Thursday, November 24, 2016

Journalism As Applied Social Science And The Third-Person Effect

Response To Critics

I am writing this post because my daughter told me to.

I won’t blame her if it fails, but I do want to credit her if it succeeds.

My daughter and I talked over the telephone earlier this month about the ways in which the journalism in this blog differs from most journalism.

She encouraged me to put into writing what I said and to share it with others.

So here goes.


When I started this blog as a hobby more than 10 years ago, I realized that I didn’t want to do the same kind of reporting and writing I had done as a professional journalist many years ago.

Professional journalists say they deal with “facts.”

They gather those “facts” and assemble them into a narrative.

As part of that narrative, they ask people to comment on the meaning of the facts, usually seeking out one or more people who interpret the “facts” in one way and one or more people who interpret the facts in different ways.

The result, in my view, is a confusing mishmash that isn’t likely to help people understand or even follow the narrative.

Alternative Perspective

After I left the practice of journalism in the early 1970s, I became a social scientist.

My field is mass communication, and during my career I’ve conducted a large number of surveys, I’ve run experiments, I’ve done observational studies and conducted in-depth interviews.

I’ve also run focus groups and done systematic analyses of various types of content. And I’ve used government and other types of records.

As a social scientist, I gather information, which I think of as “data points.”

These aren’t “facts.” Rather, they are pieces of information that are assembled for interpretation.

Presenting Data Points

I quite consciously see my reporting and writing on this blog as an application of my skills as a social scientist.

I present to the reader the information I have gathered through my observations and my use of records.

These are the data points.

For the most part, I don’t seek to explain the data points, comment on them, or interpret them.

I leave that task to the reader.

I also do not get quotes from others who could offer their interpretations of the data points.

Reader Criticism

I told my daughter in that conversation earlier this month that I had been criticized by several people during the recent campaign for the open Post II on the Board of Commissioners..

Specifically, I was criticized for a report I did on the proposed flyover of SR LOOP 10 to link the Oconee Connector with Daniells Bridge Road, on a story I did on campaign financing in the BOC campaign as well as on a follow up to that initial story, and on a story I did on analysis of the Nov. 8 election.

None of the three candidates in the election to fill the vacant Post II were among those who criticized the posts.

Commonality Of Complaints

What those complaints had in common were objections to my bringing together data points for the stories.

The critics said I was suggesting that people should interpret the data points in a way that the critics did not like.

One said I was suggesting a “conspiracy.”

Another said I should leave some of my data points out because the critic didn’t want to be a part of the story.

Third-Person Effect

The critics were concerned that “others” would interpret my data points in ways that the critics didn’t like.

We actually have a name for this in my field of mass communication.

It is called the “third-person effect.”

The argument of a third person effect is this: The message won’t have an effect on me, and I doubt it will have an effect on you, but I am pretty certain it will have an effect on the other guy, i.e., that third person.

People who believe the “third person” is affected by the message act based on that assumption, whether the assumption is correct or not.

Sampling Bias

Another element of the criticism is what I will call “sampling bias.”

Some critics feel that the data points I assemble in my posts are not reflective of the overall population of data points from which they are drawn.

This generally is reflected in the line “Why didn’t you also include this?”

“Your data points,” the critic says, “are a bad (incomplete or biased) sample of the data points available to you.”

In the criticism I’ve gotten on the election coverage, I’ve also seen the flip side of that.

The critics are saying I should leave data points out of my report.

Leave Me Out

The critics asking me to leave something out have argued for–not against--sampling bias.

They say I should not include things about them in my posts.

They do not challenge the accuracy of the data points. They are fearful of the interpretation by “others” if the data points are used.

If I insist on using the data points that involve them, they argue, I should also include their interpretations of those data points.

But there always are other interpretations.

In my view, if I were to include their interpretation and then seek out other interpretations, I would end up producing a spiraling cascade of “he said/she said” journalism that ends in a pool of confusion.

My Responses

I realize that people will interpret the data points I present.

I know from comments left on the blog that some people reach conclusions that I don’t feel are supported by the data.

I also recognize that the data points I present are an incomplete collection of those available.

I work hard to assemble as many data points as possible, and I often provide a fuller list of data points in the video I and others record of events and in the documents to which I provide links.

