Saturday, January 29 2022

Dive In


People worry that AI has surpassed humans, but we doubt AI will claim this award anytime soon. One might think that the TED brand of bullshit is just a cocktail of sound-bite science, management-speak, and techno-optimism. But it's not so easy. You have to stir these elements together just right, and you have to sound like you believe them. For the foreseeable future, computers won't be able to make the grade.

That comes from the book 'Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World’ by Carl T Bergstrom and Jevin West.


It's a fun, entertaining and educational read with examples everyone can relate with and learn from. Bullshit packaged with charts and numbers is rampant in the modern media ecosystem. The authors are concerned about it and their solution is data literacy.


From the book: "Of course an advertisement is trying to sell you something, but do you know whether the TED talk you watched last night is also bullshit—and if so, can you explain why? Can you see the problem with the latest New York Times or Washington Post article fawning over some startup's big data analytics? Can you tell when a clinical trial reported in the New England Journal or JAMA is trustworthy, and when it is just a veiled press release for some big pharma company?"


The book aims to help you think critically about data and models. If you have no background in statistics, it's meant for you—the authors say why you don’t need statistical training to identify and be immune against bullshit. You can spot empirical mistakes that numbers people will tell you are beyond your comprehension without knowing the specifics of what they do. All you need are better tools to think clearly.


Editor’s Note: Splainer now republishes Samarth Bansal’s excellent newsletter ‘The Interval’—a fortnightly deep dive that drops on Saturday. Samarth possesses a rare combination of an IIT degree and extensive journalistic experience. In his words, he is deeply invested in “rigorous, fact-based, data-informed and thoughtful reporting” that helps us “understand the impossibly complex world we live in.” His work has appeared in the Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Mint, HuffPost India, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and Quartz. You can learn more about him and his work here


PS: The analysis and opinion offered in Samarth’s newsletter are his own. Please feel free to share your feedback with him at samarthbansal@protonmail.com.

The Interval

A different way to think about Indian media

The TLDR: Is the Indian media broken beyond repair? Or is it thriving as feisty regional and independent outlets report truth to power? The answer lies not in the specifics but the larger systems. The answer is also complicated, not even remotely captured by tweet-sized debates that often occupy our attention.

Hi, this is Samarth. Welcome to The Interval, a fortnightly newsletter to think deeply about the truth-seeking process and forces that distort it. You can read more about it and sign up here.


I often find myself making two contradictory arguments about the Indian press. 


One, it's decaying: Both the producers of news (journalists) and consumers of news (readers and viewers) agree that Indian media is a terrible mess. I don’t know a single person who does not complain. Journalists rant the most about everything that is wrong with their profession: inadequately covered stories; reports that were killed; articles without context; interviews minus tough questions; planted scoops; sensational headlines; lack of diversity, and so on. My diary is littered with frustration. All that the world gets to see is the journalistic output—which, however egregious, doesn’t capture the true extent of the rot in the Indian press. 


Two, it's thriving: There are problems, sure, but Indian journalism is not dying a slow death—and it is not on a ventilator—contrary to what one activist-journalist told an American news channel last year. Amid a tough political climate, precarious economic conditions and transformative technological changes, journalists are, given all the constraints, pushing the bar to do their jobs. If I have a list of things that frustrate me, I also have a list of stories that make me envious (“I wish I had reported that story”). The alarmist ideologues writing obituaries of Indian journalism fail to draw the line between criticism and cynicism. The singular focus on the increasing volume of bad information in our public sphere blinds them to the good work done by reporters and editors that is happening across mediums and languages. 


Can both these views be simultaneously true? How to handle this cognitive dissonance?


The only way to resolve this paradox, I now realise, is to think differently, to think in systems. Take a look. 


In his book ‘Why We're Polarized’, American journalist Ezra Klein draws on the work of safety expert Sidney Dekker to distinguish between two different ways of diagnosing why a system is failing. 


Standard way:


“The most traditional, and the most common, approach is we see a problem, hunt for the broken part, and try to replace it. Dekker studies accidents, so his examples are plane crashes and oil spills, where catastrophe is followed by an obsessive search for the nut that proved defective, the maintenance check that got missed, the wing flap that cracked in the cold. But much political analysis follows this model, too. American politics is broken, and the problem is money, political correctness, social media, political consultants, or Mitch McConnell. Fix the part, these analyses promise, and you fix the whole.”


Systems thinking:


"The reality, Dekker says, is that complex systems often fail the public even as they’re succeeding by their own logic. If you discover the screw that failed or the maintenance shift that was missed, you might think you’ve found the broken part. But if you miss the way the stock market was rewarding the company for cutting costs on maintenance, you’ve missed the cause of the crisis, and failed to prevent its recurrence. Systems thinking, he writes, is about understanding how accidents can happen when no parts are broken, or no parts are seen as broken."


