Monthly Archives: January 2012

Assumptions about public officials’ salaries

The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for, in part, its reporting on the outsized salaries of officials in Bell, California. One of my arguments about the Times’s work in my thesis was that the Times did not sufficiently justify its assumptions about the proper pay for the officials it criticized, implicitly and explicitly.

Much of the reasoning the Times offered as to why the salaries of Robert Rizzo and co. were too high was by way of comparisons with other officials — state officials, national officials, officials in nearby towns, and so on. The Bell salaries trumped almost all of them.

But the reasoning entailed an assumption that the officials on the other side of the comparison were not simply underpaid. Rather than hint at corruption, the Bell salaries could have actually signaled problems in pay for other public officials. In other words, the reasoning assumed that the salaries for the other officials were appropriate.

The Economist’s recent reporting on salaries for officials in Singapore demonstrates that the Times’s assumption requires more justification. The magazine wrote:

It is a proud boast of Singapore that this very small but immensely wealthy city-state is the least corrupt and best place to do business in the world. And a chief reason for that, at least according to the politicians, is that they themselves are by some way the highest-paid elected officials in the world. Why would a minister bother with corruption, so the argument goes, when he can take home S$1.6m ($1.3m) a year for just keeping on the straight and narrow?

So it isn’t transparent that the officials in Bell could never have been “worth” the money they were paid.

That is certainly not to say they did deserve the money. I thought the Times did a good job in some cases of demonstrating corrupt practices in the city. But the initial concept, that the officials could have deserved their pay, needed more attention.

Andrew Coyne on journalism and time

Of course, objectively, most journalism is a waste of time. The time you spend reading the paper you could have been reading Nabokov.

I loved Andrew Coyne’s recent column for the opposite reason he would have wished me to: not because it brought me to “a point of view [I] did not already hold” but because it confirmed me “in [my] previous opinion.”

Like Coyne, I’m concerned with whether journalism is a waste of my time. Life is short. The concern played a central role in my thesis, and I continue to think about it.

I thought Coyne also persuasively reminded me about the need for a writer’s “attitude of humility before the reader.” It is a skill I want to continually develop.

My thesis is admittedly long, but I hope it is also accessible. I also hope it shows humility.

Truth vigilantes and assumptions

In attempting to clarify and explain his infamous “truth vigilante” post, Arthur Brisbane wrote the following about the difficulty of trying to to “rebut ‘facts’ that are offered by newsmakers when those ‘facts’ are in question”:

To illustrate the difficulty of it, the first example I used in my blogpost concerned the Supreme Court’s official statement that Clarence Thomas had misunderstood the financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings.

If you think that should be rebutted in the text of a story, it means you think a reporter can crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back. Or perhaps you think the reporter should just write that the “misunderstanding” excuse is bull and let it go at that. I would respectfully suggest that’s not a good approach.

I think there is a flaw in Brisbane’s reasoning. I also think that by addressing the flaw we can begin to see how a reporter might rebut the claim while not being paralyzed by the thicket of questions about “facts” that concerns Brisbane.

Is it true that to rebut Justice Thomas’s explanation, a reporter needs to “crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back”? Yes, given a certain set of assumptions. The assumptions would lead one to conclude that whether the form was filled out correctly depended entirely on Thomas.

But that set is certainly not the only set of reasonable assumptions one can make about the Thomas affair. Look, Julian Fernandez offers another set of assumptions in the comments to Brisbane’s second post:

I am sorry, but to lend credence to Justice Thomas’ ridiculous assertion that he “misunderstood” income reporting requirements demanded of someone in his position is reprehensible. I am no psychic and I did not crawl into the mind of Thomas to form my opinion, but I assume that he employs an accountant, a financial advsor and that he and Mrs. Thomas retain personal counsel to advise them on matters of compliance to tax laws. Given his position as ultimate arbiter of what passes for justice in the US, I would also assume that he took great care to understand the laws that pertain to him, his spouse and the requirements that his seat on the Court demand of them both. (emphasis added)

I have no clue who Julian Fernandez is. But I am relatively certain of his conclusion and the assumptions that helped him get there. I am free to challenge those assumptions if I wish, but either way I am in a much better position to assess his argument.

A reporter could call out Thomas’s claim as bogus under those same assumptions that Fernandez uses. I would have no problem with the reporter doing so, as long as the reporter stated those assumptions, could defend them, and could specify what a challenger would need to present to change the reporter’s mind.

Similarly, if Brisbane wants to assume that we must know Thomas’s state of mind to judge whether his “misunderstanding” claim is credible, he is free to do so. That might be a fair, correct assumption. Accordingly, as long as Brisbane lacks access to Thomas’s cranium, it’s perfectly reasonable that Brisbane feels uncomfortable concluding anything about the financial statement. Perhaps his set of assumptions would allow him to state that it was “highly unlikely” — that’s fine as well. It’s his argument; he gets to choose.

The important thing is that he makes those assumptions clear to us, the readers, those who have to receive and assess his position. The same goes for reporters.

“But there will be readers who say that the assumptions of Times reporters are unfair or subjective.”

Undoubtedly. But that possibility should not cause alarm, for three reasons.

First, those assumptions will be embedded in the journalism one way or the other. It is much more difficult for us, who are supposed to make use of the journalism in our lives, to know whether the assumptions are reasonable if we have to psychoanalyze each story.

Second, when readers say the assumptions of reporters are unfair, reporters have the opportunity to ask, “why?”

If readers provide a persuasive argument as to why, say, Fernandez’s assumptions are more reasonable than Brisbane’s, then in doing so reporters are informed that their work is incomplete. They have been informed that their conclusion does not check out because the foundations on which it was built are unstable. I would think that a reporter should see this as a benefit, as I assume reporters would not want to leave a false story uncorrected.

Is it really a big deal if a reporter’s assumptions were wrong now and again? It happens to everyone. But the reporter’s conclusion requires reexamination under a new set of assumptions.

Third, if readers do not provide a persuasive argument as to why the reporter’s assumptions were wrong, then the reporters need not change their minds. They and those readers will have differing assumptions. Life goes on. The readers can read something else if they please.

My thesis

Last week I posted my graduate thesis, Argument quality in Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, to this website. The posts to date and in the future on this blog are directly related to my research for the thesis, which was accepted at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in December 2011.

The Theoretical framework and literature review provides an argument for why theory in argumentation, informal logic, and critical thinking can be applied to journalism. The Results chapter summarizes what I found in testing my argument by analyzing stories from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism from the Los Angeles Times, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Discussion chapter provides some further comments.

I sincerely hope you have time to browse a chapter or two and offer some criticism.