bioephemera

Just when I was wondering why there hasn’t been more mainstream coverage of the Jared Diamond/New Yorker lawsuit I blogged about at the beginning of this month, Columbia Journalism Review has an update. And in a recent article in Science, Diamond commented, saying “The complaint has no merit at all.”

Oddly, the Science article (which is unfortunately subscription-only) frames this whole situation as a conflict between different disciplines – mainly science and journalism.

Three worlds collide in this case. First is the world of science, specifically anthropology, which uses fieldwork and scientific methodology to study human cultures. Next is the craft of journalism, with its own set of ethics and practices aimed at reaching the general public. Finally, there is Papua New Guinea, a young nation still struggling to integrate many hundreds of tribes and clans into a modern state. For many years, Diamond, a physiologist by training, has worked in all three domains. (source)

As many people have pointed out, the New Yorker‘s heading “Annals of Anthropology” confused the issue: was Diamond’s article science or journalism?

Diamond says definitely journalism:

Both Diamond and [New Yorker Editor David] Remnick insist that such anthropological criticisms are irrelevant, because Diamond was working as a journalist for a popular magazine, not as an anthropologist writing a scholarly article. Although Diamond says he did not find out about the “Annals of Anthropology” line until shortly before publication and now regrets it, Remnick points out that the magazine routinely uses the “Annals” logo for stories not written by trained experts in the field at hand. Says Diamond, “Everyone knows that The New Yorker is not a scientific publication; it’s journalism.” That’s why he used the names Wemp gave him, he says. “In journalism, you do name names so that people can check out what you write.” Remnick agrees: “Journalistic practice differs from scientific practice in a number of ways,” he says, “and this seems to be one of them. Using real names is the default practice in journalism.”(source)

True – there are differences between science and journalism. We’ve hashed many of them out here in the science blogosphere already. But trotting out the tired old science/journalism dichotomy doesn’t explain away the problematic aspects of this case. Whether “Annals of Anthropology” was the title or not, Diamond is a professor of geography, and on the basis of his previous books, Guns Germs and Steel and Collapse, he is understood by the public to be a scientific authority who writes popular accounts of science. Any nonfiction piece he wrote was bound to be read in this light, and it’s disingenuous of him to suggest otherwise.

Anthropologists, unsurprisingly, want nothing to do with it:

“The New Yorker was wrong to imply that Diamond was an anthropologist or that what he wrote was anthropology,” says Dan Jorgensen of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, who has worked in PNG since the 1970s. Cultural anthropologist Alex Golub of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who says The New Yorker fact checker spoke with him for about 10 minutes while the story was being prepared, agrees. “This affects our discipline’s brand management.”

“This affects our discipline’s brand management” is a hilarious quote – but it’s also dead on. Because it’s not just the anthropologists who are concerned about their “brand”. Journalists are equally astonished that the story didn’t get properly fact checked or vetted. Alan Bisbort, a freelance journalist and author, has written an essay on the Diamond scandal at Stinkyjournalism.org (which broke the story).

Bisbort says,

Diamond is apparently not a journalist either. A story of this magnitude–one that accuses named people of committing capital crimes–demands multiple voices and carefully cited, verifiable sources. If you accuse someone (or an entire tribe) of murder and rape, you had better have a massive backlog of evidence on your side. To wit: By the article’s second paragraph, Diamond has accused Daniel Wemp of initiating and essentially overseeing a three-year revenge spree that “took…twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs.”

Such bold assertions not only require evidence, they mandate that the reporter get permission from those quoted to use their material in a published work or, at the very least, to make them aware that such information will be used in a published work. None of these basic cornerstones of journalism were put in place.

It’s interesting that the Science article is mostly concerned with Diamond’s story being misrepresented as anthropology or science in general, as opposed to calling it journalism – in which case perhaps the situation isn’t as bad, because journalism is, well, you know. The article implies that science’s “brand management” is Science‘s main priority. But I think that’s insufficient: bad science journalism inevitably reflects badly on both science and journalism. As Bisbort complains,

This only compounds my frustration over Diamond’s story because it hurts not just the venerable reputation of this magazine but also the entire profession of journalism, past, present and future. People predisposed to slamming the press now have more ammunition to do so. They may feel justified saying, “Hey, if The New Yorker doesn’t bother to fact-check its articles, then can you trust any print journalism at all?”