In other words, a system is more than the sum of its parts. Only looking at the individual elements leads to misguided solutions which miss the root cause of the problem. To think in systems, we need to look at each element of the system and its relationships with other elements and map how all of it comes together to generate the behaviour we are observing. But while it's easy to identify elements, it's hard to identify relationships. 


I haven’t cracked my big systems theory of the Indian media yet (it's a work in progress) but one thing is clear: looking at the elements alone—which includes everyone from media owners to journalists to citizens—always leads to apocalyptic visions of the Indian press. We blame specific people and publications for the terrible mess we inhabit. We look at daily coverage and feel hopeless about the broken system. 


But systems thinking says we need to move beyond individual elements and short-term events and look at relationships and long-term behaviour to understand the structure of the problem. It complicates matters—but it also gives me hope. 


In today’s edition of The Interval, I am sharing an analysis I did last year to make the "Indian journalism is thriving" argument. It's a good starting point to explore the complexity of our media ecosystem. 


1. Information production as a collective

Doomsayers should do a simple thought experiment. Imagine that India’s mainstream media vanishes. Let’s take the four English national dailies, the five most-read regional newspapers, and the ten most-watched TV channels. All gone. Take a moment and think about the consequences.


Here is my guess: India will end up in an unimaginable information vacuum. That's because the presence of the much-maligned “mainstream media’’ is unparalleled. The online outlets (which the cynics believe are the ones doing “real journalism”) don’t have the resources to hire reporters across India’s vast geography. We take for granted the stories that fill up the pages of a newspaper. In isolation, many of these look banal: “who cares, huh?” In aggregate, that package of information—however flawed—serves as the primary record of the events of the previous day.


The news reports are far from perfect, and leave much to be desired. News judgement—what constitutes news and what doesn’t—is almost always arbitrary and skewed by an editor’s worldview. But the information that ultimately makes its way through this filtering mechanism matters: if this body of knowledge doesn’t exist, others won’t have the raw material that lends itself to further analysis and inquiries. 


I say this with experience: While starting a two-month-long freelance assignment to report on the pandemic in 2020 for an online publication, my first step was buying e-newspaper subscriptions of Hindi-language newspapers covering states I was interested in. Reading those short 300-word dispatches from districts whose names I had never heard of gave me a window into the mini-pandemics evolving across India. 


They directed me to the information I would have otherwise ignored, generated questions I would have not asked, and served as the basis for further investigation. 


More recently, as I moved out of Delhi to live in a small hill town, I had a newfound appreciation for newspapers: they are my only source of credible information—especially about the coronavirus.


Information production vs democratic accountability

The problem is you won’t find newspapers screaming for accountability when things go wrong. It’s an open secret: the multiple pressure points influencing the coverage of a large newspaper (or a TV channel) result in the failure to push the bar on accountability, leading to a shrinking space for uncomfortable stories.


But it is disingenuous to downplay the importance of 95% of the reported information or classify it as propaganda because 5% of the critical information is missing. (I just made up these percentages, but you get my point!)


The void—the 5%—left by the mainstream outlets is often filled in by the adversarial press (online portals, for instance). They can dedicate their limited resources to the missing 5%. This is largely what happens in practice. The "compliant media" and the "real media" complement each other.


That's my framework: The single most important thing is for the information to get out. It should not be suppressed. Where it comes from is secondary. 

As much as you may want the front pages of Indian newspapers to look differently, don’t forget that technological changes have taken away the media’s monopoly in amplifying information in the public sphere. While it remains a crucial part of its function, stories that send shivers down the corridors of government and corporate houses will reach where it needs to even if it doesn’t find space in the mainstream.


If you adopt my framework—where the health of the media ecosystem is measured by the collective production of information—a more optimistic picture will emerge. Journalism will appear as a collective enterprise: everyone feeds off the work done by others. 


2. The role of identity in news consumption

Most folks won’t accept my framework. My anecdotal observation rejects the idealistic view that the primary driver for news consumption is the desire to gain new information and become better-informed citizens.

The point becomes clearer once you factor in the role of political identity in news consumption. Andrew Potter, the former Editor in Chief of the Ottawa Citizen, a Canadian newspaper, made that point in his newsletter:


“[R]eaders would often call, angry, because we had downplayed (or ignored, or missed) a story they knew all about from another media outlet. This baffled me at first. If you already know the story, why are you angry at us for not covering it? But I soon realized they weren’t angry because they had been left uninformed, they were angry because we had, in one way or another, let them down.”


Potter quotes the economist Tyler Cowen to further his argument:


“[T]he feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status… The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close.”


This explains some of the hatred against the mainstream press. 


Go back to my made-up stats: even if you know that 5% of the information, you are angry that it went missing or did not make it to the front page of the newspaper.


This leaves us with an irresolvable situation: a newspaper is able to publish 95% of the information by leaving out that 5%. (I concede right away that reasonable people can disagree if this is a real cost or manufactured excuse—but this is my pragmatic assessment at the moment.)


