Bad Journalism

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January 31st, 2020 (Permalink)

Journalists Behaving Badly

The Power of Bad
January 30th, 2019 (Permalink)

The Power of Bad

Title: The Power of Bad

Subtitle: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It

Authors: John Tierney & Roy F. Baumeister

Date: 2019

Quote: All day long, the power of bad governs our moods and guides our decisions. It drives news and shapes public discourse as it's exploited by journalists, politicians, marketers, bloggers, social-media vipers, Internet trolls, and anyone else seeking attention on our screens. The past quarter century has been extraordinarily peaceful by historical standards, but people have witnessed more battles and bloodshed than ever before. The rate of violent crime in America has plummeted, but most people think it has gone up because they see it so often in the media. The steady diet of bad news makes people feel helpless.1

Comment: John Tierney and Roy Baumeister's new book, The Power of Bad, is not the sort of book I usually choose to discuss here. It appears to be a sort of self-help book encouraging people to take a more optimistic view of things. However, a previous New Book, Hans Rosling's Factfulness2, took a similar approach. Rosling's main point was that, if you look at the facts, there has been great progress in the past two centuries or so, yet many people don't realize it. Instead, they falsely believe that things have gotten worse and will only get worse still. So, Rosling, using statistics and graphs, tried to educate people out of their doom and gloom. In addition, Factfulness included discussions of the underlying types of attitudes that lead people to unwarranted pessimism, including what he called "the negativity instinct"3. Tierney and Baumeister also discuss this phenomenon:

Just about every measure of human well-being has improved except for one: hope. The healthier and wealthier we become, the gloomier our worldview. In international surveys, it's the richest people who sound the most pessimistic―and also the most clueless. Most respondents in developing countries like Nigeria and Indonesia know that living conditions have improved around the world, and they expect further improvement in the coming decades. But most respondents in affluent countries don't share that optimism because they don't realize how much progress is being made. In the past two decades, the rate of child mortality in developing countries has been halved, and the global poverty rate has been reduced by two-thirds, but most North Americans and Europeans think these rates have remained steady or gotten worse.4

So, my interest in the topic of this book is based partly on the fact that people often have these false beliefs. How is it that they arrive at them? Is there some kind of "negativity instinct" or "negativity effect", as Tierney and Baumeister call it5.

Since I've only just started reading the book, I can't yet criticize it, so the following comments are more issues to keep in mind while reading than criticisms. It seems to me that there are many different effects that explain the prevalence of unjustified negative beliefs, some psychological and others sociological, rather than one all-encompassing "power of bad". For instance, we tend to be lazy, so that politicians and activists have found a way to motivate us by playing on our fears or resentment. Similarly, the news media use those same strong emotions to attract readers or viewers, a fact that is cynically expressed by the old journalistic saying: "if it bleeds, it leads".

There are at least three distinct psychological phenomena involved in this sociological phenomenon:

  1. Negative emotions can motivate people, perhaps more strongly than positive ones, and we tend to be more interested in frightening events that evoke pity or anger than in "good news".
  2. The weird, wild, and wooly are more interesting than the everyday, which is expressed in another old journalistic saying: "dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is news". In other words, the unusual is news, not the usual. After all, if you want to experience some mundane events, all you have to do is open your eyes and look around. This has the perverse effect that the rarer a type of event―such as airliner crashes, shark attacks, or terrorism―the more newsworthy it is.
  3. Finally, there is what psychologists call "the availability heuristic", which is that people seem to judge the probability of a type of event based on how easy it is to remember or imagine an example. Given the efforts of journalists and activists to publicize bad news, we find it easy to remember examples of tragic events, and thus to over-estimate how likely they are. Statistics, such as those used by Rosling, are one tool for counter-acting this bias.

I'm also interested in the question of whether it is better to approach reforming the thinking that leads to these false beliefs by the via negativa of fallacies―such as in The Fallacy Files' entries and examples―or the via positiva of positive rules for reasoning―such as the rules of argumentation I've been writing over the last year. Anyway, what I'm hoping for from this book is a discussion of the ways in which our perception of the world is systematically distorted towards the bad, and how we can fight against this bias.


  1. P. 12, all page numbers refer to the new book.
  2. See: New Book: Factfulness, 8/28/2018.
  3. See: "The Negativity Instinct", Gapminder, 3/11/2018.
  4. P. 212.
  5. P. 1.

January 29th, 2020 (Permalink)

Poll Position

The Republicrat party is having its first caucus of the year to choose a presidential candidate. In a preliminary poll of caucus goers, 86% said that they could support candidate Adams. In the same poll, 74% might support candidate Buchanan. Also in the same poll, only 46% could give their support to candidate Carter. The percentages sum to greater than 100% because the caucus goers could pick more than one candidate to support.