Exactly. Compare this situation – Diamond’s story in the New Yorker- with two other recent situations: researchers found to have falsified or overstated data published in peer-reviewed scientific journals (here’s one example), or Elsevier’s editors, who created no less than six fake peer-reviewed journals to advertise Merck products. See how intertwined the “brands” of science, science publishing, popular science and journalism really are? They’re all about integrity. Blaming journalism as a field for shortcomings in Diamond’s story gets us nowhere, because his story doesn’t just reflect badly on the New Yorker, or on Diamond; it reflects badly on publications that cover science, on experts who write about science, and on science in general. Even worse, this comes at a time when scientific experts need to be trusted by the public to make some pretty darn important assessments: climate change, infectious disease, energy – all topics with vast policy implications.

We can’t “manage” the “brand” of science by throwing journalism under a bus, because we need it: for better or worse, the mass media define the public face of science. And Jared Diamond, popular science writer, should know that better than most.

Columbia Journalism Review’s Craig Silverman quotes Science‘s reporter Michael Balter (which camp does Balter belong to anyway – “science” or “journalism”?) as saying Diamond and The New Yorker “thought they were being true to journalistic principles.” But Balter also goes on, ‘”The problem in this situation is that you’ve got a principal named source, and it’s basically a one-source story… If you can’t find the original source, then what do you do when you’ve got somebody named as being involved in criminal behavior?”‘(source)

How can that kind of reporting be “true to journalistic principles?” I am at a loss. And I really wish Diamond had a better answer for Science, or that Science‘s reporter Balter had pressed Diamond harder, because this whole “it wasn’t science” defense doesn’t do a thing for me.

PS. For more, Crooked Timber has some thoughts; also see the posts at Savage Minds.

Comments

  1. #1 woodstein312
    May 26, 2009

    Speaking as a journalist, I have two opinions here.

    1) Diamond made a huge mistake. Single source stories are only acceptable under certain circumstances, mostly when one knows the single source to be reliable or the only person who can speak with authority on a specific subject.

    In this case, given the gravity of the charges detailed in the story and the number of people available to interview (which sounds like a lot), Diamond could have and should have done a lot more to confirm everything. And the idea that this is science rather than journalism or vice versa, in my mind, is irrelevant. Three source confirmation — or at least three sources being involved– is the ethical standard for most news stories. Whether we want to call him a scientist or a journalist, Diamond should know better.

    2) “The complaint has no merit” Well, speaking in a strictly legal sense, Diamond might have a point here.

    Defamation and libel are legal claims that have to clear some very high hurdles in court to be successful. I don’t remember the exact criteria off the top of my head. But if memory serves me, the plaintiff has to prove 1) that the story is false 2) that the author KNEW the story was false and in some cases 3) that the author had a malicious intent behind spreading false information. Diamond is dead in the water on the first, but the second and third are going to be hard to prove.

    A lawyer might be better positioned to speak to all that but Diamond might never see a single penalty for any of his shenanigans in my opinion.

  2. #2 rhett
    May 26, 2009

    You really hit the nail on the head. The blurring lines between information and entertainment are as astounding as they are harmful. I think the most ironic example of a “journalist” being brought to task on this was Jim Cramer’s interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. A comedy anchorman criticizing a comedy investment guru for deceiving and defrauding the public. I enjoy Stewart, but if the state of media is bad enough that he has to be out best, last , defense, then they are bad indeed.

  3. #3 Ian
    May 26, 2009

    “I really wish…that Science’s reporter Balter had pressed Diamond harder”

    Diamonds are pretty hard already aren’t they? ;)

  4. #4 albion tourgee
    May 26, 2009

    Good points about what people consider “science”. I haven’t read the article, but Guns Germs & Steel seemed to me to be very interesting speculation but calling it science (or even nonfiction) is a real stretch. Likewise Collapse which has been criticized for ignoring evidence in its rendition of the Easter Island story as I recall. But hey, we are in a society where the Daily Show is where many intelligent young people get their news — not because of any pretensions that John Stewart makes exactly but because of the total vapidity and largely fictional nature of what passes for news in much of our media.

