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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Now The Details" - An apologia

As a recovering journalist, the rationale for this blog is to try to determine what works and what doesn't in media. My name is Jeffrey Dvorkin. For six and a half years (2000-2006) it was my privilege to be NPR's ombudsman. In that time, I wrote a weekly column on NPR's website while taking the best critiques from the public and passing them along to NPR journalists and management for their response. The aim was twofold: to create an environment of accountability and transpency inside an organization that, too often, (and like most other news operations) was oblivious to the public desire to be part of the process. The second part of the job was to raise those same standards among the public.

It was the most fun I ever had in more than 30 years in journalism (even including two death threats that has the FBI called in). In that time, I estimate that I heard from more than three quarters of a million people. It was mostly an email phenomenon, but there was a large measure of phone calls, actual USPS delivered letters(!) and frequent calls from the front desk at NPR saying that someone had come in off the street wanting to talk to me.

My hope is that some of that dialogue might resume on this blog.

My choice of the title is one that I created for a media analysis program on CBC Radio where I was Managing Editor from 1991-1997. The phrase, "now the details," was spoken by the stentorian toned CBC newscast announcers after running through the headlines at the top of the cast. "Details" are where we know we can find the devil. Or god. Or both. And that is what good media should do. Find the details and determine whether they are any good or bad or simply foolish.

I hope you'll join me in that process.

Let's start with a look at the failure of the pollsters to predict the outcome of the New Hampshire primary.

During the 2000 election, in my role as NPR Ombudsman, I wrote a column for suggesting that NPR not report polls. The response from inside NPR was astonishing and hostile. One reporter asked "but what would we have to talk about?" Others suggested that I was only reinforcing NPR aura of elitism by not going along with the rest of the pack.

After New Hampshire, I will gather my schadenfreude while I may. But I think that we in the media use polls like crack cocaine. It's addictive and gives us all the illusion of insider knowledge. But most polls are poorly done, (there are some exceptions, but they are usually academic and take a longer time to produce). Polls often fail to inform the public about the sample size, when the poll was taken, the nature of the questions, whether there was a "return to sample", whether the poll was done nationally (and not such 200 calls in NY, 200 to LA and 3 in Houston. That ain't a national poll, folks). Polls done close to the election are more suspect because they are frequently push polls (designed to elicit a particularly partisan response). A surprising number are "omnibus" polls...those are tacked on to the end of marketing polls - "Do you like Sunlight Soap and who are you voting for?"

News organizations should take the money budgeted for polling and spend it on hiring more reporters. Shoe leather beats polling every time. Polling companies understand that news organizations are suffering from diminished editorial resources, so they offer up polls which are reported as pack journalism, instead of allowing more valuable independent reporting to take place.

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