honduran woman), and “In einer kleinen Stadt” (people in Fergus Falls dislike Mexicans). Looking at the overall list from [3], I am inclined give the benefit of a doubt and assume that he is mostly looking for sob stories, “human interest” stories, and similar; however, it is noteworthy that journalists (in at least Germany and Sweden) tend to be Left-leaning and often slant their reporting accordingly. This includes Der Spiegel and, to a very high degree, its “Spiegel Online” (“SPON”) sister, where the mixture of low quality and ever-recurring Leftist thought eventually drove me away.*

*The last straw was an opinion piece calling for journalists to be activists, to throw away objectivity, and to fulfill their “democratic role” (“demokratische Aufgabe”) by telling people what to think—and it does so while painting an incorrect picture of the scope and (partially) character of immigration resistance, alleging Right-wing hatred while ignoring the larger problem on the Left, over-looking the already strong Leftist media-bias, etc. This is exactly what a good journalist must not do, and the fact that too many journalists have already gone down this path is a major reason why current journalism is so useless. Indeed, that piece was strongly on my mind when I wrote my suggestions for a new press ethics (cf. [6]).

Juan Moreno, who first* saw through the fraud and pushed for investigations, is an interesting contrast, giving me some hope that the profession of journalism is not entirely beyond redemption. To boot, I can sympathize strongly with his adversities through my own experiences as someone with the ability to spot potential problems, and who often has been met with disbelief worthy of a Cassandra or even the accusation of having a hidden agenda. (Later events have usually proved me right.)

*Or was he? Possibly, others preceded him, but lacked the integrity, courage, and/or persistence to achieve his results… [3] points to some known suspicions as early as 2017…

Excursion on my own experiences with the press:
I can give two pertinent examples relating to myself in the press (both from my youth in Sweden; both relating to “Bergslagsposten”, the small local paper):

Firstly, and fairly harmlessly, I was one of several library visitors polled by a journalist concerning our reading preferences. My answers to several questions were pieced together and presented as a much more fluent version—appearing to be a direct quote. (An interesting, but off-topic, parallel is found in a recent text on the German police.)

Secondly, I wrote several “letters to the editor”—that all invariably were mangled in various ways, e.g. through introducing spelling errors not present in the original or leaving out words. Some excuse might have been found in my poor hand-writing, but this continued even when I switched to typing.* I remember particularly well how repeated uses of “ideologi” (“ideology”) or one of its variations were changed to (likely) “idologi” through-out one text. The frequency of such problems was so large that I am not willing to apply Hanlon’s Razor. Instead, I must conclude that deliberate manipulations to my disadvantage took place. (While I cannot say for certain by whom, I strongly suspected a junior-staff member of the paper who was also a member of the semi-rabid youth organization of the Communist Party—seeing that my letters were often critical of the strongly Left-leaning Swedish society and that I was a known member of a libertarian and neo-liberal youth organization.)

*Note that this was at a time when computers and printers were much rarer than today.

Disclaimer: I wrote most of the above a few weeks ago. I have not verified that the various links contain the same contents at the time of publication as they did at the time of writing.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 13, 2019 at 8:22 pm

Older discussion of DN / Follow-up: The problem of too shallow knowledge / experiences in Sweden

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In a recent text, I discussed the decline of the Swedish news-paper DN (among other things).

In a much earlier text, dated 2009-11-03, I had already brought up some points relating to its decline, notably a severe attitude problem. This in form on comments on an online-chat* with the then editor-in-chief, who made a number of statements that are interesting both in general and in retrospect. It truly is no wonder that DN has failed as a news source.

*Except that it was no true chat at all, but just her answering pre-filtered questions in one sitting, as discussed in the linked-to text.

