As a reporter, you regularly depend on the help of experts, often professors at universities. Rarely do you become an academic subject yourself.
But that’s what happened to Bill Dedman, whose work on a series about fire stations is the subject of “GIS and spatial analysis in the media,” which was published earlier this year in the journal Applied Geography.
The paper explores Arizona State University geography professor Alan T. Murray’s experience with Dedman when Dedman was a correspondent for The Boston Globe. Dedman is now an investigative reporter for msnbc.com.
Murray calls it “a case study of media engagement.”
Dedman had called Murray, then at Ohio State, in late 2004 asking his help exploring questions about how many fire stations Massachusetts would need to improve fire department response times.
Murray decided he didn’t enough time to answer Dedman’s questions for the newspaper series, which was published a month after Dedman first called. But in the paper, Murray recounts the four questions he says Dedman had asked, then explains how he would have answered them, had he more time.
His answers differed from the ones Dedman ultimately reached. Murray (and a co-author, Daoqin Tong) came up with different numbers of fire stations that would be needed, under several scenarios, to satisfy National Fire Protection Association standards. Murray writes:
One month was simply not enough time given academic commitments and responsibilities. Nevertheless, as is evident from the published articles, the analysis will be conducted in some way and reported. It is apparent that commercial GIS software that is user-friendly, like ArcView, makes it easy to examine spatial information, which leads to complex questions about what it happening across regions. The challenge is to ensure that appropriate methods can be brought to bear on important problems and issues.
I emailed Dedman and asked him what he thought of the paper. He replied that it wasn’t surprising their answers differed, given that they “solved different problems using different assumptions.”
… the professor is right that the main issue here, aside from any miscommunication, was time. If we had more time, there might have been an opportunity to work together. I e-mailed him some questions, and he headed off on a hunt for the answers, without taking the time to make sure we both were on the same page. When he came back a few weeks later, it turned out he had misunderstood the question — and by then our time was nearly up. He went away frustrated that reporters don’t take more time, and I, who got to take a good deal of time on this story and consulted many academics and others for help, moved on to others who were able to help during the time we had.
At least he got a paper out of the experience!
Former President Richard Milhous Nixon rarely watched TV news or read the newspaper and instead relied on a daily summary typed up by his aides, a recently released study says.
The study, “What Can a President Learn from the News Media?,” (PDF) says Nixon’s reliance on the daily news summary is a cautionary tale for future presidents.
Nixon’s solution to the problem of news consumption was noteworthy: he avoided direct exposure to newspaper, television or radio reports almost entirely. Instead, he instituted an elaborate system of media monitoring that substituted for almost all first-hand consumption of the news. Nixon was not the first president to use his staff to monitor the news, but his monitoring system was more extensive than any of his predecessors. More importantly, Nixon was the first president to rely on such monitoring as his primary source of exposure to the mass media.
Reading the news summary was the first thing on Nixon’s schedule every day. He devoted 20 to 30 minutes to reading them, scrawling notes on the margins that “helped dictate a significant portion of the daily business for the White House staff,” writes Christopher F. Karpowitz, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University.
Nixon’s marginal comments show that he used the summary to comment on the success of administration initiatives, to direct public relations efforts, to praise or discipline administrators, or simply to blow off steam.
The summaries were prepared by staffers Lyndon K. (‘Mort’) Allin and Patrick Buchanan. Although the summaries were advertised as the best way for Nixon to get an objective, cross-section of news coverage, they often were written in a way that fueled “the president’s already burning resentments and biases,” Karpowitz writes.
The summaries themselves tended to personalize the news, repeatedly drawing attention to the perceived biases of prominent reporters.
The possibility the summaries didn’t give him an entirely objective view of the news wasn’t lost on Nixon. Karpowitz notes, for example, that Nixon wondered if Buchanan’s distaste for his historic trip to China colored how Buchanan wrote the summaries. Buchanan was a newspaper editorial writer before joining Nixon’s staff and later ran for president himself.
Nixon’s antipathy toward reporters was established long before Woodward and Bernstein’s stories helped bring him down. In 1962, after a failed campaign for California governor, he famously declared his “last press conference” and told the reporters gathered for it that “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.”
The study recalls historian Stephen Ambrose’s own research of the news summaries, which noted “the prevalence of violent verbs in Nixon’s responses”:
‘Get someone to hit him,’ Nixon would write about one reporter, or ‘fire him’, or ‘cut him’, or ‘freeze him’, or ‘knock this down’, or ‘fight him’, or ‘dump him’, or ‘don’t back off’.
Karpowitz analyzed Nixon’s marginal notes, dividing them into “spin,” “policy,” “vent,” “praise,” “discipline,” “other,” or “missing.”
Roughly one-third of his comments were about “spin,” meaning they focused on image and PR, and 18 percent were to “vent,” meaning they expressed frustration or annoyance but didn’t direct anyone to take action. Another 18 percent dealt with actual policy.
