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Analysis Op-eds

The climate change of bad news

This post flows a bit like the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. As one friend put it, “It starts somewhere and then goes in a different direction.”

This year hasn’t been beset by the same old steady drizzle of bad news we have every year – but has borne the brunt of cyclonic storms, each one distinctively episodic and devastating. The latest of these storms is l’affair Rukmini Callimachi. To the uninitiated: Callimachi is a reporter with the NYT who shot to fame from 2015 or so onwards for her inside reports of the Islamic Caliphate; she later dramatised her efforts to produce these stories in a podcast called Caliphate. And in this time, she raked up four Pulitzer Prize nominations (although I don’t set much store by prizes in general).

I haven’t read or listened to her work, so when a friend shared a link to the NYT’s own report, by its media columnist Ben Smith, discussing the charges against Callimachi and their newfound, but evidently delayed, efforts to reevaluate her work, I wasn’t guilty of not having criticised her myself. (If you think this is a tall order: the headline of Jacob Silverman’s review of this storm for The New Republic describes, in a few words, how quickly her house of cards seems to fall down.)

However, these days, a successful journalist is two things: she is the producer of stories that have changed the world, and which continue to live lives of their own, and she is a role-model of sorts. Her output and her resolve represent what is possible if only one tried. An even greater example of such work is that of the journalists at the Miami Herald – especially Julie Brown – who exposed Jeffrey Epstein and brought on, among other changes, a reckoning at various universities around the US that had knowingly accepted his money and overtures.

But now, with Callimachi’s articles seemingly teetering on the brink of legitimacy, both the things she stood for are on the edge as well. First, the good thing: her stories, which – if Smith’s account is to be believed – Callimachi seems to have composed in her head before moving in to report them, often, if not always, with the spiritual and material support of many of NYT’s senior editors. Second, the bad: her legacy, such as it is – erected as a façade at which we could all marvel, at least those of us who unquestioningly placed our faith and hope in the greatness of another. This is the guilt I feel, a fractured reflection of what Callimachi’s coverage of the Islamic Caliphate at the NYT is itself going through right now.

However, I will also be quick to shed this guilt because I insist that as much as I’m tasked – by my employer, but the zeitgeist, so to speak – to be wary, cautious, skeptical, to fact-check, fact-check, fact-check, to maintain cupfuls of salt at hand so I’m never taken for a ride, just as much as I’m behooved to stand on guard, I’m also fortifying an increasingly small, and increasingly precious, garden in a corner of my mind, a place away from the bad news that I can visit in my daydreams, where I can recoup some hope and optimism. Today, the winds of l’affair Callimachi blew away her articles and podcasts from this place.

Make no mistake, I will still call out everything that deserves to be called out: from the multiple red-flags Silverman spotlighted to the anti-oriental undertones of Callimachi’s methods, of her claims and even of the self-recrimination bubbling up around her, to a lot of which Rafia Zakaria has (repeatedly) called attention. I’m only saddened, for now, by the unstoppable eradication of all that is good, such as it is, and by the guilt for my part in it. As a political being, in this moment I deem this march upon ignorance to be necessary, but as a human one, it is deeply, and to my mind unforeseeably, exacting. A cognitive dissonance for the times, I suppose, although I’m sure I will cope soon enough.

Fortunately, perhaps in a counterintuitive sense, the Callimachi episode is personally not very hard to recover from. While it is true that what Callimachi and her collaborators have (still largely allegedly) done is quite different from, say, what Jonah Lehrer did, they were both motivated by a common sin: to print what could be instead of what is (and even these words might be too strong). More specifically, reporting on war brings with it its own seductions, many of them quite powerful, to the extent that some – as Zakaria implied in her piece for The Baffler – may choose to believe Callimachi et al’s failings are still the failings of an institution vis-à-vis conflict journalism. But no, the problem is pervasive.