One question was “Where will DN be in ten years?”*, which is almost the time passed. The answer began “DN will still be Sweden’s most important paper.”*, which has not panned out at all in my eyes. (Discounting the question whether DN was the most important paper back then, which is dubious.) On the contrary, DN has made it self so useless that its importance in a weightier sense is very low. If it is important, the importance is increasingly more akin to that of the Kardashians than that of Benjamin Franklin. The answer continues “The number of readers is even larger through the online edition, and therefore our journalism has an even greater impact.”*, which is a hard claim to check. However: According to a graph on page 5 of a report (PDF, in Swedish), DN dropped from an estimated 905 thousand “print” readers** in 2009 to 570 thousand in the first quarter of 2018 (with a further decline until now likely). The “overall” (“total”) numbers beginning in 2017 confuse the issue and could be (mis-)construed to imply an increase, which I discuss in an excursion. Looking at some graphs for other papers, I suspect that DN has also lost ground relatively speaking (but I have not dug into the details and might well be wrong).

*In my translation from a Swedish original.

**Strictly speaking, if I interpret the very unclear source correctly, these numbers likely refer to the potential readers counted for e.g. advertising purposes. See an excursion on readers.

With great reservations for interpretation, my conclusion would then be that DN has lost readers both absolutely and relatively despite the online edition. However, in all fairness, the 2009 online edition was likely free, implying that the prediction was made under radically different circumstances.

Excursion on potential vs true readers:
The report speaks of “räckvidd” (“reach”), which likely includes e.g. all members of a subscribing household (or all in a certain age bracket), even if only one actually reads the paper. (Disclaimer: I might be off in the details, but the principle is correct.) These numbers are then likely inflated considerably above the true number of readers. The general trend should remain the same, however. If anything, I would speculate on the trend being understated, because of generational differences and different habits among the young “now” and “then”. (In other words, the children living at home were more likely to read the paper in the past than they are today.)

Excursion on numbers and types of editions:
There are potentially three types of editions (and DN uses all three): Paper, digital-but-not-web (e.g. as a PDF file), and web. It is not obvious how what is counted where, and this could distort the discussion. (Especially, if the treatment is different for different papers.)

The graph contains several measures. The line called “Total”, in my best guess, includes all readers of all three editions. The “Print” line likely originally was the paper readers, but after 2016 include “e-tidningsläsande” (“e-paper reading”), which I suspect is digital-but-not-web. The “Digital” line is very unclear, but might refer to the web edition, which would work well in conjuncture with “Total”, if we allow for a discount of readers who belong to both “Print” and “Digital” (leaving the “Total” number smaller than the sum of “Print” and “Digital”).*

*I suspect that the closeness of “Digital” to “Print” is just a coincidence, because the corresponding entries for e.g. Aftonbladet are quite far apart. If not, some closer connection might have been present and forced a different interpretation. The much larger “Digital” value for Aftonbladet is also well compatible with an interpretation as a web edition, because Aftonbladet’s web edition is free of charge.

If we work under this assumption, the “Total” number for 2018 is a highly misleading comparison for the “Print” number for 2009: There was a great number of web readers even in 2009. Indeed, there might* well have been considerably more of them than today, because the current version is “pay-walled”, while the 2009 edition was not. Also note that “Digital” has fallen throughout its few years of display, and that this trend might have been present earlier too. Correspondingly, I suspect that the drop** in “Total” had been even larger than in “Print”, had the number been available. Under no circumstance is it reasonable to imagine an increase of 166 (1071 – 905) thousand from 2009 to 2018. (This even assuming that the editions are roughly comparable. If not, the addition is even more misleading.)

*This boils down to a fight between the trend towards greater online activities and the loss of visitors through the pay-wall. Seeing that Sweden had a very large Internet penetration very early on, my money is on the latter.

**At least in absolute numbers. It might have fared better in relative numbers.

To boot, I suspect that the difference between potential readers (as reported) and true readers (more interesting) will be larger for the web edition. This partly because it is more convenient and more natural to share a physical paper than online access, especially if different computers or computer accounts come into play; partly because the lower price makes it less wasteful to have a subscription that only one person uses.