Karpowitz concludes that in part because the summaries gave a few staff members too much power as gatekeepers, the summaries didn’t serve Nixon well.
For healthy presidential leadership, there may be no substitute for first-hand consumption of media stories, even if in managed doses. It can be said of presidential news summaries what is sometimes said of the relative merit of vitamin pills and nutritious foods: in a busy world, a chief executive may find it useful to resort to news summaries, but news capsules provided by a president’s aides are an imperfect replacement for at least some exposure to the real thing. The president whose media diet includes only summaries may be cognitively undernourished.
The heat maps break each year into blocks for months, rows for the days of the week and squares for the days. Each square is colored from red to green depending on the intensity of some value, allowing you to spot patterns over time.
The Revolution Computing blog reported recently that the chief medical officer for a medical informatics company recreated the same graphics using R. The blog showed how the code could be used to visualize Microsoft’s stock price.
I had to change only a few letters in their example to show Gannett’s stock price instead:
I can’t help but see it as our profits going up in flames.
Like many shallow, thoughtless people, my first response to something that annoys me is to condemn it rather than understand it. And so it is with PDFs, which have always pissed me off me because of the difficulty I’ve had extracting data from them. It’s a good thing, then, that the Open Government Data wiki has a page, “The good and the bad of PDFs,” with some realistic scenarios on why people would choose to store information in PDFs, and suggesting that more understanding may be in order, rather than outrage.
In my experience reporters tend to think the worst of government bureaucrats, while assuming their own virtue. It may be that government agencies choose PDFs because it’s the most vexing format, but I doubt that’s always, or even typically, the case.
Here, for example, is a scenario offered on the Open Government Data wiki:
Sam and Alice work for the Governor’s Budget Office. Recently, the Governor has just announced his spending plan for the current year, something that many, many people are interested in reading. After hours upon hours of work, they finally have the report done, complete with graphs, charts and images galore. A grand total of over 400 pretty pages ready for viewing.
The report is something that hundreds, maybe thousands of people are going to want to read, which presents an issue for Sam and Alice. They could print off hundreds or thousands of copies of the report, leave some in their office for people to pick up, mail out others and inter-office some more. When they look at the printing bill, however, neither Alice nor Sam are very happy with the cost.
After a little research, Alice finds out about PDF files. With a quick plugin for her copy of Word, she can create an electronic version of the report, which her tech people can then post on the Governor’s public web site. Now, rather than printing off tens of thousands of pages, all they need to do is distribute a single link and the information is instantly accessible.
If you prefer the outrage, though, check out Sunlight Labs’ recent “Adobe is Bad for Open Government” and the comments that followed.
I was fascinated to learn last week that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice puts the last statements of the people it executes on its Web site. That’s 444 people as of this writing, dating back to December 1982.
I extracted the statements and uploaded them as one large file to Many Eyes, which has some great tools for visualizing, analyzing and playing with text.
The most frequently used words of those about to die were “love” and “family.”
You can also see the most frequently used two-word phrases. Here “stay strong” was used twice as often as “Jesus Christ.”
Four inmates One inmate spoke of the “Polunsky dungeon,” which Google tells me is a reference to the “Polunsky Unit,” where the condemned are housed before they die.
Another tool offered by Many Eyes is a word tree, which lets you pick a word or phrase and shows you the different contexts in which it appears.
“Let’s do it, man. Lock and load. Ain’t life a [expletive deleted]?”
JASON, “an independent group of scientists which advises the United States Government on matters of science and technology,” was asked by the Defense Department to look at the feasibility of predicting rare events.
The “rare event” of interest is an extreme, deliberate act of violence, destruction or socioeconomic disruption, such as an attack of 9/11 scale or greater. It is not a realistic goal to anticipate and prevent all rare events, but it may be possible to make rare events rarer, and to reduce their effect.
Their report released last month (PDF) looks at detecting the motivations for terrorism, possible prediction models, “the false positive problem,” game theory and offers a case study of a bioterrorism threat. They concluded that predicting rare events wasn’t possible, but the subject was worthy of further study:
For rare events, by definition it will be impossible to validate any model that seeks to produce specific point predictions of a rare event. This is because by “rare event” we are talking about any event that hasn’t happened yet and will only happen once. Even if we had a correct model, we won’t know it’s valid until it’s too late to intervene in the event.
The New York Times wrote about The New York Post today. The headline was, “Sober Mood at New York Post as Circulation Spirals Lower.”
“Nearly every paper in America has lost circulation, but The Post more than most,” Richard Perez-Pena wrote.
Since 2004, The Post has done a little better than most of the top 25 newspapers in circulation from that year.
If we look at just the three New York papers, we can see that their circulation trends are roughly the same.
The daily circulation decline at The Post was sharper in the last year than for The Times or The Daily News, but only because The Post did relatively better than those two papers the previous two years.
There may be other reasons for singling out The Post for a tale of woe, but circulation isn’t one of them.