January 05, 2007

Not the WOTY

It's become a New Year's tradition for individuals and organizations to evaluate the past and predict the future. For example, the American Dialect Society will have its annual "Word of the Year" vote this evening here in Anaheim, where I'm attending the co-located meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. (Ben Zimmer invited WOTY nominations just before Christmas -- "ADS WOTY: Make your nominations", 12/24/2006). A less democratic example of New Year's pontification: the BBC World Service's "Culture Shock" program for 1/1/2007. The website sets the haughty tone:

This week on Culture Shock, as we mark the beginning of the new year, Lawrence Pollard is joined by a council of experts who will tell us what 2007 has in store for us.

Our very exclusive line-up consists of a business innovator, a technology visionary and two of the world's leading trend spotters.

Our four prophets will give us a glimpse of the future as they each tell us what will be the defining trend of the next twelve months.

New trends need new terms, of course, and so the four "very exclusive" experts had four new words or phrases to offer. My own prediction: none of these terms are going to make the short list for next year's ADS WOTY. The concepts are all interesting, though not likely to be news to anyone who been paying attention for the past few years. But I selected this particular display of ritual punditry to present to you because one of the identified trends is the changing relationship between the press and the public -- a topic we've touched on from time to time here at Language Log. And the "expert" who identified the "trend" contributed some interesting comments, along with one of the least promising neologisms in recent memory: zombietiming.

Here's my transcript of the expert's summaries at the start of the show:

Lawrence Pollard: Hello, I'm Lawrence Pollard, and welcome to a very special edition of Culture Shock, four leading experts in the fields of technology, business, marketing and trend prediction are here today, to tell us what 2007 has in store for us. Our four prophets will give us a glimpse of the future as they tell us each what they predict will be the defining trend of the next twelve months. And without further delay, let me introduce our council of experts. With me in London is one of our best-known writers on the latest and future developments in technology David Rowan. whom you can also find writing in the pages of the London Times. Very briefly, David, what's your trend for two thousand and seven?
David Rowan: I'm very excited about crowd-sourcing, which is like out-sourcing, but using the power of on-line networks to make things and develop things.
Lawrence Pollard: Crowd-sourcing coming up soon, look forward to that; Tim Jackson is also here in London. Tim is a business entrepreneur and writer, recently selected as one of the one hundred global leaders of tomorrow, at the world economic forum in Davos, no less. In addition, business people in the new economy recently voted him one of the most important people they would like to have in their contact book. He's in our s- he's here, Tim, thanks for coming, again, briefly, what do you think will be shaping two thousand and seven?
Tim Jackson: I think the biggest trend is gonna be something which I call zombietiming, and it's exceptionally bad news for journalists, because it's a trend where people out there on the web will be checking facts of television, radio and newspapers, and calling people to account when they get them wrong.
Lawrence Pollard: So we could all be out of a job. Thank you Tim. We have more from that in a minute; joining us from Helsinki is Anna Moilanen a former executive of Finland's leading advertising company. She now divides her time between predicting the future and working for Artek, an innovative design company Anna, welcome; give us your idea of what new trend will come up in two thousand and seven.
Anna Moilanen: I want to talk about something that I call new utopia, or a journey from ((??)) to soul and what this means in brief is first of all saying no to mediocre dreams, so being courageous enough to have big dreams, and then also that culture and civilization are back in fashion
Lawrence Pollard: A new utopia, coming soon, thank you very much indeed, from Finland, and last but far from least, Mary Meehan joins us from Minneapolis in the United States. Mary is the co-founder and executive vice president of Econoculture one of the world's leading consumer trend research agencies. She also co-authored the book "The future ain't what it used to be, The forty cultural trends transforming your job, your life, your world." That's what this program is about; Mary, thanks for joining us, in a nutshell, what is your big trend for two thousand and seven?
Mary Meehan: I'm looking at niche as the new mainstream; by ignoring consumer groups outside the mainstream, companies are leaving millions of dollars and pesos and pounds on the table, so it's innovative, progressive who are focusing on these niche groups, developing new products and services and gaining new market share and brand value.
Lawrence Pollard: Mary, many thanks indeed.