  5. #5 Larry Ayers
    May 26, 2009

    Very well-written assessment, Jessica! Now I’m questioning much of what I read in Diamond’s books. I’m a layman and I depend on science journalists to accurately cover and interpret scientific research; it’s a bond of trust, and once a writer’s integrity comes under serious questioning the result is that the writer’s later works will have to be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

  6. #6 Erigami
    May 26, 2009

    Your final quote sounds like someone looking to excuse bad behaviour:

    The problem in this situation is that you’ve got a principal named source, and it’s basically a one-source story… [...] what do you do when you’ve got somebody named as being involved in criminal behavior?

    It sounds like Diamond should have ensured that the criminal behaviour actually occurred, which, according to this post, it didn’t. (The man reportedly paralyzed by an arrow wasn’t)

  7. #7 Prudence
    May 26, 2009

    Piffle. The damning line is right there at the top of Diamond’s New Yorker-PNG article: “Annals of Anthropology”. He and the New Yorker have a lot of ‘esplainin to do.

  8. #8 Sprawdziany
    May 26, 2009

    Good job! Im glad to read that

  9. #9 mdvlist
    May 26, 2009

    Oh, squirm. Has the man no shame? What nauseating sophistry. You’re making me feel very good about never having bothered to open the copy of _Guns, Germs and Steel_ on my bookshelf.

  10. #10 Onkel Bob
    May 26, 2009

    It’s a shame Diamond let himself be taken the way he did and he deserves some opprobrium for it. Nonetheless, Wemp deserves some blame for his tales of fantasy too. Whether he expected it to be published is unclear; however, it is unquestionable that he spun a yarn, Diamond bought it, and now it’s Jared who has egg on his face. Perhaps the reason he resorted to this defense because he knows he isn’t a journalist, failed to follow through, and is thoroughly embarrassed at his screw-up. Now he’s in a corner, if he makes the claim of mea culpa then he, and the New Yorker, are sure to be punished. If he fights, he loses professional standing.
    This whole episode stinks, and I have no patience or trust in any of the parties. If I am going to have any sympathy it is for Diamond. Despite all his worldliness, he was taken to the cleaners. Do we blame the victims of the Madoff swindle? Well, yeah, because they should have known better than to trust someone who promises the moon. Nevertheless, the swindler deserves the punishment, not the swindled. As for stinkyjournalism.org, they’re just jackals and carrion eaters looking to use the misfortune and mistakes of others to inflate their position. To me, they deserve nothing but scorn and disdain.

  11. #11 luna1580
    May 26, 2009

    Onkel Bob-

    if you were to read the extensive amount of interviewing and fact checking done on the ground, phone, and email over at the stinkyjournalism site it might occur to you that it is very “questionable” if daniel wemp purposefully “spun a yarn.”

    it seems much more likely he told diamond several true tales of local relationships and tribal fights on several different occasions, which diamond absently took in while riding in a car, taking no notes or recordings. then, several years later diamond wound some threads from these stories into a fictional narrative in his own mind, getting basic local geography wrong, getting familial and tribal relationships of real people wrong, and making up “quotes” out of whole cloth from some stories he didn’t really remember and then attributing them to a real man.

    then he preformed one “private” interview with his “single source” -without much warning, and talking to a sleep deprived man, and providing us with no proof what-so-ever that he made daniel wemp aware of where the stories diamond was asking him about would end up.

    then he slapped some back-dates on some notes, and published his fictitious, grossly inaccurate essay using real people’s names and putting real lives in danger and figured no one would really fact-check it or care, seeing how PNG is so far away and “primitive.” and as far as the new yorker was initially concerned, he was totally correct.

    then he planned a series of lectures on this “material” where he stood to gain a $25,000 fee for each.

    it doesn’t matter if he’s saying “it was journalism, stop critiquing it as if it were science.” because it’s terrible journalism too!

