Report your assumptions

Reporters have a tough job.  They are generally idealistic youngsters who place the public good ahead of their own accumulation of wealth and safety.  They are part of a new profession that changes rapidly, especially in our hyperfast information age.

Yet they make the job even tougher on themselves when they take a large amount of baggage with them in their travels.  It’s best to travel light so that you can move quickly, get all the angles, and then get out to report the story.

I’m not talking about baggage as in a change of clothes.  Goodness knows they probably can’t afford them.  I’m talking about assumptions.  Reporters, and their editorial teams, carry a lot of those around with them without even realizing it.  It may be the single greatest reason why some reporting networks attract highly specialized audiences – because of the unvoiced assumptions.

Here’s a case in point.  A story today on NPR talked about how great Finnish children did in school based on standardized tests, compared to other nations around the world.  As soon as the reporter opened her mouth, I knew that the story was already heavily biased because the statement was “Every child gets free preschool.”

Now, in all fairness to the report, this may be the magic answer to the unasked question, what can the USA do better?  However, it already biases the story.  There are so many other factors that go into school success that focusing on any one says all the other factors aren’t as important?

Not important?  What about parental expectations and assistance?  You know what I’m talking about, Tiger moms.  What about limiting other forms of child based advertising and entertainment?  What about the fact that the Finns have a very homogenous society.

I haven’t even gotten started on the statistics part of this, yet.  It’s one thing to say they score the best, ON AVERAGE.  What about the range of variation?  Is it possible that the best in the US easily reach or outdistance the Finns?  And what about components of education that can’t be measured by today’s standardized tests?  Creativity.  Ingenuity.  Resourcefulness.  Curiosity.

Reports are in our face, telling us stories.  To tell the whole story takes a bit more work, but we’re also going to get a more accurate picture of reality.  And in the end, isn’t that what we really want?

At least, that’s what I’m going to assume.



Story time; report!

Saturday is generally a home day, relax day, get lots of personal work done day.  Many people enjoy listening to the radio or video feeds at this time, some of which are news or public interest stories.  My wife enjoys NPR, whereas my old men breakfast bunch prefers FOX.  I enjoy silence.

What they forget, and what we as students of behavior must never forget, is that these “reporters” are telling a story.  They do not “report” anything, in the sense that they are reading a list of facts.  No listener would be able to stand that.  So they relate the facts within a greater context, told from their particular perspective.  The old men can’t stand the perspective of NPR, and my wife can’t stand the perspective of FOX.  We’ll talk about quality another day.

We, noble student of behavior, must remember that their perspective is one of many.  The facts are always questionable and should be verified.  Any overlay of emotion upon the story only serves to make it a tastier dish, but does not add digestible content.

Reporters are a relatively new profession in our society, and as such they represent progress of our civilization.  However, unless we understand how “news” is published, and what the limitations are within their profession, such stories can serve to make our jobs harder than they need to be.

As scientists, we need to remember one thing – it’s only the facts that count.

Report that.