However, looking on this shitshow from not-so-distant India, two bells have been quick to go off. First, this is very old wine in a new bottle, in which, to borrow Zakaria’s words, “the greed for catching terrorists” is pressed into the service of making “white journalists’ careers”; you could replace ‘terrorists’ with anything else that has been touched, at any point in its history, by a colonist or invader. Also read Priyanka Borpujari’s 2019 essay in the Columbia Journalism Review, in which she writes:

The title ‘foreign correspondent’ has long been synonymous with whiteness, maleness, and imperialism—journalists fly in from North America, Europe, and Australia to cover the poverty and wars of the non-Western world. In recent years, a push for diversity has meant that more women are pursuing stories in what was once the domain of men—conflict zones and fractured democracies—or in traditionally private female spaces. But the opportunities for journalists in non-Western nations to tell their own stories in international outlets have not been as great. Overwhelmingly, foreign reportage still relies on a model of Western, and largely white, reporters hiring local journalists in subservient roles.”

And thanks to biases in the way technology is constructed, used as well as located around the world, the problem extends to the consumption of journalism as well. To quote from an older post:

Where an app [that amplifies content] was made matters because nobody is going to build an app in location A and hope that it becomes popular in faraway location B. Pocket itself is San Franciscan and the bias shows: most recommendations I’ve received, or even the non-personalised trending topics I’ve spotted, are American. In fact, among all the tools I use and curation services I follow, I’ve come across only two exceptions: the heartwarming human-curated 3QuarksDaily and Quora. I’m not familiar with Quora’s story but I’m sure it’s interesting – about how a Q&A platform out of Mountain View came to be dominated by Indian users.

I notice a not insignificant number of articles and essays, in English, to this day emerging from blogs and publications in Central, South and Southeast Asia, South America and of course Africa that will never go viral on Twitter, make it to the list of ‘most read’ articles on Pocket or be cited by even the most quirky columnist – even as the same ideas and arguments will virtually ‘break the internet’ the moment they emerge from The Atlantic or New Yorker a few months later.

None of the writers of The Atlantic or New Yorker can be blamed, at least not most of the time, for something quite hard to discover in the first place, but that doesn’t mean Big Tech isn’t distorting our view of who is doing good work and who isn’t. And many Indian journalists and writers are often at the wrong end of this discovery problem.

In this light, what Callimachi and the NYT did is not new at all but in fact further widens, or accentuates, the divide between being non-white, non-Western and being white and Western. This is a divide that I and many others, perhaps especially the others, have been habituated to ignore – especially when the crime at hand appears to be victimless but in fact quietly sidelines those who have already been historically, and today structurally, displaced from the ‘mainstream’.

On the other hand, what the NYT has perpetrated here is akin to what many in India (myself included) have done and, to different degrees, continue to have a part in. Specifically, the second bell that goes off has to do with my privileges, one product of which is that I will always be a parachute-journalist in my own country – a member of the top 1% who claims to understand the problems of the 99%.

Journalism professor Justin Martin gently defended parachute journalism in a 2011 essay, deeming fluency in “one of the main local languages” to be a prerequisite of parachuting well. I am not likely to speak any other languages than the four I already know, and less literally, I can never know, in any meaningful sense, what it means to be poor, transgender, tribal, of a lower caste; that lived experience will stay out of reach, and my assessment of what is right will always be inferior to those of, say, a desperate job-seeker, a transgender activist, a member of a tribe, a Dalit scholar when, for example, the topic at hand is poverty, gender, Indigenous people’s rights and caste.

As Martin also admits, “Hiring correspondents who live in the countries and regions they cover … is ideal”, and my higher social status in India does place me in a country other than the one I’m writing about. Although I may not be guilty of allowing information sources I haven’t vetted enough to feed exaggerated stories that I can’t prove in any other way to be true – that is, although we may not all be Rukmini Callimachis ourselves – the composition of our newsrooms means we are only one illegitimate source away, only one moment of weakness for what could be in place of what is away, from creating the next storm.

Categories
Analysis Scicomm

Journalistic entropy

Say you need to store a square image 1,000 pixels wide to a side with the smallest filesize (setting aside compression techniques). The image begins with the colour #009900 on the left side and, as you move towards the right, gradually blends into #1e1e1e on the rightmost edge. Two simple storage methods come to mind: you could either encode the colour-information of every pixel in a file and store that file, or you could determine a mathematical function that, given the inputs #009900 and #1e1e1e, generates the image in question.