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    May 26, 2009

    Nice coverage, and thanks for the careful write-up. Two quick comments for now:

    1) Diamond has written stuff that may seem to make him look like an anthropologist, but he is not an anthropologist. This does not change anything substantive in what you are saying here, but when people refer to him as an anthropologist, they are making an error. So, maybe I’m just another anthropologist who wants nothing to do with it…

    2) Regardless of whatever J.D. screwed up (or not) I will note out of fairness that many scientists have it in for him mostly for crappy reasons. Diamond, like Dawkins and in his day Gould take a lot of heat for going public and being successful writers of popular books. There is a bit of an edge to what some have said or written as they throw J.D. under the bus that comes from this history.

  13. #13 DrugMonkey
    May 27, 2009

    If any of his prior work is credible then what else other than anthropology? The description is about what is done, not about whether me has the proper credentials or wardrobe.

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    May 27, 2009

    DM: You are incorrect to assume that I’m basing what I’ve said on Diamond’s “credentials” (by which I assume you mean where he got his PhD from and what it is in). You are probably unaware of the range of his prior (and for that matter current) work. JD is a physiologist who has done a lot of work with birds that relates to ecology and biogeography. Later in his career he added to this writing popular books that dealt with issues that are definitely anthropology. In terms of his writing, his career involved said birds and ecology for 20 years, and that is where most, probably all, of his peer reviewed work is. The last 15 years or so (well, since The Third Chimpanzee in the early 90s) has involved a mixture of publications on ecology and biogeography and his three or four famous books.

    It is not necessary and possibly not even fair to force people into one category or another, but the man has a PhD in physiology, a 35 year publication track record in professional journals (and major academic books) in ecology and biogeography, teaches in those areas and some related medical areas. Oh, and he wrote four wildly popular books that happen to be classifiable as anthropology.

    None of which bears much relevance to the issue in question, except as context to the extent that a lot of people in various fields, especially anthropology, view him as a dilettante or an interloper and may be quite willing to join the blanket party for no other reason. This needs to be taken into account when reading comments about him.

    I feel somewhat the same way … Guns Germs and Collapse were singularly unoriginal and fast and lose with the facts. Good ideas that everybody in the field was already thinking woven through shoddily documented metadodata. Yet I’m glad the books were published because they have drawn significant interest to important issues, and they are not exactly wrong.

  15. #15 Sprawdziany
    May 27, 2009

    Hi, I agree with the above entry. Greetings thread author. Waiting for the next entries.

  16. #16 Joseph W.
    May 27, 2009

    To Woodstein’s comment – you’re part right. The standard you’re referring to is the strictest one, where the plaintiff is a public figure and the defendant is a journalist or media outlet – this was established in the case of New York Times v. Sullivan (article includes link to the decision itself). “Actual malice” can be knowing falseness or reckless disregard for the truth. Traditional standards still apply to defamation claims between private parties, so “actual malice” is not required.

    That may be part of the reason Diamond is taking this tack – he wants to be covered by the strongest standard, which implicates freedom of the press. (I haven’t read up on this current case, except for the blog posts here, so that is an extremely wild guess.)

  17. #17 Dacks
    May 27, 2009

    Ok, it’s not a scholarly article, but I get the feeling that it was true in essence – that relationships in New Guinea are often based on clan alliances that are cemented through ritual killings. The same goes for Guns, Germs, and Steel: it’s not “truth,” rather it is presented as an interesting hypothesis. I don’t feel mislead by Diamond, by reading him in the popular press, as I would by reading him in an anthro journal. He’s a thinker and a populizer, and he is good at what he does.

    That being said, if someone came up with evidence that the New Guinea Highlanders are a peaceful people who want nothing more than to live in harmony with their neighbors – well, then I’d reconsider my attitude.

  18. #18 Dacks
    May 27, 2009

    Are you blocking comments? I tried to post earlier, but couldn’t get on, so I went to Shearer’s site. Boy, does she have an axe to grind.

    I don’t believe Diamond needs to answer for the veracity of the stories he was told, in fact I don’t recall that anthropology is predicated on establishing the “truth” of descriptions given by the people in the study. He may have been overly gullible, but the basic argument of his piece still stands: that relationships among New Guineans are sometime cemented by ritual feuds and killings.