What is the smallest percentage of Republicrat caucus participants who could support any of these three candidates?

January 24th, 2020 (Updated: 1/25/2020; Corrected: 1/27/2020) (Permalink)

Obituary: Jim Lehrer

I don't usually do obituaries, but newsman Jim Lehrer has died1. In addition to being a member of PBS' news team of MacNeil and Lehrer*, he anchored the follow-up News Hour for many years. Lehrer moderated many of the presidential debates for over a decade, and his performance should be a lesson to more recent moderators such as Candy Crowley and Abby Phillip2. Unfortunately, no one seems to be left with the stature and journalistic ethics of Lehrer, or at least those choosing the moderators haven't found any such replacement. Also, if more journalists made an honest effort to follow Lehrer's set of rules3 we would have better reporting than we do.

Update (1/25/2020): Lehrer on debate moderation:

Debates have qualities that require journalistic skills, tone, and approach, but a journalist participates as a facilitator, not as a gatherer of information. The moderator, journalist or not, must also keep the event fair and moving while staying out of the way.

I think it is safe and proper to note that all reporters―print or electronic―are not automatically suited to be moderators. Asking questions to get information for a story can be quite different from asking them to help voters understand what a candidate believes and stands for―and why.

I believe strongly that anyone asked to contribute his or her skills to an exercise as important to the country as a presidential or vice presidential debate has a duty to do so or have a very good reason for not doing so.

To me, it's on a par with pro bono legal or medical work. The only exemption would be for someone whose ego does not permit moving past the idea that a debate is about the moderator. That person should―must!―decline on his/her own to participate.4

Also sadly apropos of current events:

…I would advise interviewers/moderators to treat the questionee with the same courtesy and respect you would want if you were being questioned. I would tell anyone who wishes to prosecute people on television to stay out of journalism and away from moderator chairs/tables. Instead, go for a job as an assistant district attorney―in the real or fictional worlds. …

Some of the worst of all public questioners are members of the U.S. Congress. In particular, senators at televised hearings are too often in a subprime class by themselves.5

Correction (1/27/2020): I originally wrote that Lehrer was "the last surviving member" of MacNeil and Lehrer, implying that Robert MacNeil is dead. My apologies to Mr. MacNeil, who is still among the living, at least if Wikipedia can be believed. This is a good, if embarrassing to me, illustration of the old journalistic adage "if your mother says she loves you, check it out". My thanks to a public-spirited reader named Harry for notifying me of the mistake.


  1. "From Judy Woodruff: Longtime PBS NewsHour Anchor and Co-Founder Jim Lehrer Has Passed Away at 85", PBS News Hour, 1/23/2020.
  2. See: And Then There Were Six, 12/4/2020.
  3. Anne Azzi Davenport & Jeffrey Brown, "Remembering Jim Lehrer", PBS News Hour, 1/23/2020.
  4. Jim Lehrer, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain (2011), pp. 193-4.
  5. Ibid., p. 186.

January 21st, 2020 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 121: Proportion your beliefs to the evidence!

Despite the way people often talk, belief is not an all-or-nothing affair. Some of your beliefs will be stronger than others, and even your disbeliefs come in degrees. No doubt you believe very strongly that 2 + 2 = 4, as well you should, and also that the Earth is a sphere, but you should believe the mathematical fact more strongly than the astronomical one, because mathematical evidence is stronger than astronomical.

To proportion the strength of your convictions to the evidence that supports them means that a belief for which you have strong evidence should be a strong belief, and one for which you have minimal evidence should be weaker. How can you go about following this rule, that is, how should you evaluate the evidence in order to determine how to proportion your belief to it?

Imagine that in your mind is a set of old-fashioned scales, with two pans that allow you to weigh two sets of objects against one another. In your mental scales you will not be weighing physical objects against one another to see which is heavier; instead, you will weigh the evidence for and against an hypothesis in the mental pans. One mental pan will be for the evidence that supports the hypothesis, and the other for that which undermines it.

Having imagined your mental scales, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What hypothesis are you testing? Before you begin weighing evidence, be sure that you're clear about exactly what the hypothesis is, so that you put only relevant evidence into the appropriate pans.
  2. How plausible is the hypothesis? Before you allot the evidence, assess how likely the hypothesis is based on what you already know. An approximate, qualitative estimate of its plausibility is all that's needed: is it implausible, highly plausible, somewhat plausible, or highly implausible? If the hypothesis is a plausible one, then you should add some belief weight to the pan supporting it; if it is implausible, then some weight will go in the other pan. How much weight you put in either pan will depend upon exactly how plausible or implausible you judge the hypothesis to be2.

