Journalists are shoddy, innumerate liars says Google’s Director of Research, Peter Norvig


Cnn_shuttle_1 This has been around for a few months, so apologies if this is all old hat – but I thought it worth highlighting in any case.

Peter Norvig is Google’s Director of Research (which he says is the best job in the world at the best company in the world – more here). By all accounts, he is a clever chap. He is co-author of a best-selling textbook on artificial intelligence. Apparently he once aspired to be a reporter himself but has lately been "appalled” by the shoddiness of the craft.

So appalled that he has posted a lengthy piece of vitriol here about the shortcomings of the journalistic profession today. The whole thing is well worth reading (especially the bit about parrotting and inummeracy in financial reporting). Here are his four key findings:

  1. Parroting: The reporter’s job is to do research
      to find the facts.  But too often they seem to parrot back whatever is fed to them by
      press releases, politicians, or other news reports.  My friend Joe C. calls this
      the stenographic approach to reporting.

     

  2. Deception: Public figures lie (Marth Stewart, Kenneth Lay), and reporters do not know who
    to trust. Reporters lie, either to advance their career
    (Jayson Blair)
    or to serve the interests of their corporate sponsors. Sometimes the deception
    is self-deception: reporters (and others) believe what they want to believe.

     

  3. Innumeracy: Prof. John McCarthy has touted the
      slogan
      He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.
      Perhaps the budding reporters with an ability for arithmetic end
      up in other fields (like me),
      but it does seem that reporters repeatedly show they are not
      capable of simple multiplication and division.

     

  4. Equal Time: Perhaps influenced by the sports pages,
      reporters tend to see issues as a competition with two
      sides, which must both be covered.  Sometimes this is true, but
      sometimes one side is right and the other is objectively
      wrong.  Reporters should do enough research to determine who is
      right and say so.  They are too easily manipulated by those who have
      no facts on their side, but get equal press time anyways just by
      talking loudly.

Is Norvig himself being guilty of a less than thorough scientific approach ie is he extrapolating from too few data points to support his argument? Then again, if the CNN/Spaceshuttle example above is anything to go by, maybe he is on to something.

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