    As for Guns, Germs and Steel – intriguing, flawed and fascinating! I often consider his hypotheses when trying to understand happenings in current events.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    May 27, 2009

    OH … and metadodata is what you get when you write “pseudodata” and change it to “metadata” but need new glasses.

  20. #20 DrugMonkey
    May 28, 2009

    GL@#14:

    I’m reasonably familiar with JD’s areas of work, yes. I understand that he has *more* of an established body of work (and formal credentialing) in non-anthropological pursuits. And I certainly understand how subfields of science and academic inquiry would like to disavow someone who has just been busted for impropriety.

    Nevertheless you seem to be confirming that some of JD’s work, shoddy or superficial or sensational as it may be, is indeed anthropological in nature. What I am saying is that this falsifies your previous assertion that he is not an anthropologist. The nature of the work qualifies the term.

    To insist otherwise is an appeal to authority, in my view. I.e. to insist that some aspects of credentialing other than the work that is under discussion defines whether it is proper -ology or not. This then leads to all kinds of inappropriate distractions from the proper task of judging a given work on the merits.

  21. #21 Vicki
    May 30, 2009

    Dacks @17:

    “True in essence” might be an adequate defense for “relationships in New Guinea sometimes are cemented or affected by violence,” but not for “this specific person in PNG attacked this other person” without bothering to check whether the alleged victim had, in fact, been harmed. (“Did X do it?” can be a harder question, but if a reporter says “Alice killed Bob” they should make some effort to check whether Bob is dead.)

    Not having read the original article, I don’t know whether Diamond started with the sort of disclaimer you’re giving him credit for: i.e., “I’ve spent some time in New Guinea, and I have some ideas about how things work there. It would take more work to prove them, and I encourage other researchers to go to PNG, talk to people, and see how much of what I’ve suggested here pans out.” But I’d be surprised, because that sort of thing would be highly relevant, and I would expect it to have been mentioned by now. Few if any courts are going to be convinced, in a libel case, by “I didn’t say explicitly in this article that I was telling the truth.”

  22. #22 john l
    May 30, 2009

    Jesus, you people are incredible. I thought the whole point of anthropology was to describe cultural or societal systems without making value judgments. Which you seem capable of doing — except when the culture is different from your own. Then you scream in outrage, and suddenly culture or history or practice doesn’t matter, — no, you have an objective grasp of the ethics involved, and never mind that there are probably 100 times as many journalists in this country as anthropologists. Because *of course* sources should be granted anonymity, and *of course* the New Yorker’s fact checkers should have re-reported Diamond’s story (though mere peer review is good enough for academics themselves).

    Get it straight: journalism is whatever journalists do, and they could have called the article Annals of Your Grandmother for all I care. You guys can moan and complain and act hurt all you want: nobody cares if your brand is being diluted, and you just look infantile. (And by the way, the New Yorker’s “Annals of…” department generally doesn’t mean “Annals from…” so much as “Annals about…”, which, after all, is generally what ‘of’ means. Their “Annals of Hollywood” articles aren’t written by movie producers; their “Annals of Brain Surgery” articles aren’t written by brain surgeons.)

    If Diamond reports that Wemp told him something, standard practice calls for the New Yorker to check that Wemp did, indeed, say it: it doesn’t necessarily call for them to check that Wemp is telling the truth, especially if he’s mainly indicting himself. Whether it was true or not was Diamond’s call, and if he got it wrong, he deserves the blame, but a magazine doesn’t send a second reporter out to redo all the legwork of the first reporter. That would be ludicrous. If an army general says, “My guys accidentally bombed a wedding party,” I better be sure the general said that. But on the whole, it’s not necessary to fly into Baghram, take a car a few hundred miles into the hills, check for lace and count the bodies. If the general gets it wrong, he’s the one to blame. (It’s different, of course, if the general says, “My guys have never made any mistakes”. That you don’t take at face value.)

    More broadly, what on earth makes you so sure that your own customs are objectively more fair or ethical? Take a step back and listen to yourselves. You sound as intolerant, narrow-minded and provincial as Jerry Falwell. Honestly, you sound like a bunch of bumpkins, and of the very worst sort: the kind who are so blinded by self-righteousness, so sure of their own practices, that they can’t even picture a world in which people do things differently.