However, even if we were to look at “paying customers”, the calculation would be misleading. Yes, the number of these might actually have increased. However, this must be seen in light of a much lower* price for the web edition, with less money actually flowing in.

*Compared not just to the paper edition, but to the digital-but-not-web edition. The former difference might have been offset by printing and distribution costs, the latter is not.

Disclaimer:
I suffered a computer crash during late-stage editing. Some changes might have been lost.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 28, 2019 at 9:00 am

The problem of too shallow knowledge / experiences in Sweden

with 5 comments

During my recent travels in Sweden, I encountered other information sources than I usually do, including Swedish news-papers and Swedish TV. As a result, I saw quite a few examples of how common a too shallow or outright incorrect knowledge is, how this can lead to an incorrect understanding of e.g. a situation, and how important it is to gain a deeper understanding before forming strong opinions or demanding action.* This especially when it comes to topics like public policy, whom to vote for, what cause is worthy of support, …

*I have discussed similar topics, although often less generally, on a great number of occasions, e.g. in [1], [2], [3], [4], [5].

A discussion I had with my father over a cartoon of yogurt provides both a good example and an analogy for the larger problems—the difference between the advertisy claims on the cartoon and the truth revealed by the “nutrition facts label”:

The front of the cartoon proudly proclaimed 0.5 % fat*—the more extensive declaration on the back, in fine print, noted sufficiently much added sugar to ruin the energy savings from the reduced fat content, when compared to “traditional” yogurt. Indeed, since sugar is likely worse than fat, this might amount to a health**-downgrade… In the same way that many just note the front of the cartoon and do not bother to read the true information, so many rely on superficial, incomplete, deliberately angled, or otherwise flawed information in other contexts—even when better information is not that hard to find and gives a very different view. (Of course, many even better examples exist, including sugary candies advertised as “0 % fat”…)

*I might misremember the exact number, but the value was of this order.

**Here and elsewhere I use “health” (and variations) in a manner similar to the usual discourse. However, I caution that I consider this use simplistic, sometimes even misleading. Phrases like “healthy food” could even be seen as illogical, because an excess of virtually any food is unhealthy—just like a too great lack of variation.

Among the many other examples:

  1. We ate the yogurt with müsli—another food stuff traditionally considered healthy. Said müsli contained a considerable amount of candied fruits…

    My father happened to know* what he was eating, but many others do not. They know that müsli (and yogurt) is supposed to be a healthy food, go by reputation, fail to look at the specifics of the product at hand, and find themselves eating unhealthily* while believing that they are doing the opposite. The food business, I suspect, even deliberately plays on this, adding sugar and whatnot to make a product taste better** than the competition’s alternative—hoping that the customers will notice the taste difference, not the health difference.

    *Note that there is not necessarily anything wrong with picking a less healthy alternative when it is an informed decision. (Indeed, I often go by taste or convenience myself. Moreover, I suspect that fanaticism with healthy food can lead to unhealthy eating too.) The issue here is how often the decision is uninformed—or even misinformed.

    Here we have a good example of a special case: Focusing too much on the name, reputation, appearance, whatnot of the thing rather than on its true nature. This especially through changes over time (e.g. in what an ideological label implies or what goals a party has), appropriation of names/reputations/whatnot by others (e.g. any number of brands and marketing gimmicks), and confusing the characteristics of one group member with those of another (e.g. by assuming that two party members agree on a certain question, or that “corresponding” parties from different countries have the same ideology and policy in detail).

    *It is conceivable that the yogurt and müsli at hand were still better than many of the alternatives—and certainly better than chocolate milk and whatever passes for breakfast cereal among sugar-addicted children. However, more traditional versions would have been better, and the problem is not limited to these. Indeed, many even sabotage reasonably healthy foods by own manipulation, e.g. by drenching a salad in mayonnaise. A notable complication is that müsli is very high in energy to begin with, making additional sugar the worse an idea.