    Don't rate the hypothesis as certainly true or false3. It's okay to rate it extremely plausible or extraordinarily unlikely, but always leave open the possibility that the evidence might cause you to change your mind. Otherwise, you are dogmatically committed to the hypothesis, and there would be no point in trying to assess the effect of evidence upon it.

  3. How plausible is the evidence? Having rated the plausibility of the hypothesis, also rate the plausibility of the evidence for and against it. Some evidence is more plausible than other evidence, and thus should weigh more in the scales. For instance, suppose that one piece of evidence is an eyewitness report: such a report could weigh heavily if the witness is reliable, but would weigh much less if you found reasons to doubt the witness' eyesight or honesty.
  4. Have you included all of the evidence? Put all of the evidence into the pans of your mental scales, both the evidence in favor of the hypothesis and that against. Rule 8 asked you to consider all of the evidence, both positive and negative, and it's now time to put that evidence to use. To ignore the evidence against a favorite hypothesis would tend to falsely tilt the scales too far in favor of that hypothesis, which is why it's important not to leave any evidence out4.
  5. In which direction and how far do the scales tilt? Having considered all of the evidence and weighed that which supports the hypothesis against that which undermines it, you are now ready to adjust your belief. Remember that belief is not an all-or-nothing affair and the purpose of this exercise is to adjust your belief to the evidence. Does the evidence support or go against the hypothesis? How strongly does the evidence favor one side or the other? How do you need to adjust your belief: do you need to change its direction entirely, or just its degree?

    Finally, if the scales balance evenly, or close to evenly, don't be afraid to suspend judgment on the hypothesis. There are many hypotheses about which we do not have enough evidence to judge, and some about which we probably never will have enough. There's nothing wrong with concluding: "I don't know."

Next Month: The Final Rule


  1. Previous entries in this series:
    1. Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
    2. Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
    3. Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
    4. Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
    5. Rule of Argumentation 5: Be as precise as necessary!, 5/29/2019.
    6. Rule of Argumentation 6: Defend your position!, 7/7/2019.
    7. Rule of Argumentation 7: Aim at objectivity!, 8/9/2019.
    8. Rule of Argumentation 8: Consider all the evidence!, 9/19/2019.
    9. Rule of Argumentation 9: Agree about what you disagree about!, 10/20/2019.
    10. Rule of Argumentation 10: Attack or defend claims!, 11/12/2019.
    11. Rule of Argumentation 11: Make your arguments relevant to claims!, 12/22/2019.
  2. This is the basis for the saying, made popular by astronomer Carl Sagan, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In contrast, ordinary claims only need ordinary evidence to support them. See: Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1980), p. 73.
  3. Only logical and mathematical statements should be believed or disbelieved with certainty. There is evidence in logic and mathematics, but the role it plays is quite different than that suggested by the scales metaphor. In the case of such a statement, there is no weighing of evidence for and against; rather, it is a theorem if and only if it can be proven. The rules of argumentation are concerned with the kind of statements and evidence that do not admit of logical certainty, which include all of the statements of empirical science and ordinary life.
  4. To ignore evidence against a pet hypothesis, or to weigh the evidence less than it deserves, is what psychologists mean by "confirmation bias", that is, a bias in favor of evidence that confirms one's favored hypothesis.

January 16th, 2019 (Permalink)
Debate Watch

And Then There Were Six

Ten little Democrats standing in a line;
One toddled home and then there were nine.
Nine little candidates having a debate;
One's polling dropped and then there were eight.
Eight little debaters is better than eleven;
One fell asleep and then there were seven.
Seven li'l arguers up to their tricks;
One lost his way and then there were six.1

For the first candidate forum of the election year, held a couple of nights ago, the Democratic party finally whittled the slate down to six. I'd like to see even fewer candidates, and we eventually will, but an additional problem with these so-called debates is that the format usually doesn't encourage debating. I sometimes wonder whether a generation of young people are growing up thinking that this is how debates are conducted.

The most famous political debates in American history were the ones between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, when Lincoln was running for senator from Illinois against incumbent Douglas. The seven debates took place between just the two candidates, and there wasn't even a moderator as far as I know. The debates lasted three hours with the first speaker speaking for an hour, followed by the second speaking for ninety minutes, and the first speaker also speaking last for thirty minutes2. Of course, I doubt that most people today would sit still for a three-hour debate―in fact, I probably wouldn't have patience for one myself―but a shorter one with a similar format might work.

