November 30, 2009

We Have Breaking News: You Don't

breaking news.JPG

a picture is worth a thousand words but a picture of a word is priceless


Michelle: Scott Wapner is our eye on the floor on the New York Stock Exchange. Scott. 

Scott: Thanks Michelle, well, you said it, it's that 1042 level that has me concerned...

There he is, he's not CGI, he's not been digitally enhanced. He's a real person, telling us real facts.

Note the production.  Michelle is in studio surrounded by monitors and newspeople and information. But she's turning it over to someone who is on location. This is a deeper level of truth, he'll have insights and information she/we won't have because he's there.

Listen to the noise; he's talking loudly over the bustle of the traders behind him.  Raw info.

But what's he going to learn?  50-75% of trades are program trades.  Does he speak Bachi?   And it would be an easy thing to have him mic'd and filter out all the background noise.  But the noise is necessary to the drama. It's background music.

Note how he keeps looking to his left, as if the S&P is over there having a sandwich.  But the only thing over there is another monitor telling him the price. He has no more information than Michelle at the studio; which is to say, no more information than anyone else.  In fact after 20 seconds, all he does is show pictures of charts, none of which are at, or are generated at, the NYSE.

"Over at the Nasdaq Market Site" it's even worse:  the entire Nasdaq is electronic. The only guy making money at the Nasdaq market site is the reporter. His anchor could pull the quotes off Yahoo! Finance and it would be the same.  In fact, those screens have less information than Yahoo! Finance.  In the land of one eyed men, we're listening to a blind guy.

All of this isn't to deliver better information, it is to convince us that they have better  information.

Scott Wapner doesn't know why the market went down, but, importantly, the structure of CNBC makes it is impossible that he could ever know.  The simple truth is that in the short term, the market went down because the Machines wanted it to go down.   If you want to know why they wanted it to go down, you'll have to ask them. 


This is the same setup one sees in ordinary news; an anchor leads a story, then hands it off to someone in a different location: closer to the truth.  Sometimes, this on-location reporter will play a snippet of a prerecorded interview, e.g.

I'm John Roberts, live at Capitol Hill, and earlier today I had the chance to talk to Senator Hutchinson...

and then they play the interview. So what's the point of standing on Capitol Hill if the information you have is neither live nor from Capitol Hill?   Because you watched.

Sometimes they'll play a muffled audiotape, and because they are so helpful they will also write the transcript on the screen.  This can always be recognized as a trick. The transcripted words draw your eye and concentration, so you see the words they want you to see, in their context, not in the original context.  Imagine reading vs. hearing the voice message of a surfer dude charged with killing his girlfriend: "come on over, baby, this party is going to be killer..."

This is especially true when the audiotape is transcribed and the transcription is read by a reporter. When you see that on TV, flee the area, your soul is in peril.


Medical journals are CNN.

Everyone has access to published clinical trials.  But nobody reads them, because there are review articles out there which summarize them.  Note the direction of causality.  Reviews don't serve a need, they create a market-- for themselves.  That's also what the press does.  I see you furrow your brow, "wait, what--?"  Read it again.

Listen closely: since you at home have access to all the clinical trials, you could theoretically write a review article and publish it.  But you can't.  Only academics can.  You may have written an excellent review article, but in order to publish it, you have no alternative but to enlist the help of an academic.  That's the news, too.  The only way to tell the world what you know and make it legitimate is it to tell Wolf Blitzer first.

Those reviews will get published in the same journals as the clinical trials themselves, giving them credibility. When I reference a paper, no one asks if I'm referencing a primary source or  a review article.  The existence of the reference is its own proof of validity and objectivity.

No one ever says, "The Telegraph says, 'Societe Generale says, 'prepare for a collapse.' ' " They say, "Societe Generale says prepare for a collapse."  Oh, I didn't know you were tight.   Can you have them call me?


Aside: even Societe Generale does not correct the Telegraph.


No, sorry, yet another typo-- of course I didn't mean "Aside:" I meant to type: "What could be the significance of Novartis not correcting the media's description of the swine flu?  But:"


Sometimes a review article will include a quote or a table from a primary source, just like a news team does.

Bad enough: you don't look up the quote or the table. Worse, the purpose of the quote or table isn't to enhance your understanding of the material but to give credibility to the review. It makes you think that you are seeing a deeper truth; the review has layers to it, the review level and the primary source level.  You have two levels of truth on those pages.

Never mind you could simply read that reality yourself and skip the review level, which is, essentially, one nut's opinion, unchecked by anyone, positioned as truth.  But the presence of that table guarantees you will not do this ever again.  "This review is comprehensive and extensively referenced."  That's true. 