  2. The culture section of Dagens Nyheter* (DN) usually contained about as many articles on topics like society, politics, economics, …, as it did on culture. Those that I bothered to read invariably were written from a very limited understanding of the issue at hand and very often with a one-sided perspective or an unnuanced black-and-white world view. As a result the texts were uninformative, poorly reasoned, and often** off in their conclusions. To boot, they often had an ideological tilt.

    *A major Swedish daily news-paper, to which my father subscribes. Also see excursion below.

    **It is possible to be right for a poor reason…

    Broadly speaking: Some culture expert, “cultural intellectual”*, or similar** develops a strong opinion based on an understanding and intelligence that is not or not much better than the average, and is allowed to write about it for an audience of hundreds of thousands of paying readers. Those among the readers who are not themselves well informed and/or good critical thinkers stand a fair risk of being worse off for reading these articles.

    *For want of a better phrase and too differ from those who have a broader intellectual background.

    **I have not investigated the authors in detail and, in all fairness, it is possible that some of them have another background (e.g. as regular news-journalists, who simple happen to express their opinions in the culture section). However, because similar topics are covered in the main section too, and often in an editorial or opinionating manner, I suspect that the culture section is the playground of a subset of the staff. (This in contrast to e.g. to a system where some types of content appear in the culture section as a matter of course, with the word “culture” remaining merely for historical reasons.) Either way, the problems with the contents remain unchanged and worse than in the rest of the paper.

    (I cannot give specific examples, because these readings took place during my first visit. During my second, where my specific recollections are fresher, I either merely leafed through this section or did not bother to open it at all… Indeed, even during my first visit, the low quality usually lead me to stop reading before the half-way mark of the article at hand.)

  3. I encountered a great number of articles (by no means restricted to DN or, within DN, the culture section) based on or propagating weird misconceptions and misrepresentations of “gender issues”, including claims that rape would not be taken sufficiently seriously in Sweden or how too few reports lead to convictions,* that women earn much less than men,** that there are too few women in tech/politics/whatnot,*** and so on. As long as people do not have the depth of knowledge and the ability to think critically to see through such misinformation, the impact on politics, public policy, business, education, …, will be considerable.**** Sweden provides a nightmare example of this, but the problem is present in large portions of the rest of the world too.

    *A ridiculous claim considering how strong feminism is in Sweden, how laws on consents have been altered in an insane manner, how rape is presented in media, etc. With an eye on conviction rates, I point to portions of an earlier discussion of rape statistics.

    **See e.g. [1]. This topic should be stone-dead by now. It has been debunked again and again and again by so many people over such a long time span, but I see it dozens of times per year, including several mentions last week alone.

    ***Questions like suitability, interest, willingness to sacrifice for a career, whatnot, are almost invariably ignored—worse, it is often considered sexist to even bring them up as possibilities. (Note that this unscientific and misological attitude would be a very bad thing even if there were no differences between the sexes. Of course, science tells of considerable differences when looking at groups, and evolution more-or-less necessitates them.) Instead, there is a blanket assumption that any difference is explained either by (a) some version of “discrimination” or “oppression” (I am often left with the impression that there must be some secret club of cigar-smoking men deliberately plotting to keep women down…), (b) “structures”, societal indoctrination, whatnot (i.e. it simply is not possible that their might be some biological difference in e.g. male and female career preferences—differences in behaviors and preferences must have an external cause).

    ****A particularly blatant example of such an impact, if only for one day: DN reported that (probably) Berlin’s public transport would give women a 21 % rebate to “compensate” for the difference in income—without understanding that there is no unfairness involved in the original difference, which makes the rebate unfair. To boot, this might be one of the many cases where it would be more relevant to look at house-hold income, which is often to a significant part shared, sometimes even mostly under the control of the woman—an aspect which I have never heard mentioned in main-stream media and politics.