The latter method seems more appealing, especially for larger canvases of patterns that are composed by a single underlying function. In such cases, it should obviously be more advantageous to store the image as an output of a function to achieve the smallest filesize.

Now, in information theory (as in thermodynamics), there is an entity called entropy: it describes the amount of information you don’t have about a system. In our example, imagine that the colour #009900 blends to #1e1e1e from left to right save for a strip along the right edge, say, 50 pixels wide. Each pixel in this strip can assume a random colour. To store this image, you’d have to save it as an addition of two functions: ƒ(x, y), where x = #009900 and y = #1e1e1e, plus one function to colour the pixels lying in the 50-px strip on the right side. Obviously this will increase the filesize of the stored function.

Even more, imagine if you were told that 200,000 pixels out of the 1,000,000 pixels in the image would assume random colours. The underlying function becomes even more clumsy: an addition of ƒ(x, y) and a function R that randomly selects 200,000 pixels and then randomly colours them. The outputs of this function R stands for the information about the image that you can’t have beforehand; the more such information you lack, the more entropy the image is said to have.

The example of the image was simple but sufficiently illustrative. In thermodynamics, entropy is similar to randomness vis-à-vis information: it’s the amount of thermal energy a system contains that can’t be used to perform work. From the point of view of work, it’s useless thermal energy (including heat) – something that can’t contribute to moving a turbine blade, powering a motor or motivating a system of pulleys to lift weights. Instead, it is thermal energy motivated by and directed at other impetuses.

As it happens, this picture could help clarify, or at least make more sense of, a contemporary situation in science journalism. Earlier this week, health journalist Priyanka Pulla discovered that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had published a press release last month, about the serological testing kit the government had developed, with the wrong specificity and sensitivity data. Two individuals she spoke to, one from ICMR and another from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, which actually developed the kit, admitted the mistake when she contacted them. Until then, neither organisation had issued a clarification even though it was clear both individuals are likely to have known of the mistake at the time the release was published.

Assuming for a moment that this mistake was an accident (my current epistemic state is ‘don’t know’), it would indicate ICMR has been inefficient in the performance of its duties, forcing journalists to respond to it in some way instead of focusing on other, more important matters.

The reason I’m tending to think of such work as entropy and not work per se is such instances, whereby journalists are forced to respond to an event or action characterised by the existence of trivial resolutions, seem to be becoming more common.

It’s of course easier to argue that what I consider trivial may be nontrivial to someone else, and that these events and actions matter to a greater extent than I’m willing to acknowledge. However, I’m personally unable to see beyond the fact that an organisation with the resources and, currently, the importance of ICMR shouldn’t have had a hard time proof-reading a press release that was going to land in the inboxes of hundreds of journalists. The consequences of the mistake are nontrivial but the solution is quite trivial.

(There is another feature in some cases: of the absence of official backing or endorsement of any kind.)

So as such, it required work on the part of journalists that could easily have been spared, allowing journalists to direct their efforts at more meaningful, more productive endeavours. Here are four more examples of such events/actions, wherein the non-triviality is significantly and characteristically lower than that attached to formal announcements, policies, reports, etc.:

  1. Withholding data in papers – In the most recent example, ICMR researchers published the results of a seroprevalence survey of 26,000 people in 65 districts around India, and concluded that the prevalence of the novel coronavirus was 0.73% in this population. However, in their paper, the researchers include neither a district-wise breakdown of the data nor the confidence intervals for each available data-point even though they had this information (it’s impossible to compute the results the researchers did without these details). As a result, it’s hard for journalists to determine how reliable the results are, and whether they really support the official policies regarding epidemic-control interventions that will soon follow.
  2. Publishing faff – On June 2, two senior members of the Directorate General of Health services, within India’s Union health ministry, published a paper (in a journal they edited) that, by all counts, made nonsensical claims about India’s COVID-19 epidemic becoming “extinguished” sometime in September 2020. Either the pair of authors wasn’t aware of their collective irresponsibility or they intended to refocus (putting it benevolently) the attention of various people towards their work, turning them away from the duo deemed embarrassing or whatever. And either way, the claims in the paper wound their way into two news syndication services, PTI and IANS, and eventually onto the pages of a dozen widely-read news publications in the country. In effect, there were two levels of irresponsibility at play: one as embodied by the paper and the other, by the syndication services’ and final publishers’ lack of due diligence.
  3. Making BS announcements – This one is fairly common: a minister or senior party official will say something silly, such as that ancient Indians invented the internet, and ride the waves of polarising debate, rapidly devolving into acrimonious flamewars on Twitter, that follow. I recently read (in The Washington Post I think, but I can’t find the link now) that it might be worthwhile for journalists to try and spend less time on fact-checking a claim than it took someone to come up with that claim. Obviously there’s no easy way to measure the time some claims took to mature into their present forms, but even so, I’m sure most journalists would agree that fact-checking often takes much longer than bullshitting (and then broadcasting). But what makes this enterprise even more grating is that it is orders of magnitude easier to not spew bullshit in the first place.
  4. Conspiracy theories – This is the most frustrating example of the lot because, today, many of the originators of conspiracy theories are television journalists, especially those backed by government support or vice versa. While fully acknowledging the deep-seated issues underlying both media independence and the politics-business-media nexus, numerous pronouncements by so many news anchors have only been akin to shooting ourselves in the foot. Exhibit A: shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the start of demonetisation, a beaming news anchor told her viewers that the new 2,000-rupee notes would be embedded with chips to transmit the notes’ location real-time, via satellite, to operators in Delhi.

Perhaps this entropy – i.e. the amount of journalistic work not available to deal with more important stories – is not only the result of a mischievous actor attempting to keep journalists, and the people who read those journalists, distracted but is also assisted by the manifestation of a whole industry’s inability to cope with the mechanisms of a new political order.

Science journalism itself has already experienced a symptom of this change when pseudoscientific ideas became more mainstream, even entering the discourse of conservative political groups, including that of the BJP. In a previous era, if a minister said something, a reporter was to drum up a short piece whose entire purpose was to record “this happened”. And such reports were the norm and in fact one of the purported roots of many journalistic establishments’ claims to objectivity, an attribute they found not just desirable but entirely virtuous: those who couldn’t be objective were derided as sub-par.

However, if a reporter were to simply report today that a minister said something, she places herself at risk of amplifying bullshit to a large audience if what the minister said was “bullshit bullshit bullshit”. So just as politicians’ willingness to indulge in populism and majoritarianism to the detriment of society and its people has changed, so also must science journalism change – as it already has with many publications, especially in the west – to ensure each news report fact-checks a claim it contains, especially if it is pseudoscientific.

In the same vein, it’s not hard to imagine that journalists are often forced to scatter by the compulsions of an older way of doing journalism, and that they should regroup on the foundations of a new agreement that lets them ignore some events so that they can better dedicate themselves to the coverage of others.

Featured image credit: Татьяна Чернышова/Pexels.

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Life notes Scicomm

The bad, avoidable and useless forms of journalism

Bad journalism: A Hindustan Times report on March 2 claims a high-schooler from West Bengal won a “prestigious” scholarship sponsored by NASA to study at Oxford University, having been selected on the back of a theory she had developed on blackholes. The piece was one-sided.

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Avoidable journalism: The report – one among a dozen others, all on the same lines – turned out to have many holes. One of the first giveaways as usual was the language used to describe the science. Huffington Post India was (among) the first to publish NASA’s clarification, that such a scholarship as the student had claimed didn’t exist. I wrote about it in The Wire.

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Useless journalism: On March 4, Hindustan Times reported that the high-schooler’s claims were a hoax, writing “her claims [had] been widely published in the Indian media, including [on] TV channels and reality shows.” It conveniently overlooked that Hindustan Times itself had published the report as well. So, what should’ve been a retraction ended up being another article – as if its March 2 report had been a bit of news.

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Archiving:

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