Medical journals are rarely accused of ideological bias, they are accused of financial bias.  The press are rarely accused of financial bias, they are accused of ideological bias.  If you studiously spend one month looking for the opposite bias in both, what will happen is that you will become an alcoholic. 


"Let's get down to our eye on the floor of the NYSE, where we have some breaking news."  But aren't the barbarians in Greenwich?



Now you're cooking with gas... (Below threshold)

November 30, 2009 5:49 PM | Posted by CC: | Reply

Now you're cooking with gas! Go man go!!!

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GREAT POST!... (Below threshold)

November 30, 2009 8:52 PM | Posted by jesus: | Reply


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One thing that really fries... (Below threshold)

November 30, 2009 10:17 PM | Posted by Anony-Mouse: | Reply

One thing that really fries my nose is that the media has taken to calling distant people by first names. Tiger is one thing. But all the Missing White Women of the last decade all have been put on first-name basis with Nancy Grace shortly after their demise. Where is Lacie? Where is Chandra? Where is Kalie? Etc. We're talking about adult women here. Is it so much to refer to them as "Mrs. Peterson" or by their full names? I guess you can get good ratings by pretending that you care more about these people than their own families.

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Another thing that got to m... (Below threshold)

November 30, 2009 10:21 PM | Posted by Anony-Mouse: | Reply

Another thing that got to me was the Iraq/Afghanistan coverage where the embedded reporter in Kabul was giving updates he got from DOD press releases faxed from the Pentagon. The reporters weren't sent to the front lines to report. They were there to get the right background to read the news.

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News done properly would lo... (Below threshold)

December 1, 2009 2:35 AM | Posted by Julian Morrison: | Reply

News done properly would look like an intelligence-gathering operation. Dull indoor work over months or years, by skilled analysts, producing detailed contextual dry-as-dust reports.

Newspapers are forced to produce "news" on a ridiculously tight episodic schedule, and kiss advertiser butt.

TV news likewise, plus it's stuck with a visual medium that is completely unsuited for anything except dramatic footage of disasters (which are frankly for the most part not news, in terms of their actual long term influence). You have a story that is fundamentally not visual, and you have a screen which you can't just turn black for the duration. All the rest of the nonsense flows from this.

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Or, that all Depakote resea... (Below threshold)

December 1, 2009 3:32 AM | Posted by B: | Reply

Or, that all Depakote research quotes an article that quotes an article that quotes an article that quotes one study.

We have always been at war with Oceania.

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True, but I don't think the... (Below threshold)

December 1, 2009 8:56 AM | Posted by caeia: | Reply

True, but I don't think the average person would have time to do primary research on every news report on even one subject. If I were to try to collect and analyse every primary source for H1N1 flu, it would take most of the day. That's one of the benifits of media -- it's not to give you every primary source, it's to condense thousands of data points into a single 2-minute synopsis.

The problems are obvious -- if the media is biased, then you get their spin, if they're in the tank for some financial gain, they'll promote the need for that company's products (NBC and GE [makers of the compact florescent bulbs i.e] have a cosy relationship). But if you know the biases, or use sources with competeing biases, then you'll get a fuller picture w/o needing to read 1,000 pages of research. Some of us have day jobs

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There's always <a href="htt... (Below threshold)

December 1, 2009 10:53 AM | Posted by fivebells: | Reply

There's always Wiki News.

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i am wondering if this is i... (Below threshold)

December 1, 2009 11:24 PM | Posted by randy: | Reply

i am wondering if this is in anyway relevant to what happened recently with the climate scientists. seems like a high noise-to-information level in climate science too. i guess you're talking more about attention (psychologically) and parlor-tricks instead of science itself...but maybe not given the part about journals and reviews.

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Hi, thanks for the post.</p... (Below threshold)

December 2, 2009 8:59 AM | Posted by Gadi Evron: | Reply

Hi, thanks for the post.

Another aspect of the "on the ground" factor is not related to credibility, but deals with interest and engagement.

In the internet security field I often notice that people get very excited if they get the feeling that they are in the front lines 00 borrowed feeling of importance. In our daily jobs we don't often do anything very exciting, and if we read about something happening _right_now_ and the battle story behind it, we are a part of it and gain a feeling of importance.

One example for this is the blog called the SANS Diary, where very good people indeed (and good friends), share their experiences from the field and treat their readers as a part of the larger community which sends in data. Even if some of their posts have no relation to anything happening right now.

Another example is whenever I share a battle story of my own, so that people are informed of new threats, the types of responses I get are pathos rather than logos based.