In addition to the lack of journalists asking questions and controlling who speaks, the Lincoln-Douglas (L-D) debates had a de facto topic: slavery. While I wouldn't expect candidates to debate a resolution, as is common in formal debate, it's not unusual for the current forums to focus on a broad topic area, such as the economy or foreign policy. So, L-D style debates on a subject, such as health care or the environment, with one moderator whose only tasks would be to introduce the candidates and topic, ask an opening question, and keep the speakers within their time limits, might produce some worthwhile argumentation.

One reason I advocate reducing, or even eliminating, the role of moderators is that too often they interject themselves, or take sides in the debates. The most egregious recent example was Candy Crowley3, who both interjected herself, as if she were a participant instead of a moderator, and took a candidate's side. A similar example occurred the other night, and it's received considerable attention4:

Moderator Abby Phillip of CNN: Let's now turn to an issue that's come up in the last 48 hours. Senator [Bernie] Sanders, CNN reported yesterday that―and Senator [Elizabeth] Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election. Why did you say that?

Senator Bernie Sanders: Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't say it. … Anybody knows me knows that it's incomprehensible that I would think that a woman cannot be president of the United States. Go to YouTube today. There's a video of me 30 years ago talking about how a woman could become president of the United States. In 2015, I deferred, in fact, to Sen. Warren. There was a movement to draft Sen. Warren to run for president. And you know what, I stayed back. Sen. Warren decided not to run, and I then―I did run afterwards. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States? …

Phillip: So Sen. Sanders, I do want to be clear here, you're saying that you never told Sen. Warren that a woman could not win the election?

Sanders: That is correct.

Phillip: Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?


Senator Elizabeth Warren: I disagreed. Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie. …5

At this point, the disagreement between Sanders and Warren is a "he said-she said" one, since there don't seem to be any recordings or other witnesses to the exchange. The fact that they disagree about what Sanders said doesn't necessarily mean that either is lying, since one or both may misremember6. However, my purpose here is not to adjudicate the question of "did he or didn't he?", but to examine the moderator's performance.

Abby Phillip's first question to Sanders is a loaded one7: "Why did you say that?" This, of course, assumes that Sanders did say it, something that he immediately denies. Phillip could have asked, instead: "Did you say that and, if so, why?"

In addition, Phillip's setting up of the context of the question begs the question of whether Sanders said it: "…CNN reported yesterday that―and Senator Warren confirmed in a statement, that in 2018 you told her that you did not believe that a woman could win the election." Phillip's use of the word "confirmed" presumes that Sanders did indeed say it, since you can't "confirm" something that isn't true.

After Sanders denied the accusation twice, Phillip then turned to Warren and asked: "Sen. Warren, what did you think when Sen. Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?" I have included the editorial annotation in the transcript indicating audience laughter after this question, which is something I would ordinarily remove. In this case, I left it in because I think it's revealing. Why did the audience laugh at this question? I think it's because it so brazenly takes Warren's side.

Why did Phillip question the candidates in this way? She interrogated Sanders like a prosecutor questioning a suspect, and then questioned Warren as if she were the victim. Was it political bias in favor of Warren, sexual bias in taking the side of another woman against a man, or bias in favor of her network's "scoop"? I don't know the answer to these questions, but I don't need to answer them. A way to stop this sort of thing is to get rid of the moderators, or at least minimize the role they play. Let the candidates debate and let the reporters report.

This will be the last of these forums before the Iowa caucuses, which take place on the third of next month8, marking the start of the primary season. We should see a more rapid diminishment of the number of candidates as the primaries filter out those with minimal support. Hopefully, we will also see a diminishment in the number of moderators.


  1. Based on the traditional nursery rhyme "Ten Little Indians".
  2. See, NCC Staff, "Great debates? It started with Lincoln and Douglas", National Constitution Center, 9/26/2016.
  3. See: Second Presidential Debate Logic Check, Part 2, 10/20/2012.
  4. See, for instance: Joe Concha, "CNN moderator criticized for question to Sanders", The Hill, 1/15/2020.
  5. "Read the full transcript of Tuesday night's CNN/Des Moines Register debate", Des Moines Register, 1/15/2020.
  6. There's supposedly a recording of Sanders and Warren accusing each other of lying after the debate was over, see: Lisa Kashinsky, "Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders accuse each other of lying in post-debate confrontation", Boston Herald, 1/15/2020.
  7. See: Loaded Question.
  8. CNN Staff, "Fact check of the January Democratic debate", CNN, 1/14/2020.