    That was on regular days. During my second visit, the International Women’s Day reared its ugly head again. Nine years ago (cf. [6]), I already wrote a very negative piece on this. This year it appeared to be worse.

  4. Luring out school-children to demonstrate for the environment (or any other major issue) despite the clear majority knowing and understanding little more than what they have been told. Most adults do not have a sufficiently solid understanding of these issues that a measure like a demonstration* would make sense—for a young student this applies even more strongly. Worse: In many cases, this is likely to be more of an excuse to get out of school… To take such actions without having a reasonable** understanding is irresponsible and should be condemned—not lauded.

    *There are very few cases where a demonstration is legitimate and effective at all, but here, for the sake of argument, I work on the premise that demonstrations are a reasonable idea in principle.

    **Such an understanding is not reached by reading news-papers and listening to teachers, but requires going to deeper sources one-self, to look at both sides of an issue, and to actually think. This is not to say, however, that the understanding must be perfect and the opinion unchanging—such criteria would bring everything to a stand-still. Certainly, a weaker dedication/action/statement/whatnot requires less prior effort than a stronger one.

    While not a topic I encountered during my visits, I am also reminded of the malpractice of parents dragging even small children to demonstrations to protest issues that the parents do not understand sufficiently, e.g. nuclear power.

  5. There appears to be an extreme aversion towards flying, including some member of the “Green Party” demanding a ban on intra-country flights. In earlier times, I have repeatedly seen news-paper articles complain that too few would “klimatkompensera” (“climate compensate”) when flying, which amounts to making a “voluntary” monetary donation to, in some sense, offset the environmental impact of the flight*—on top of already existing taxes and whatnot.

    *Which, obviously, does not work very well: In the short-term, the environmental impact is entirely unchanged; in the long-term, it is dubious that charities handle money effectively and efficiently. Indeed, I cannot quell the suspicion that there is some aspect of scam to this, aimed less at saving the environment and more at getting money to keep charities running and their leaders well payed. (But I have not looked into this.) Note how a similar scheme for cars would make more sense, but would also be harder to guilt people into for practical reasons—they use their cars everyday, but fly far less often.

    This shows a great lack of thinking:

    Firstly, the main problem related to flying is not the means of travel (i.e. airplane) but the distance traveled. Questions like “Is it a good idea to travel long distances during vacations?” should take precedence over “Is it a good idea to fly during vacations?”.

    Secondly, problems through air travel are dwarfed by problems through cars. If current air travel was kept constant and car travel was removed (in favor of e.g. train travel, walking, or non-travel; or reduced through car-pooling; or made more environmental through non-fossil fuels), the effect would be much larger. Indeed, many in e.g. Germany spend one to two hours per work-day just with a car commute—to which various other trips must be added. (And then there is trucking of goods and whatnot.)

    Thirdly, it is a myth that air travel is unusually “dirty”. It does compare poorly with e.g. train travel, but looking at the cost (in some sense) per kilometer compared to regular car travel, it is often superior.* Note e.g. that planes are reasonably energy efficient once cruising (but not when taking-off), that the environmental impact of construction is larger for cars on a per-seat basis, and that airplanes are much lesser contributors to localized concentrations of emissions in cities (which are quite hazardous both for the local environment and the people in the area).

    *Beware that comparisons are often made unfairly, e.g. through assuming a car with four passengers, when many (most?) real car journeys are made by a solitary driver.

    More generally, climate debate in Sweden invariably forgets that what the Swedes do matters far less than what e.g. the Chinese do. I am not saying that Swedes should ignore the environmental impact of their own behavior based on this; however, for a comparatively small group of people to endlessly optimize* its own environmental impact is not the most productive of strategies from a global perspective, with an eye on other groups and on the issue of diminishing returns. This repeats the airplane-vs-car error of not putting in the effort where it has the largest impact.

