Editorial and News
Editorial and news really are often quite separate, with the Wall Street Journal as an extreme case. I get it for the numerous excellent articles and rarely look at the Op-ed section, except that every once in a while, they actually say something rational. I once discussed the separation with a Wall Street Journal reporter, who started by saying the Editorial gang were “evil neocon dinosaurs,” then moved to less-unrepeatable things.
But, let’s think of proactive measures with regard to the mainstream media.
Reality for Reporters
Having over the years spent a lot of time talking to reporters worldwide and trying to help them understand complex technologies:
R1. The normal distribution applies as elsewhere: there are terrific reporters, there are (mostly) average ones, and there are awful ones, either for incompetence or malice, or both. I’ve mostly seen the former, but I’ve seen several cases of the latter, where people were determined to find dirt, even if they had to use a steam shovel to excavate a square mile to find any, and if they didn’t, to declare rocks as dirt. I’ve been in a couple of interviews like that… and if somebody is really into malice, it’s hopeless.
Still Napoleon’s advice is appropriate. I once had to explain RISC microprocessor design to someone who had just taken over Technology … after doing the Cooking section. She tried hard.
R2. Reporters are busy, and they have deadlines. They usually cannot devote years of study to some topic, especially a complex one, they are barraged with disinformation, and have a lot of pressure towards “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand”, as well as pressure for short-term news.
R3. Even the best ones can screw up.
R4. Even fine ones can get screwed up because sometimes they don’t get to write the headlines, and sometimes the headlines really are misleading. I had one like that, where an innocent interview I did with a terrific Wall Street Journal reporter … dropped my company’s stock 15% in hour or two. If that seems unlikely, see:
How I lost 15% of a Company’s Stock Value in a Few Hours
Proactive actions with reporters
A1. If your think a reporter screws up (but is not hopeless), write email to them, including useful pointers to relevant sources. Be nice. Try to be helpful. Try that first, before bashing them in letters to the editor, even if they deserve it.
Occasionally you will even get back an email that says “Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for your resource-rich comments.” Reporters are human, they like to know someone is reading, even if you disagree with them.
A2. If a reporter writes an insightful story, let them know that also, since most of the time, they get nothing but complaints.
A3. Sometimes, if you establish yourself with a reporter as having useful knowledge, they may even ask you beforehand, or even run story ideas by you. Really good reporters have big Outlook files.
Bloggers: if there’s a good story, write something good about it, and then email the reporter: “hey, I liked your story and I featured it in my blog.”
A4. Pick a modest handful of reporters with which to build up rapport, even if it takes a couple years, and half a dozen emails. In particular, try to take good care of any reporter who actually replies (non-negatively) to an email.
A5. If you think a story was good, and you guess a reporter had to work hard to get it past an editor, send an email to both saying “great story.” Put another way, praise should go to the boss as well, negative comments might or might not.
Proactive actions with editors
A6. Letters to editor are too short to say much, but every once in a while you can get something through. If you find letters to the editor filled with “global warming is a hoax”, try sending a longer letter to the editor explaining the situation. I’ve done that with several local papers, and the frequency of the silly letters seems to have gone down.
A7. If there is a silly OpEd, try suggesting to the Editor some expert to explain the other side. I don’t know if my suggestion had anything to do with it (since others must have surely done so), but the San Jose Mercury News published a really bad op-ed once, by a denialist with a real axe to grind. I wrote them asking why, with Stanford a few miles away, they didn’t ask a real world-class expert like Stephen Schneider to write an op-ed… and in another week or two, that’s what appeared.
Local vs national/international
A8. Local papers: small local papers print lots of junk letters, but the best you can usually do is encourage editors NOT to bother printing any letters about global warming, reasoning that arguing that out in the letters to the editor columns of a local paper makes no sense, and they should concentrate on what they do well. Offer to take them out to lunch and talk about this.
Of course, how much luck you have with this depends on where you are. I’m in one of the easiest places on the planet for this (Silicon Valley), and even here, it still takes attention.
A9. National/International – if you regularly read some widespread newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Intenational Herald Tribune, or (maybe) the Washington Post, see if you can find a few reasonable reporters, encourage them as above. At least, in the Web era, they’re easier to watch. Are there any reasonable reporters at the Post? If so, find them, cultivate them. There is, of course, little chance of getting into letters to the editor.
The main international one for me would be The Economist, which actually responds more often than I’d expect.
Reporters are human and are normally-distributed by abilities. Find average-or-better ones and help them, and don’t expect goodness to happen overnight.
This post, except for the stuff in italics, was written by John Mashey.