Readers don’t always appreciate the careful editorial calls journalists make to ensure that their stories are out—or what it takes to make sure that hard-hitting stories make it to the publication. Tweaks range from giving boring headlines and needless balancing to burying the story in the inside pages.


These decisions boil my blood: “why can’t we just do our damn jobs?”

I have looked at editors making these calls with great disdain. But as years have passed, I understand why these calculations—which I still find morally unacceptable and frustrating—are made: most of these compromises would vanish had the Indian polity allowed the flourishing of a free press. That environment doesn’t exist.


The difference between organisations comes from the extent to which they push before giving in. Some show no interest and kill stories; some surrender too early; few go all the way and fight the good fight; even fewer just take the risk and publish.


3. “Why is the media not covering this?”

The 95% math is complicated by another factor: the dynamics of information distribution. I have lost count of the number of people who refer to a story and say “why is this not being covered by the mainstream media”—when, in fact, it has been.


For instance, in early 2019, I received a message in a WhatsApp group linking to a New York Times story that reported the Indian government’s proposed rules to give itself the power to suppress internet content, leading to comparisons with censorship in China. The young man was agitated that the Indian press ignored such a crucial piece of information and used that as an example to say the mainstream media is compromised.


At the time, I was working with the Hindustan Times, and I wrote the story reporting that development for our paper much earlier than the NYT. My article, in fact, was a follow up on a scoop by the Indian Express. That break was all over TV channels for a few days. But it failed to reach the young man. I politely sent him a link and requested him to reconsider his assessment.


This is funny and worrying at the same time. I don’t know how this can be resolved, but I know it feeds mistrust.


4. An example: Journalism during the pandemic

If any of my arguments seem theoretical, look at the pandemic reportage and decide for yourself. It has shown the stellar work Indian reporters can produce if they had no constraints. The truth was out there for everyone to see and the press rose up to the moment to capture it.


Dainik Bhaskar—a Hindi language newspaper that sells five and a half million copies daily—religiously reported on the tragedy of the situation. Their reporting on the dead bodies floating on the river Ganges—their stories resulted from collaborative work by 30 reporters and photojournalists spread along the banks of the river—remains one of the hallmark stories of the crisis. 


The paper, generally perceived to be aligned with the ruling party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fought for transparency and accountability. “State officials have tried to stop our coverage several times in the past few days, and have even threatened us with a court case,” the national editor of the paper told CNN in an interview. But that did not deter their coverage.


This is not an isolated example: the local newspapers in Modi’s home state of Gujarat—where, again, the press is considered aligned to his party—published hard evidence countering the official statistics that downplayed the extent of the crisis. All of this appeared in the mainstream press.


5. The political economy

This doesn’t mean this phase will continue. As I have argued previously, self-censorship in India is driven by interlinked political and economic forces. Newsrooms whose business models will crumble if the government pulls routine advertisements can’t function independently—by design.


And one must factor in the hierarchical structure in which the two institutions—the media and the government—exist. The coercive powers of the state offer an asymmetric advantage to the government: if you want to call it a fight (I don’t like that framing), it is not an equal fight.


The consequences are real. In a private conversation, a former editor-in-chief of one of India’s largest English dailies explained the government’s standard trick to control the press.


Many mainstream media outlets, he told me, are owned by folks who have business interests in non-media sectors. However careful you are, it is always possible, he argued, to find some flaws (real or manufactured) in taxation and accounting. That’s where they hit you when the reporting starts challenging the government’s preferred narrative. Income tax raids are unleashed—at the media house, or at the owner’s non-media businesses. The public will be told that this is a legitimate act of the state: they violated the law, they are paying the price, that it has got nothing to do with press freedom. But it’s not that: selective and targeted action is nothing but political vendetta.


This is a routine affair. On July 22, the offices of Dainik Bhaskar—the newspaper I had mentioned above—were raided by Indian tax authorities in at least four locations. “The raid is outcome of our aggressive reporting, especially during the second wave of pandemic in April,” the paper’s national editor told the Washington Post. “Unlike some other media we reported how people were dying for lack of oxygen and hospital beds.”


This theatrical exercise is not just about one newspaper: it is orchestrated to send a message to the rest of the press.


This is my core point: any analysis of the media must factor in the political economy in which it exists. The unprecedented chaos during the pandemic—which left little scope for disseminating propaganda—offered us a counterfactual: it illustrated that the reason why hard-hitting reporting in the mainstream press is limited is a direct consequence of India’s political climate. The journalistic values have not been "sold out" in wholesale. 


While this is not a problem exclusive to the Modi government—earlier governments have been ruthless, too—senior editors I trust tell me it has become worse under this dispensation.



I will write more about Indian media in future issues of The Interval. This is a partial analysis. The point I want to make is simple: we can't fix the problems with the Indian press by simply starting new publications that follow the old model or replacing people in decision making positions. The system will continue to fail all good intentions. We need radical rethinking and restructuring—and not settling for simplistic diagnostics is a good starting point.



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