October 26, 2007

Shoe-leather reporting and Gresham's Law of Headlines

Fev at headsup: the blog muses on current standards of evidence among (certain classes of) journalists ("Journalism, Science, Grammar", 10/23/2007), and redefines a term:

That's why we call it "shoe-leather reporting," kids. When you read a column that appears to result from one possibly apocryphal encounter with an elderly acquaintance, one hypothetical party and one afternoon on Facebook, you take off a shoe and hit yourself on the head until shards of leather form a pile at your desk.

He has a modest suggestion:

Maybe when we write about stuff in the observable world, we should assume that people are going to ask us how we know it. And we could assign different values to different sorts of claims about truth. And people who had more evidence to support what they said would get better play, and people who were just blowing smoke would be consigned to the far outer circles of hell. Or something.

Think it'll work?

Not for columnists -- the international taxi-drivers association would never allow it. And as for the rest of the journalistic enterprise, there seems to be some sort of Gresham's Law of Headlines that penalizes those who operate by Fev's guidelines. Overvalued stories drive undervalued ones out of circulation; or more succinctly, sensationalist headlines drive out honest ones. I'd like to say that science works the way he recommends, but in my experience, I'm afraid that this is true only in the aggregate and on longish time scales.

[I also can't help noting Fev's implication that the "far outer circles of Hell" are worse than the inner ones. This seems exactly right, in fact, since the few exceptionally evil denizens of the innermost circles get (and deserve) lots of coverage, whereas the many less extreme sinners in the outer circles are more numerous but mostly (and justly) ignored. Except perhaps by certain novelists.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 26, 2007 06:29 AM