We now skip 20 minutes or so about crowd-sourcing, the new utopia, and niche as the new mainstream... Listen to it, if you like. (I'll confess again my secret shame: adolescent experience with Monty Python has left me with an ineradicable stereotype of BBC panel discussions. The accent, the format and the moderator's little verbal tics are enough to make me laugh out loud at entirely inappropriate times.)

The program ends with the discussion of Tim Jackson's trend. (To understand the background of the name, you'll need to read the discussion on the website www.zombietime.com of "The Red Cross Ambulance Incident: How the Media Legitimized an Anti-Israel Hoax and Changed the Course of a War", 8/23/2006.)

Lawrence Pollard: And so finally, we come to Tim Jackson for our last big trend of two thousand and seven. Now, Anna's just been telling us how two thousand and seven will become less cynical but uh Tim, uh you're predicting we're going to grow more skeptical; you've got the best name for a trend: "zombie timing" Uh now this goes back, I gather, to the enormous amount of argument in blogging sites and on the internet over the reporting of a rocket attack during the Lebanon war, basically um whether or not a Red Cross ambulance had been hit by an Isla- Israeli rocket, and if it had been reported properly by the news agencies, and so this is a story that just mushroomed, and went on, and your point is that this is going to go on and grow and it's gonna become one of the big things of two thousand and seven.
Tim Jackson: Absolutely. W- we all know that journalists work under tremendous time pressure; like tennis players or policemen or soldiers, they have to find the right balance between doing the best job they can and getting it done in time, finishing it by the deadline. I remember in- uh the first job I had was working as a reporter in Tokyo and my boss would growl at me across the office "don't get it right, get it written!" The only time that a- that a journalist, whether it's television or radio or newspaper uh tends to actually be subjected to really detailed scrutiny of what he or she is doing is if there's a court case. But I believe in a growing trend this ultimate nightmare is actually going to become an everyday reality for journalists around the world. The oddity is, and what I think what the newspapers fail to grasp, is that something has changed in the world of journalism. It used to be the case that readers decided a newspaper that they trusted, and then relied on the reporter once they picked their newspaper or their television station or their radio station. Now, it seems to be the case that story by story, journalists have to expect that if they're making a controversial claim they've got to back it up with proof. Now wh- the reason I call this trend "zombietiming" is because the website that brought together all this information is called zombietime.com. And do you trust bloggers more than you trust journalists? Absolutely not. The key thing about the story is that it's not about preferring one community of people to another. It's a way in a bit like "crowd-sourcing" that David was talking about before. It's about the power of a large number of people who are each individual experts in some microscopic field coming together to examine something. If I had written a report of something that happened, it would be very uncomfortable to me to find that the ten greatest experts in the world on that particular topic happened to come and read my story and scrutinize it. And I think that's something that's gonna- that's gonna become more and more common. Now how does this get bigger? Because there's- there isn't a limitless number of bloggers reading a limited number of you know BBC copy or CNN copy or- or newspaper or so and so, how does this actually develop? Well I think the fascinating thing is that it's a bit like a beehive. That there's no central organizing force directing the crowd of bloggers, telling them go and focus on this story, or go and focus on that story. What's happening is that thousands and- an increasing number, perhaps in future even tens of thousands of bloggers who are interested in different areas of the news will individually make decisions about what they find interesting.

I'm skeptical of the view that this is about time pressures and deadlines, or that it's about generalists vs. experts.

The bloggers who have detected various mainstream-media mistakes and outright frauds don't have more time on their hands than journalists do -- as individuals, at least, the bloggers generally have less time, since they have day jobs as well. And the overall number of bloggers effectively fact-checking the media is not that large. Overall, I suspect that the number of serious bloggers dealing with any given story is very small compared to the number of reporters and editors working on it.

And in most cases, the bloggers are not experts to start with. Instead, they learn what they need in order to do the critical evaluation that the journalists skipped. That was certainly the case with the famous CBS Rathergate memo, and the faked Reuters pictures, and it seems to be true of the zombietime ambulance story as well.

The problem, it seems to me, is that many journalists and media organizations appear to put accuracy rather low on their list of priorities. Of course, the desire not to look like an idiot is somewhat higher, but in the old days, as Jackson observed, a journalist's version of the facts (and their interpretation) was hardly ever subject to public scrutiny except in court. What's changed? First, web search means that WCFCYA quickly and conveniently; and second, weblogs and other social media publicize the results of fact-checking cheaply and effectively.

