Does Journalism Need New Ethics?

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Folks, here’s an excerpt of a blog post I wrote for Poynter. Please click here to read the whole story.

When I saw a story recently in the New Republic asserting that Silicon Valley has become one of “the most ageist places in America,” I was taken aback.

As far as I can tell, there is discrimination against older people in the business world, but it’s no different from what I’ve seen through a 38-year career. It doesn’t surprise me, since I’ve faced what might be ageism (I’m 61), but maybe I have been discriminated because I’m balding, short, and pudgy.

Still, I have concerns that readers might take this particular story about ageism as proven fact — even though the reporting seems to be mostly anecdotal.

The story characterizes a group of maybe a million people based on a small sample size and, to me, a handful of the anecdotes seemed not so good, not so trustworthy. As a very literal guy (nerd) I assume that the headline and the body of the article are telling me that the vast majority of folks in Silicon Valley are guilty of a form of bigotry.

In the middle of my reflection, I read an interview with Aron Pilhofer from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Pilhofer runs a newsroom team at The New York Times that combines journalism, social media, technology and analytics. Some of his comments about data journalism, culture and going digital, seemed to echo my criticism of the New Republic’s piece on ageism.

“Journalism is one of the few professions that not only tolerates general innumeracy but celebrates it,” said Pilhofer in the interview.

“It’s a cultural problem. There is still far too much tolerance for anecdotal evidence as the foundation for news stories.”

Pilhofer’s comments confirmed what I was already thinking, that anecdotes are great clues as to what might be going on, but sometimes they are cherry-picked to confirm what a writer already believes. That’s to say that they can reinforce truthiness and preconceived notions.

I view hard data as complementary to anecdotal evidence. We need to balance both. If somebody asserts something factual, I want them to back it up with more than anecdotes, so that readers can trust it.

I turned to friends I’ve made in the journalism world for their opinions. Since I’m just a news consumer, not a professional journalist, I wanted their expert opinions. I asked them each to respond to this question:

When is anecdotal reporting enough to support broad conclusions without concrete data? This recent article on ageism in Silicon Valley seemed to paint an entire group of people based a handful of examples. Is that fair?

You can read folks’ responses over on Poynter. And, I’d like to hear what you think, too. Please share your opinions in the comments below. And be sure and check out the Harvard Business Review article How Old Are Silicon Valley’s Top Founders? Here’s the Data.

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