As half a joke, there is a also a political communication reason for the background noise. In one of the best TV shows ever written, Yes Minister, the (now Prime Minister) has his first TV interview. When he finds out he has nothing new to say, he is instructed to wear a loud suit, the background is a screaming yellow, etc. Just to distract people that he actually has nothing new.

Thanks for writing this post, I often enjoy your media criticism.

Gadi Evron.

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Repetitive, shallow, specul... (Below threshold)

December 3, 2009 11:19 AM | Posted by Kevin Wong: | Reply

Repetitive, shallow, speculative and dumb - this is the news. I find it best not to watch it at all - but if I am forced to I try and turn the sound down to a level where I cant hear it. Better still turn off the tv and make love to your wife (mind you she will probably just want to watch the news).

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Because I'm a geek, I see a... (Below threshold)

December 3, 2009 12:55 PM | Posted by Yorick: | Reply

Because I'm a geek, I see a technological solution to this: online reputation tracking.

It's basically Cory Doctorow's idea of Whuffie, trust as currency. To my mind, it solves this precise problem, serving as an equalizer between huge media corps and solo bloggers and condensing their reputation on the simple question: do they get it right? If they do get it right, people send them a lot of W. Conversely, if they get it wrong, people ding them a lot of W.

An author's credibility is thus extended from being purely a function of how many readers they have to being a function of how many readers they have, *and what those readers think of the author*.

What's the expert consensus on this idea?

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I hear you, but you could l... (Below threshold)

December 3, 2009 4:33 PM | Posted by Dan @ Casual Kitchen: | Reply

I hear you, but you could link to a less-laughable book than Manufacturing Consent. Did you actually ever read it? I'd love to have you do a drive-by analysis of Chomsky's paranoid and delusional view of the world.

Maybe Bernie Goldberg's Bias would be a better title. At least it's readable.

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a student submitted a paper... (Below threshold)

December 3, 2009 4:53 PM | Posted by medsvstherapy: | Reply

a student submitted a paper, noting an original study, and concluding, as the article did, that the antidepressant works. i said, no, it did not. go back through the notes from the course, and figure out why i so confidently can declare no, it did not. the graph show both the active arm and the placebo arm have symptoms decrease across time, but with the medication group having an average that was almost 2 points lower on the HamD - not a clinically significant difference. But enough to fall below the typical "recovery" score on the Hamilton of 7. The placebo group improved to 8, and the pill group improved to 6.5. Myself, I would prefer to end up at 8 without the side efefcts, than end up at 6.5 with the side effects. Cuz a depressed person almost cannot tell the diff at all between 6.5 and 8 - it is irrelevant. So, I conclude no diff. The article concluded yes difference. The moral of the story - even with the original article, you can be mislead unless you put your thinking cap on. And are appropraitely suspicious - a hallmark of science.

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The linked Chomsky isn't... (Below threshold)

December 4, 2009 12:27 AM | Posted by Alone: | Reply

The linked Chomsky isn't the book by him, but a movie about him... the movie is worth watching, especially for those who know very little about him.

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<a href="http://www.nytimes... (Below threshold)

December 4, 2009 5:13 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

You might enjoy reading this one... it's like a prelude to your divorce article review.

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Couple of decades ago, all ... (Below threshold)

December 4, 2009 7:51 PM | Posted by Ben: | Reply

Couple of decades ago, all the local news stations bought mobile units with satellite uplink capability to allow reporters on the scene to go live with important breaking news from the place it was happening. Trouble is, there's rarely important breaking news during the newscast. To justify the investment, though, these units had to be used on a daily basis - with risible results. "Bill & Sue, I'm here live at the airport, where just six hours ago, a man..."

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Here's a horrible confessio... (Below threshold)

December 7, 2009 10:02 AM | Posted by Meat Robot: | Reply

Here's a horrible confession, but not only do I seldom bother with primary research, I hardly ever read reviews. I've been reduced to the lowest common denominator: Journal Watch.

Now I need a scotch and a shower.

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If you're interested in Lin... (Below threshold)

December 7, 2009 6:11 PM | Posted, in reply to Alone's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

If you're interested in Linguistics, yes. If you're interested in international politics and so on, ask your next patient about his or her opinion--who has the exact same qualifications as Chomsky on anyt topic other than, well, you know, Linguistics.

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I did note, years ago, that... (Below threshold)

January 14, 2010 2:20 PM | Posted by La BellaDonna: | Reply

I did note, years ago, that when I was in England, the people on the TV telling us about The News were described as "news readers" rather than "news reporters" - I thought it was refreshingly honest.

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September 21, 2014 12:39 AM | Posted by Carlijne Sahrizan: | Reply

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