Sunday, January 22, 2006

Regression Analysis won't stop the Regression

Hugh Hewitt writes about the effort at Columbia J. School to improve the analytical tools of journalists. The new dean wants the students to learn how social scientists use regression analysis in their work.

Hugh is of the opinion that the demise of the dinosaur media is unstoppable. The internet affords real experts the chance to weigh in and no reporter can possibly be an expert in all areas.

Mark Tapscott thinks that teaching analytical tools is a good start, but points out that the problems of journalism today are bias and a reporting model based on "he said/she said" which fails to examine the accuracy of competing claims. Specifically, journalists "aren't even aware of their inability to pose the most basic questions and to then think through the possible answers in a logical and systematic manner."

This hits the nail on the head. The problem is basic competence in logical thought. And here is where I differ slightly from Hugh's take. Good trial lawyers who handle a variety of different types of cases are able to master the subject matter well enough to cross-examine experts. Often they learn how by conferring with their own experts. My point is that one doesn't have to be an expert to learn enough about a topic to be able to effectively present facts and opinion relating to it. The key is to be able to think clearly, ask good questions, work hard to understand both sides of the argument and develop a sense of what is missing. These skills are crucial for a good trial lawyer. Once he understands the subject, the facts and the law, he can use his legal communication skills to persuade a judge or jury.

These are the same skills needed by good journalists, including the ability to tell the story. And these skills will always be needed within whatever medium is used by news consumers. The ability to get the facts, understand the arguments, evaluate the relative merits of competing claimants and communicate the information to consumers will command an even greater premium in the coming years -- precisely because of the explosion of information on the web.

In the midst of all the information noise, consumers will gravitate to the news provider who has demonstrated an ability to provide accuracy and completeness in its coverage. Experts aren't usually adept at communicating complex ideas in a simple, understandable way (in court or in the news). Getting the expertise into understandable form is part of the role of good journalism. The best journalists of the future, regardless of the media, will be those who approach their craft with the skills of a good trial lawyer.


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