    *As another example: During my first visit, DN had an article on eating “klimatsmart” (“climate smart”) almost every day. Apparently, the most import thing Swedes can do for the environment is to cut down on meat and whatnots… Here a detail is optimized even when there are targets much more worthy of optimization, e.g. the Swedish use of cars or the Chinese eating habits. In addition, the very phrase is idiotic, using “smart” (undoubtedly for rhetorical purposes) where e.g. “friendly” would have been appropriate, and speaking of “climate” where the more general term (and priority!) “environment” would be better.

    Looking specifically at the suggested ban on intra-country flights: It is true that air travel is often sub-optimal for shorter distances, which will include most intra-country travel in at least European* countries. Still, going from Malmö to Kiruna by car might not be ideal… For shorter distances, we have to ask why people chose to fly: Either they have some reasonable advantage over other means of travel or they should be informed about the benefits of these other means. (Of course, if they do have reasonable advantages, an additional approach could be to improve other means of travel, e.g. by a faster train that removes a time advantage.) A ban simply makes little sense. Indeed, a part of the reasoning for banning flights was that there would be no point in travel by plane between Göteborg and Stockholm, because there would be no time saved.** But: If there is no point, why do people fly?!? Either there is a point or they need to be informed better.

    *Which tend to be small area-wise compared to the rest of the world.

    **In a twist, while my father was reading the article and I had only seen the headline, I argued that there was unlikely to be much of a time gain between exactly Göteborg and Stockholm, implying that there was unlikely to be a major reason to fly, implying that a ban on that route would be pointless. Then I read the article myself, and noted the perverted turned-on-its-head reasoning by the “Greens”… (Note that the time for air travel also includes travel to-and-from airports, time for check-in and security checks, and similar. When I had a weekend commute between Düsseldorf and Munich, I soon switched to trains for this exact reason—the time needed was about the same, but travel by train was less of a hassle and more comfortable.)

  6. A U.S. admissions scandal found its way into even Swedish news-papers: Some few rich and famous had bribed colleges into admitting their children.

    What went without mention is how fundamentally flawed and arbitrary the U.S. admissions tend to be: Without these flaws, this scandal would not have happened (or, at least, not as easily)—and there are far worse consequences. An article dealing with these problems would have been a much worthier undertaking, but the journalists were likely clueless. (And such and article might have had less entertainment appeal to the broad masses…)

    For instance, consider that Asian* applicants regularly need hundreds of points more on the SATs than Black applicants (and/or a corresponding difference in GPA). For instance, consider that many “jocks” that are not college material not only get into college, but actually get scholarships—taking places from some “nerds” that are college material.** For instance, consider that having the right connections, notably alumni parents, can be a greater benefit than scholastic aptitude.

    *Whites are often suffering a similar disadvantage, but (a) it tends to be smaller, (b) the focus on Asians is justified through demonstrating that e.g. belonging to a minority is secondary to something else.

    **A sometime suggested justification is that college sports help with paying for colleges. So far, I am not convinced by this line of reasoning, considering factors like the immense profits of many U.S. colleges, the costs incurred by sports programs that reduce the profit from the same sports programs, and the possibility that even sports competitions involving non-bought talents would also earn money. (Nevertheless, this is an area that could need investigation.) In addition, even if we assume that the gains would be sufficient to ensure that the “jocks” do not steal places from others, we have to consider issues like the devaluation of academic standards and the value of a diploma.

    (To detail a solution would be beyond the scope of this text, but I would tend towards looking only at proved (e.g. through GPA) and projected (e.g. through SATs) academic ability, and using other criteria only as a tie-breaker. An essay is out entirely, as too arbitrary; an interview should be an exception, seeing that it brings little value, that many college applicants simply are too young to interview well, and that interview success is unusually coachable.)