  23. #23 luna1580
    May 31, 2009

    john l:

    I thought the whole point of anthropology was to describe cultural or societal systems without making value judgments.

    you’ve missed one vital element of this:

    -the whole point of anthropology is to describe cultural or societal systems honestly without making value judgments.-

    it seems that this whole incident may have been fueled by diamond failing to treat PNG’s tribal people’s with the same care for facts and reality he would treat his fellow US citizens to. and that my friend would be a negative bias against them and their culture, a racist act if you will -not us noticing that he did it!

    your own self-righteous indignation is woefully misplaced.

    have you even bothered to read the details of what happened really here over at http://www.stinkyjournalism.org/

    your post is shamefully ignorant.

  24. #24 Jessica Palmer
    May 31, 2009

    John I – a small recommendation: instead of using a blanket “you” when engaging in an argument, you probably ought to specify exactly who you are addressing. You seem to be directing your criticisms toward anthropologists, but there are very few anthropologists engaged in this discussion on this post. Also, many of the commenters on this post are disagreeing with each other. So it’s rather hard to figure out who you are attacking so vehemently.

    As for “journalism is whatever journalists do:” no. It’s not. If an unscrupulous or incompetent journalist fabricates or distorts a story, that’s not journalism. It’s fiction. And that is precisely why Bisbort is criticizing Diamond: because Diamond claims to be acting as a journalist in this case, yet did not adhere to standards other journalists take for granted.

  25. #25 Jessica Palmer
    May 31, 2009

    PS. Dacks – no, we aren’t blocking comments. Sorry for any delay you may have seen in your comment appearing, but Scienceblogs’ back end has been a complete mess for the last two weeks – I couldn’t get on to comment (or post) myself for two days. It is still rather slow – please have patience. ;)

  26. #26 john l
    May 31, 2009

    @luna1580: Way to go. Someone disagrees with you, and, instead of addressing the points, you start invoking racism. This is what happens when you run out of argument.

    @Jessica Palmer: Quite right: my “you” was too broad.

    Let me narrow it a bit: Bisbort writes primarily for a suburban pennysaver, and is the author of such immortal classics of hard-hitting investigative reporting as “Someone Stole My Bicycle”. Given the choice between his interpretation of journalistic ‘standards’ and David Remnick’s (and for what it’s worth, Remnick has a Pulitzer, too), I’d go with the latter. Which is not to say that Diamond is right, but only that reasonable and sufficient steps were taken by the magazine to ensure that he was. The standards of hard science aren’t enough to completely weed out fraud, either. That doesn’t mean that the standards themselves are wrong.

    And is fraud even the right concept? It seems unlikely to me that Diamond “fabricated” the story, though it’s possible that he did. As for “distortion”, that’s a very slippery concept, in both social science and journalism. Much of what I read in newspapers and magazines is, let’s say, based on premises that are profoundly different than my own. And the more I know about a subject, the more likely I am to disagree with something someone else says about it. But I try to refrain from accusing someone of outright, deliberate deception, because it’s a dead end. It just leaves people screaming at each other about ‘bias’ and whatnot, and it’s usually a distraction. In this instance, for example, I think we’d be far better off asking, ‘OK, what’s another way of looking at PNG culture?’, rather than bickering about whether or not Diamond is ‘really’ an anthropologist.

  27. #27 Jessica Palmer
    May 31, 2009

    @John I: I chose to quote Bisbort not because his prestige is greater than Diamond’s or Remnick’s, but because I thought his criticism was well-written and sensible. One of the points I have made in my two posts on this topic is that this controversy is alarming because of Diamond’s background as a renowned popularizer of science and the New Yorker’s own phenomenal rep. I originally read the article, thought, “this is really weird,” but then gave it credence given the credibility of the source(s). That may have been a mistake.

    Clearly there are factual errors in the piece (for example: the paralyzed guy who isn’t paralyzed). I don’t care if you have a Pulitzer or not: journalism is not supposed to have glaring factual errors. Veteran science writer John McPhee’s loving article about the New Yorker fact-checking process (which I highly recommend) indicates that the New Yorker historically has tried diligently to catch such errors. Why they didn’t do a better job here, I don’t know.