People can watch those videos and read those documents and pull out data points I miss.

Sometimes, readers see things I didn’t and pass them along to me. I use that information in subsequent posts or in responding to comments.

Journalism As Act Of Citizenship

My main purpose in writing posts for this blog is to share what I know with others in my community.

For me, journalism is an act of citizenship. It is a way for me to contribute to and be a part of the community.

I am very aware, however, that I am only one observer, and that we are all better served when many observe and share the observations.

And I accept that there will be multiple interpretations of the data we all present.

What we know as observers is incomplete, I told my daughter.

I am willing to trust the readers to understand the incomplete nature of the data and to take that into consideration in reaching the interpretation of the available data points.

I place my confidence in the “third person.”


Charles Davis said...

It is indeed an act of citizenship. And you provide an incredibly valuable act of citizenship with every post, Lee. Thank you!


rightway1974 said...

Thank you Lee for taking the time to write about issues that other local media will not cover. You are doing your readers a great service.

Maureen Buhr said...

I am so thankful for the 'data points' and perspective that you share with us. We are very fortunate that you provide this to us.

Debbie4bc said...

A journalist and a social scientist...what an excellent combination! In light of our current culture of journalism in this country, I cannot think of a better way to report "facts" than to allow the reader to draw his/her own conculsions through your collection of data points. I thank you for your painstaking work and continued dedication to your craft!

Anonymous said...

"If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to slaughter."-George Washington

"Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty- without freedom of speech."-Benjamin Franklin

"Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government."-Benjamin Franklin

I am an Oconee County resident that appreciates your articles based on facts and the responses by your readers.
You made us THINK!

barb carroll said...

oconee county is very fortunate to have this blog and all the work that goes into it. thank you, lee becker.

Anonymous said...

What a poorly-informed community we would be without you (and Sara Bell, to a certain extent) willing to attend the meetings we can't attend. record the videos, do the research that we would not know how to do, and present it all for our information. I have always been impressed by the fairness that you bring to this effort. I believe anyone who disagrees with that just has things they don't want to be brought out in public. Our community is blessed to have you. If we had to pay you, we couldn't afford to. Please keep on doing the fine job you're doing, and thank you.

Caroline said...

I appreciate your un-bias reporting. As a journalism major myself, I am disheartened by the media's coverage of news these days. Dean Drewry, Dr. Koop and others in the UGA School of Journalism taught us to present both sides - no written opinion whatsoever. I even had some bumper stickers made that read: "WANTED: Fair and Balanced Media."

Anonymous said...

Well said Dr Becker. Thanks for being a ray of light and acting on your daughter's wise counsel,
And Again showing that Sunlight is among the best disinfectants.

Anonymous said...

Great explanation, Lee. Keep up the super job of opening the eyes of the community to happenings in our county.

Lee Shearer said...

One of the exceptional things about your blog is the effort you make to be transparent about what you do and how you do it, as is evident in this post. You provide a great service to the people of Oconee County.

Dark Horse said...

Dude, keep up the awesome work and don't change a thing. We love it when you do that voo-doo that you do so well!

Anonymous said...

RFF said,
I don't see how you and your associates manage your career and their's delivering this amazing blog to our citizens. Every adult in this county should read it every day. I recommend it to every new person I meet.

Xardox said...

I read your blog AS information, and FOR information.
Since I know you, I understand your efforts to gather the "data points."
Great phrase, by the way.
When I am asked "How can I make a difference besides simply voting?"
I have a ready answer: "Stick your neck out."
That's what you do.
You present the Data Points fairly and accurately as far as I can tell,
yet putting them up for perusal and for context will of course result in the occasional discomfiture of those who rely on shadow, secrecy, obfuscation, misdirection and non-revelation.
I remain a loyal reader. And thank you for having a response box.

Jonathan Wallace said...

Keep up the excellent work. I recommend this blog to everyone I know too.

Anonymous said...

Lee- This is about the best and most balanced information for the citizens of the OC. If more people read it, it might actually result in an informed citizenry.


Zippity said...

I appreciate all you do so very much. Thank you and enjoyed reading the explanation.

Jessica Becker said...

I am sharing this with colleagues in Wisconsin. We have been talking about the third-person effect and this article is really helpful. Thanks, Dad! You inspire me daily!