January 10th, 2020 (Permalink)

So Long, Marianne

So long, Marianne
It's time that we began
To laugh and cry
And cry and laugh
About it all, again1

In an unsurprising move, Marianne Williamson has officially left the race for the presidency2. Her campaign never really got going as her poll numbers languished in the low single-digits. She appeared in the first couple of Democratic candidate forums, but only because the entrance requirements were so low. As the heights of the hurdles were raised, especially the polling one, Williamson disappeared from the platform. Without the publicity from such appearances, she didn't have much of a chance to increase her polling numbers or contributions3.

One reason I paid as much attention to Williamson as I did is that the current occupant of the White House was also a celebrity and political novice. So, even though she was a long shot, there was a precedent for her nomination and even election. Despite the failure of her campaign, I don't think Williamson will be the last candidate to try to make the jump from celebrity to president.

Another reason that Williamson stood out from the pack were her vague but potentially dangerous "spiritual" beliefs, which included a general suspicion of science and specific doubts about the value and safety of vaccination4. She appeared to believe that the physical world is an illusion that can be manipulated by our thoughts, so that hurricanes can be prayed back out to sea5.

Of course, it's possible that if Williamson had been nominated and elected she would have dropped the wishful thinking approach to solving problems. Candidate Trump also flirted with the anti-vaccination position, but thankfully he seems not to have followed through as president6. Perhaps Williamson would have done the same thing, but now we'll never know.


  1. Leonard Cohen, "So Long, Marianne", Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967.
  2. Maggie Astor, "Marianne Williamson Drops Out of 2020 Race", The New York Times, 1/10/2020.
  3. For analysis of why her campaign failed, see: Nathaniel Rakich, "Why Marianne Williamsonís Unconventional Presidential Bid Didnít Catch On", 538, 1/10/2020.
  4. See:
  5. See: Marianne Williamson Channels Pat Robertson, 9/6/2019.
  6. See: Ivan Couronne, "Trump tells Americans measles vaccination 'so important'", AFP, 4/26/2019.

Poll Watch
January 4th, 2020 (Permalink)

Reply Hazy, Try Again1

The election is still ten months away, and the Democratic challenger to the incumbent has yet to be chosen, yet polls are already being done to measure support for the potential nominees against that incumbent in so-called swing states, such as Virginia and Florida. Cases in point:

President Donald Trump would beat every Democratic candidate in the swing states of Virginia and Florida except for former Vice President Joe Biden, according to a pair of polls from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. In a hypothetical matchup, Biden narrowly edges Trump in Florida by 2 percentage points, 47%-45%. Trump leads Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 51%-42%; Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 49%-44%; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 49%-45%. Biden's lead over Trump is slightly wider in Virginia, where the former vice president leads the incumbent 49%-45%. The other Democrats trail the president in the state. The poll says Trump beats Warren 48%-44%, Sanders 51%-45% and Buttigieg 47%-45%.2

Presumably, these polls are asking about hypothetical match-ups between various contenders and the champ, as opposed to matching the Democrats against one another, because winning the general election is important to Democratic voters.

One thing to keep in mind about state polls is that they are often based on smaller samples than national ones. Sample size and margin of error (MoE) are negatively related, that is, the less you have of one the more you get of the other. So, the smaller the sample, the larger the MoE. As is typical of poll reporting, you have to go all the way to the end of the article to find out how the poll was conducted. Although this article does not reveal the sample sizes3, it does tell us the MoE for both polls in the last paragraph:

The Virginia poll was conducted via telephone from Dec. 12-16, and the Florida poll was conducted from Dec. 11-16. Both have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.2

The MoE for both of these polls is a percentage point larger than most national polls, and the only leads that exceed it are Trump's over Warren and Sanders in Florida and over Sanders in Virginia. However, the Virginia primary is about two months from today, and the Florida one a fortnight after that4. Moreover, both of these polls were conducted in the middle of last month, so the results are two weeks old. Much can happen in two and a half to three months to change the standings of the candidates with respect both to each other and to the incumbent. Even more can change in ten months than in a couple as potential voters become familiar with the candidates and one eventually emerges as the nominee.

So, due to the large MoE and the long time before the election, these two polls don't tell us much about who would beat whom in these states. Of course, they may be better than asking the magic eight ball, but not by much.


  1. This is one of the possible answers of "The Magic Eight Ball" divination toy.
  2. William Cummings, "Trump would beat every Democrat but Biden in Florida and Virginia, polls say", USA Today, 12/31/2019. Thanks to Jonathan Sanders for bringing these polls to my attention.
  3. For the sample sizes see the Mason-Dixon reports on the polls:
  4. Kathryn Watson, "When the major primaries and caucuses are happening―and how they work", CBS News, 1/2/2020.

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