This has been obvious to most people for three or four years -- but it's nice to see the punditocracy catching on, even at the BBC.

The discussion continues:

Lawrence Pollard: How does that strike you, Mary Meehan in Minneapolis, is this something that you can imagine happening?
Mary Meehan: Oh, absolutely, this is a really interesting development, I think. The lack of trust that has been developing for institutions, media being one of those, you know, all the corporate scandals, government scandals, the church, you know, there is just this lack of trust out there; that lack of trust drives bloggers' needs to prove the media wrong, bust the myths and expose the lies, to you know, be it lies or not, and they have the power and the platform now to do it!
Lawrence Pollard: Now I've- I can-
Mary Meehan: So they- they just don't trust something they can't see through, it's that transparency that they- that they demand and expect, and they are gong to expose it if they can't get at it. The concern would be, in proving or sourcing the bl- the bloggers' claims as well.
Lawrence Pollard: Mm, that is a-
Mary Meehan: Sounds like a lot more work for journalists, to me.
Lawrence Pollard: David Rowan, uh what do you think about this? You- you're actively involved in newspapers, at the sharp end?
David Rowan: Tim's right, and it's a very good thing that the invincibility of experts is being challenged, and in the Lebanon war as well you might remember there was a- a Reuters photograph of smoke [... somewhat naccurate discussion of the Reuters photoshopped and posed photographs omitted...]
Tim Jackson: I don't think we should expect to see a decline overall in the trust of journalists; I think journalists are no more and no less perfect than investment bankers or policemen or sports stars. What I think it's about is transferring people's allegiance from the brand of the publisher to an individual reporter. And I think that we will come to know increasingly in detail which individual reporters uh can be relied on. And therefore I think the key trend is that journalists are going to have to be especially careful in making it clear whether they're reporting something that somebody claims or whether they are themselves asserting that it's true. I do think however there's one important warning that should be made for the future. Um inside newspapers and television stations there's often a job whose title is to be fireman and to be a fireman or fire fighter means to stay in head office and when something big happens in the world, whether it's a natural disaster or a war, you're the person that gets on a plane with a folder full of cuttings you fly into the country and you then report back within a day or so on the basis of almost zero knowledge. I think the days of the fire fighter are numbered, because fire fighters are inevitably less informed than an intelligent local.

I'm also skeptical that journalistic "branding" is generally being transferred from publications to individual journalists, or that "intelligent locals" are the solution.

It's true that I often evaluate writers individually, whether they work in traditional media or not. Focusing on the Middle East, for example, I tend to trust what Michael Totten has to say on his blog, whether or not I agree with his conclusions, because he's convinced me over time that he's honest and careful and insightful. And I'd continue to trust him if he started writing for the New York Times or doing reports for CNN. On the language beat, there are writers like Michael Erard and Jan Freeman and Nathan Bierma whose work I trust. And it's their bylines that matter, not the publications their work happens to appear in.

But in my opinion, the most accurate and insightful journalism around these days can be found in the pages of the Economist, which has no bylines at all. And I'm much more likely to trust something in the New York Times or the Washington Post if it's by a staff writer than if it comes from the AP or Reuters, whose standards seem to have become remarkably low. And I'm sorry to say that when I read something from BBC News, I start with the preconception that it's likely to be, well, sort of stupid, never mind whose byline is on it.

I don't think this is just me -- there's no sign that (say) Fox and NPR are losing their brand identity as distinctive outlets in the media marketplace.

As for using "intelligent locals" instead of generalist "fire fighters", that also seems to be a red herring. I'm all for getting locals -- whether the locality is geographic, cultural or intellectual -- more involved in public discourse. But locals are no more and no less likely than outsiders to care about accuracy or to think critically; and locals are more likely than outsiders to have a chip on their shoulder.

My fellow linguists are, on the whole, intelligent, knowledgeable and sensible people. And if the mainstream media hired more trained linguists as columnists and reporters, coverage of the language beat would surely improve. But my colleagues have the usual human range of attitudes towards the relative importance of finding the truth, telling a good story, and winning an argument. Expertise is only part of the story here, and maybe not the biggest part.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 5, 2007 10:58 AM