The Press Release Contagion

One of the more remarkable, if disheartening aspects of the news industry is how much of the news is as artificially processed as Velveeta.  I’ve been in editorial meetings where the entire upcoming news cycle has depended on press releases from PR flacks.  What does that mean: it means the so-called journalists I was working with didn’t actually investigate anything.  They barely if ever left the building.  Instead, they became filters to separate good press releases from the bad ones.  If a release merited coverage, then that journalist would call some researchers to get some explanation and some quotes.  Never even has to leave the desk.  They write up a story, based largely on the release and a phone call, and presto, we have “news.” For fun you can see how different newspapers and magazines write up the same story. 

The inefficiencies in this editorial system are maddening.  They’re also one of the reasons the media industry as a whole is in decline.  (See Tribune, bankruptcy).  Consider all the salaries and benefits of those involved: PR flacks, journalists, editors, copy editors.  Consider the cost of office space for these people.  And then consider the emotional heat generated by the whole process: pitching press release based stories, convincing editors of their merit, a day long editing cycle where comments from editors and copy-editors must be met and dealt with.  It’d all be worthwhile if this actually produced useful information.  But it doesn’t. 

Consider the latest press release that won the hearts of editors around the world: a study from the British Medical Journal claiming happiness is contagious within a social network.  It’s a trendy bit of research, so it’s unsurprising the story appeared in hundreds of newspapers.  But unfortunately the journalists covering the story never took a statistics class.  They all have degrees in weak subjects like English Literature and Comp Lit.  Otherwise they would know the chant: correlation does not imply causation.  Sing it again: correlation does not imply causation. 

Thankfully the blogosphere is tearing down the edifice of Velveeta press release based journalism.  Justin Wolfers, an economist at UPenn who specializes in happiness studies, ruins the fun

There are (at least) three reasons why happiness is correlated within social networks. It may be that — as the authors posit — happiness is contagious. Or perhaps people with similar dispositions are more likely to be friends. Economists call this the confounder “selection effects,” while medical journals call it “homophily.” The authors partly account for this by adding statistical controls for the past happiness of both you and your friends.

The third reason is perhaps the most likely: if you and I are friends, we are often subject to similar influences. If a buddy of ours dies, we’ll both be less happy. Or, less dramatically, if our favorite football team wins, we’ll both be happier. But this isn’t contagious happiness — it is simply a natural outcome of the shared experiences of people in the same social circles. Unfortunately, observational data cannot distinguish the headline-grabbing conclusion — that happiness is contagious — from my more mundane alternative: friends have shared emotional influences.

Blogs have collapsed the distance between the expert and the public.  Publishers should sober up on that. The basic datum of this kind of news–the fact–no longer needs to wind its way through journalists, editors, and copy-editors before reaching the public.   Newspapers will continue to hemorrhage money until they realize this.  And journalists will continue to write bland, uninteresting, and sometimes false stories as long as they remain chained to their desks, wholly dependent on what Paul Graham calls “The Submarine.”


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