    I also don’t know (as I say in my posts on this subject) whether Diamond was misled, careless, unscrupulous, credulous, deceptive, or what. Rhonda Roland Shearer appears to have her opinion, but I think one of the reasons big name journalists (whom you might respect more than Bisbot) haven’t spoken out is because the facts and motivations here are still so murky. Diamond himself hadn’t commented until he did so to Science. Anyway, don’t overstate my position: I’m not saying Diamond committed fraud. We don’t know that. In this post, I’m criticizing Diamond’s own representation of his actions to Science. Whereas in my previous comment I was clearly quoting and replying to YOUR comment that “journalism is what journalists do.”

  28. #28 john l
    May 31, 2009

    Well, OK, but you did say, “Journalists are equally astonished that the story didn’t get properly fact checked or vetted” — and yet Bisbort is the only journalist you quote. So I’m not the only one prone to untenable generalizations. Later, you say, “big name journalists…haven’t spoken out”. Can you explain, then, who you’re referring to in the first quote?

    I think you’ve chosen a poor representative. For example, Bisbort insists that Wemp didn’t know he was being interviewed. He says reporters are obliged to make subjects “aware that such information will be used in a published work”. What makes us think that Diamond didn’t? Wemp himself says that Diamond took out a notebook (red, I think), and took copious notes while they talked. Surely if some American guy comes through and writes down everything you say, you have a pretty good sense that he’s recording it. Maybe not for the New Yorker, but what difference does that make? Would it be any different if Diamond was taking notes for his next book? If I record a conversation with someone who understands that I’m recording — that is, not using secret microphones and so on (though journalists will, in some rare cases, do this, too), aren’t I entitled to use the information however I see fit? What if Diamond hadn’t decided yet how he was going to use it? Is he obliged to get back in touch with Wemp and tell him it’s going to be in the New Yorker? It might be a nice thing to do, but I don’t see how it’s required. What if the New Yorker turns down the piece, and Diamond sells it to The Atlantic, instead. Is Diamnod required to get back in touch with Wemp and tell him the outlet has changed? These are, at the very least, questions without obvious answers. And frankly, I think Bisbort either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or is so intent on exercising his indignation that he hasn’t thought this through.

    Indeed, Bisbort doesn’t seem to realize that fact-checkers almost *never* check quotes. That is, if I write a piece in which I quote a city councilman as saying that utility bills are too high because the Mayor’s corrupt, a fact checker will check my notes, or recordings, to make sure the quote is in there, but very few magazines will check with the councilman to make sure he admits to saying that. There are many reasons why you don’t. For one, if the councilman denies it and the reporter insists on it, you have to decide who to trust, and you’re almost always going to trust your reporter, so why bother asking the councilman? People often deny that they said controversial things. Another reason: if you call the councilman and ask him if he said this, you’re giving him a heads up on a story that may not come out for a few months, which gives him time to start a spin counter-attack before you’ve even gotten into print.

    Granted, Wemp isn’t a councilman, but the first reason, at least, applies. Bisbort should know this. If he does, he’s misleading you; if he doesn’t, he’s not qualified to write about magazine fact-checking.

    Of course journalism is not supposed to have glaring factual errors. But who’s error is this? If I’m interviewing an Apache, and he tells me that his great-grandfather once fought in a battle in which 15 Cherokee were killed, can I not report this unless I know that such a battle took place, and that exact number of Cherokee were killed? Would an anthropologist use this anecdote? — Of course they would. The relevant fact here is what the first Apache said, not what his great-grandfather did.

    If I’m interviewing a mafioso hitman, and he tells me he’s killed 12 guys — Tony the Donut, who was thrown off a bridge, Vito Three-Chins, who was shot outside a deli on Ludlow Street — am I required to check that all those guys died, in just the way he describes? It might be a good idea, but I don’t think it’s an ethical must. What if I’m not writing a history of the Mafia, but a study of mores and story-telling styles among hitmen? Does that change things?

    I like McPhee: I think he’s a first rate journalist. But he generally writes about the hard sciences, where facts are easier to come by and easier to check. I suspect that if you went back and looked at his piece about the long haul trucker, or lacrosse, that you’d find a slightly different approach to facts, both by him and by the New Yorker. And I would be very surprised indeed if someone, somewhere, didn’t feel like they’d been misrepresented.