  7. A more everyday example is given by a brief conversation about crêpes vs. pancakes, where someone mentioned that “crêpes Suzette” might or might not have been invented or named by the Swedish Prince Bertil. I took the trouble to check—and its “not”: According to Swedish Wikipedia, which mentions the claim, the dish existed by that name no later than 1903, which predates the Prince’s birth.

    Now, I do not check every claim that comes my way, nor do I investigate everything mentioned as a possibility, but I do have an investigative attitude and I do check many things and read up more in depth on others—or, as when visiting my father, I ask questions when I believe that someone has more knowledge in a certain area.* Above all, I realize that my opinions cannot be set in stone—when I encounter no information, when old information is revised, when new arguments are presented, …, then I must be willing to re-evaluate my opinions. Most other people, including typical journalists and politicians, do not do this to the necessary degree (if at all). From day to day, the impact might be small—but accumulated over a life-time it is enormous.

    *And I do not claim that every text I write is researched and thought-through to the last detail—especially, because I often use the process of writing as a means of learning and as a stepping stone to a better future understanding. Nevertheless, I do better than the typical journalists, and I only rarely write something that I would consider an outright blunder afterwards. (An example would be assuming that Linnaeus did not use Greek.) More often, the research or thinking brought on by the writing has led me to forego a text entirely or to write a different text on the topic than I originally had intended.

Excursion on DN (and other news-papers):
When I grew up, DN was one of the two “big” morning news-papers (Svenska Dagbladet/SvD being the other), considered to be of very high quality and vastly superior to various local and evening news-papers. My father subscribed as far back as the 1980s, and I must have read hundreds of them during my many visits. (During my first year in college, my student dorm subscribed to both DN and SvD, and I read both each day.) Compared to the local news-paper that my mother subscribed to there was a world of difference, be it in depth of coverage, quality, or number of pages.

Now, it is possible that I would be less enthusiastic about the “old” DN, had I encountered it today—a part of my different evaluation is almost certainly rooted in my own development. However, there is objectively much less text today than back then, which tells in terms of depth and breadth of coverage. Worse, the current* incarnation of that local news-paper that I encountered when visiting my step-father was often superior—something unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago. And, no, while the local news-paper might (or might not) have improved, the main explanation is the drop by DN.

*In my youth, this was a separate paper, “Bergslagsposten”, which merely cooperated with and had the same owner as “Nerikes Allehanda”. By now, the former has been integrated into the latter. (While I only very rarely read the latter in my youth, it was of a similar quality level as the former.)

More generally, there are many news-papers that have grown worse over the years, and considering the low competence levels typical among journalists, the populist take, and problems like an ideological slant and the natural limits of the format*, I see little reason to bother: My advice is to get a brief overview of the events of the day from some online source, to dig deeper in other (typically also online) sources when something is of interest, and to focus more on building a solid knowledge of various topics than on news when reading. This has been my own approach for years.

*For instance, that individual articles cannot cover all angles in depth without growing too large and that there are often time constraints involved.

A detailed analysis of the problems with modern news-papers is beyond the current scope, but I note poor writings skills, a lack of critical thinking, poor knowledge, and an attitude aimed more at getting attention and entertaining than at informing. I note especially the idiocy of weaving together several logically distinct articles regarding a larger theme into one, e.g. through having one logical article dealing with facts and arguments, one logical article dealing with human interest and emotions (often even a sob story), and then throwing them together into a chaotic mixture—which is poor writing caused by a wish to entertain. An interesting example of attention getting is DN’s common idiocy of using a number (!) as the headline of a shorter news item. For instance, five lines dealing with recent statistics on X might be head-lined (!) by “35” (or whatever the number associated with X was). Another is the inclusion of images of the journalists themselves…

Written by michaeleriksson

March 20, 2019 at 5:08 am

Fire and Fury

with one comment

I am currently almost half-way through the controversial book Fire and Fury, discussing the early phases of Trumps presidency. After some internal back-and-forth, I have decided not to bother with the second half:

On the one hand, getting some insight into the Trump administration from someone who has seen it from the inside seems like a good idea, in light of both the extremes of Trump himself and the possible turning point in U.S. politics his presidency could (but need not) be.

