Op-Ed journalism is basically pointless

Data nerds of the world rejoice: FiveThirtyEight is coming back.

And in an interview in the New York magazine, Nate Silver has some strong comments about its rivals in the traditional media:

Can you explain the mythology behind the new fox logo?
The fox logo comes from a quote which was originally attributable to an obscure Greek poet: “The hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many little things.” The idea being that we’re a lot of scrappy little nerds and we have different data-driven — I hate data-driven as a term — but data journalism takes on a lot of different forms for us. Often, yeah, it does mean numbers and statistics as applied to the news, but it also means data visualization, reporting on data that is both numerate and literate; down the road, it came mean investigative journalism. It can mean building models and forecasts and programs. At the same time, it’s still data journalism. It’s not enough just to be smart. There’s a particular series of methods and a way of looking at the world.

Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically. We think about our philosophy for when we choose to run with a story or when we don’t. We talk about avoiding “smart takes,” quote-unquote. This is data journalism, capital-D. Within that, we take a foxlike approach to what data means. It’s not just numbers, but numbers are a big part of this. We think that’s a weakness of conventional journalism, that you have beautiful English language skills and fewer math skills, and we hope to rectify that balance a little bit.

So if you all are the foxes, who’s a hedgehog?
Uhhhh, you know … the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal are probably the most hedgehoglike people. They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.

It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.

It’s ridiculous to me that they undermine every value that these organizations have in their newsrooms. It’s strange. I know it’s cheaper to fund an op-ed columnist than a team of reporters, but I think it confuses the mission of what these great journalistic brands are about.

I couldn’t agree more. Nor do I think it is a problem confined to the US.

My reaction to a lot of this kind of writing is that it winds up in a no man’s land. People like Peter Hitchens and Owen Jones are hired on their ability to write, and that is prioritised at the expense of expertise or rigour. However, little of what you read in a newspaper opinion page is worth reading for the quality of the writing. For that you generally need to look to novels, poems or the most literary non-fiction. With a few noble exceptions, reading an opinion column is basically pointless.


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