    My point here is not to exonerate Diamond, or to give him a free pass. My point is just that sometimes a perfectly good system results in errors. Those errors need to be corrected, and sometimes the system needs to be changed. But sometimes it doesn’t. More to the point, I think this whole mess has given a lot of people — though not necessarily you — an excuse to climb way up on a high horse, without actually bothering to think about what actually happened. I don’t think any of us, in the social sciences or outside of it, have such a clear notion of what’s an ethical method and what isn’t.

    An example of this — I’ll be brief. Journalists are almost always expected to name their sources. Anthropologists, apparently, are expect to make theirs anonymous. There are many reasons, on both sides, for this. But are you so sure one side is right and the other wrong? If I read an anthropology paper, I don’t say, “Hey, these are all anonymous sources! This is lousy journalism!” I’d think, “Hm. These guys do things differently. I wonder why.” To do otherwise is to criticize a fish for not being a chicken.

  29. #29 Jessica Palmer
    May 31, 2009

    “Journalists are almost always expected to name their sources. Anthropologists, apparently, are expect to make theirs anonymous. There are many reasons, on both sides, for this. But are you so sure one side is right and the other wrong?”

    @John I: I don’t take a position on naming sources or not. What I state is that in this case, the distinction between science (anthropology) and journalism was blurred. Not only was “Annals of Anthropology” a misleading title, but given the piece itself, naming sources AND being a memoir AND being a one-source story yet not making that clear, readers weren’t sure what the article was supposed to be. This blurriness hasn’t made anyone happy, now, has it?

    As to your other assertions, I have actually fact-checked quotes myself prior to publication by calling the named sources. It appears you haven’t. We have different experiences of fact checking then. I don’t get my understanding of fact-checking from Bisbort. Also, the facts that Diamond got wrong – like a guy being paralyzed who isn’t – ARE hard facts. stinkyjournalism.org was able to check them.

    As for your assertion that because Bisbort is the only journalist I quote, he’s the only one who has commented on this, that is a rather bizarre extrapolation. For example, over at stinkyjournalism.org, both journalism professor Edward Wasserman and Bill Kovach of the Committee for Concerned Journalists are quoted. Perhaps they have credentials you respect more than Bisbort? I’m afraid I don’t have the time to try to track down every journalist that has commented on this. But you’ll note, I said in the post that I was surprised I hadn’t heard more about this in the media. Some journalists have expressed concerns, but not large numbers of them, at least that I have seen/talked to. It’s neither “none except Bisbort” nor “all journalists en masse.”

    Honestly, it seems to me that you are trying to provoke extreme assertions from me about Diamond’s guilt or innocence. I’m not going to make such assertions because I don’t have the data to support them. The situation isn’t black and white, and I’m not going to go along with pressure to make black or white statements about it. Sorry.

    “I don’t think any of us, in the social sciences or outside of it, have such a clear notion of what’s an ethical method and what isn’t.”

    Now that I agree with, and think it needs more discussion.

  30. #30 john l
    May 31, 2009

    I’m sorry if it looks like I’m trying to provoke you. Most of my arguments here are directed, not at you but at other people who have commented on the story here, and, to a much lesser extent, the general sense of how this story seems to playing out in the academic community, which I’ve culled from a number of sources. It can be a little tedious and distracting to preface each statement with the name of the person I’m addressing it to, but you needn’t assume it’s you.

    For the most part I think we agree. I mean, I still think the Annals of Anthropology header would be perfectly understood by any regular reader of the magazine. As for checking quotes with their sources, only one magazine out of the 20 or so that I’ve written for does it, but I’m willing to believe that your experience is different. In any case I don’t think it’s an obviously ethical thing to do.

    Cheers,

    john l

  31. #31 David Bruggeman
    August 9, 2009

    According to this Financial Times piece (H/T Roger Pielke), Diamond is working on a book about “what modern civilisation can learn from tribal societies.” Unless he manages to not include this story in the book somehow, it seems like we might be able to revisit this tale sometime in the future.

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