On the other:

  1. The book is abysmally poorly written, be it with regard to grammar, style, structure, … My impression is that the author was told to have a certain word count ready by a certain date—and kept far more attention to that word count than anything else. If this is the work of an award-winning journalist, then I see my low opinion of journalists and journalism confirmed.
  2. The information density is quite low, and many of the claims are obvious speculation (including regarding the intents of others) or subjective opinions—often by someone else than the author.

    Much of the rest is off-topic. Indeed, to this point, a disturbingly large portion of the book has simply been very amateurish mini-biographies of various individuals related to Trump’s campaign or presidency. Now, these can have some justification, e.g. in order to understand who is who and what their places in the bigger scheme is, or what might motivate them—but is not justified to fill out most of the book in that manner and with this type of writing. Most of these biographies could be reduced to a single page.

    In the last chapter that I read, “CPAC”, pages are spent retelling events happening on stage…

  3. Much of the relevant information has long been common knowledge or easily predictable based on Trump’s history, making parts of the book less revelation and more reiteration.
  4. Books that fail to be informative can often compensate through being entertaining (and vice versa). This one does not…

The likely most worth-while point, in the parts read by me, is the take that Trump might not actually have wanted to be president, having instead seen the campaign as a publicity opportunity—and that this was something shared by some key figures in his campaign, who thought that they would lose but make themselves a name and improve their future opportunities. While I have heard somewhat similar speculation on a few occasions, it has never been on this scale. In a twist, this puts an earlier post of mine in a new light: What if a poor candidate, deliberately looking lose, is faced with so poor an opponent that he wins anyway?

A lot of the controversy around the book has arisen due to the reactions by Trump (and some other persons concerned) to it. Lacking own insider knowledge, I cannot judge to what degree the book’s portrayals of persons and events are accurate; however, even if we assume that the factual contents, per se, are correct, this book is bound to be seen as an insult: The way the book is written, the way virtually everyone is painted as stupid, naive, amoral, out of his depth, and/or otherwise unsuited for this-and-that, goes well beyond what is warranted in even a highly critical treatment.* Moreover, this must have been obvious to any even semi-qualified author, editor, and publisher. This leaves us with the question why this approach was chosen. In my current estimate, it is likely a deliberate attempt to provoke reactions and debate in order to drive up sales—which has, obviously, been quite successful. Other potential explanations include using existing** anti-Trump sentiments to … drive up sales; and an attempt to increase such sentiments for political purposes.

*A serious book would discuss the actual facts at hand and let them point the way for conclusions—and if the facts are bad this will be enough to achieve the right effect. Here we have a tendentious mixture of slights, speculation, negative angling, …, that falls only an inch short of literally calling people idiots. (In all fairness, my own writings have occasionally included even the remaining inch; however, this is a blog and not a best-selling book on politics—and I would rate the average level of diplomacy in my writings higher.)

**People tend to prefer to read things that confirm what they already believe—and there are millions of disappointed Hillary supporters (and other Democrats, and quite a few Republicans) who have extremely negative opinions of Trump.

Actually, there is one other very important question: Given how the author has proceeded, what degree of credibility can we give his book? It could be truth from cover to cover; it could be a pack of lies; it could be somewhere in between. (If the latter, what parts are true and what false?) Having no way of knowing which, my reasons for reading the book are largely voided: I wanted to gain some insights from within—and I am left with Trump might or might not be (or believe/have said/done/…) X, Bannon might or might not be Y, Kushner might or might not be Z, …

As an aside, Trump and I might share opinions about e.g. privacy and how house-keeping should behave (I have a few posts in the pipe-line that touch related topics), with the book saying things like:

In the first days he ordered […] a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.”

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 11:44 pm