Friday, October 12, 2012

What is the job of a journalist, anyway?

I've noticed this really annoying pattern in a lot of media reaction to the debates over the last couple of weeks: A knowledgeable (relatively speaking, that is) pundit refusing to analyze the debate from her own informed perspective, and instead anticipating how the typical undecided, i.e. low-information1, voter is going to perceive it. Paradoxically, the typical low-information voter's opinion is going to be greatly shaped, whether directly or indirectly, by the verdict of the chattering class. So you wind up with this weird (and very stupid) manufactured reality, where the pundits think they are dumbing it down in order to make more accurate predictions, and in the very process manage to dumb down the entire election.

Imagine if other professions did this! "I went to my doctor because of a horrible pain in my knee, and she said it's probably a serious joint injury that requires surgery... but then she said most laypeople would just walk it off, so that's probably what I should do." "The pilot said that, counter-intuitively, you need to nose down in a stall situation in order to recover. But most people's instinct is to pull the stick back, so that's his plan in the event of an emergency."

It's fine to note, e.g. that some of the numbers flying back and forth in the first prez debate are likely to go over a lot of voters' heads. But a pundit has a responsibility to then go on and report on her own informed reactions to those numbers, not treat the candidates with disdain for daring to discuss actual policy!

It's moments like these when I have to remember something: People in publicly visible professions aren't any less likely to suck at their jobs than people in ordinary work-a-day careers. How many people in your office are clueless slackers who coast on doing an okay job, but not really bringing any special expertise to bear? Well, there's just as many people like that in the news room, I guess.

1I choose my words carefully here... That the "typical undecided voter" happens to be particularly uninformed is a statistical fact, regardless of what some may like to believe about independence, open-mindedness, non-partisanship, etc. To avoid giving offense, I make no judgment here about any individual undecided voter. I expect there are undecided voters out there who are very well-informed and take the issues very seriously, but they are highly atypical.