Diagramming Journalism

This bubble diagram is fun:


Its designer categorizes it as ‘whimsy’, so it’s not fair to demand a lot from the diagram. I love this sort of thing, though, so I can’t help wishing it were a bit more rigorous.

The degree of left-right skew (on the x-axis) is described in terms similar to the degree of rigour or integrity (on the y-axis). Utter garbage and conspiracy theories correlate tightly with sensational or clickbait. If it really compared publications on two dimensions, there should be some in the upper corners, combining a complex or analytical approach with content that’s utter garbage. What would those be, exactly? Maybe some specialty sites detailing astrology calculations or UFO-sighting timelines? Not really—how would one assign such a subject to the left or right in the first place?

No, the two scales need to be better differentiated. Because they aren’t, the chart (inadvertently, I’m sure) implies that careful, responsible journalism is found only in the centre of the political spectrum, which isn’t true. You can be a serious journalist and also believe in a centrally-planned, state-owned economy enforcing strict individual equality of income. You can be a serious journalist and believe that your country should be run by religious elders concerned primarily with enforcing moral laws and maintaining a traditional way of life. I’d consider both badly mistaken, but I wouldn’t claim that they couldn’t offer a complex, analytical discussion of the issues.

For instance, the WSJ and the Economist are, indeed, careful and analytical, and take responsibility for what they publish. They skew further right than shown, though. They’ll debate the costs and benefits of nuclear aircraft carriers, for instance, but never ask whether it’s right to build a weapon system exclusively to carry out mass murder on the other side of the world from the citizens you’re supposedly defending. It’s not a lack of journalistic rigour—it’s a matter of values and cultural assumptions. They assume the goal of military dominance, and analyze only the means toward that end.

There are similar problems with publications on the left. Some publish excellent long-form analyses of, say, the impact of technology on the environment, with great journalistic integrity. What they won’t question is the assumption that any low-tech or traditional practice is automatically wonderful, while wilfully ignoring, say, the infant mortality rate in pre-industrial societies. Preserving food with sodium chloride or potassium nitrate is traditional and hence fine; preserving food with sodium nitrite is modern and hence poisonous.

So I’d structure that diagram a little differently. If the x-axis was all about political position, and the y-axis all about integrity, we could spread out that top-centre cluster more meaningfully. Then there’d be the question of depicting the narrowness or broadness of a publication—you can publish only centrist opinions, or publish views from both the left and the right, and average out to the same ‘skew’, but with very different effect on your readers’ understanding.

Depicting this is an interesting problem, not least because the left-right distinction is pretty sketchy—the world is full of Greens who favour nuclear power, small-government individualists who think all recreational drugs should be legal, and people who detest both corporations and labour unions on the grounds that they undervalue happy idleness and value waged work for its own sake. Where do any of those fit on a left-right axis? Nowhere obvious. Walk into an off-grid traditional farming commune. Are the people sexually restrictive Amish or sexually libertine Hippies? No way to know—which tells us something about the supposed connection between religious views, economic priorities, and so on: there really isn’t one.

Again, the diagram was only supposed to be a bagatelle. The author isn’t proposing it as a serious tool for categorizing publications, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise by criticizing it. It’s just good enough, though, that I wish it were better—and as I’ve just shown, I really don’t know how to do any better myself.

Thanks to Price Tags for this…always a thought-provoking read, over there.

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One Response to Diagramming Journalism

  1. Pingback: Bringing Rigour To Whimsy | Price Tags

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