Friday, January 15, 2010

Professional Standards: Lazy Researchers and Communicators

In this post: Questionable Polling / Questionable Tech Reporting / Questionable Knowledge / Unquestionable Corporate Reporting

On the one hand, when we work as communicators and researchers, most of us in those fields believe we can sufficiently distance ourselves from the subject—and can sufficiently research our topics—so that we provide the people who depend on our work with accurate, complete information.

But a series of recent articles suggests otherwise.

Questionable Polling

Consider researchers. When he heard that the American Association for Public Opinion Research censured Georgia-based Strategic Vision L.L.C. in September “for failing to reveal information about how it conducted its polls during the 2008 presidential race” (Forensic Polling Analysis, New York Times 9th Annual Year in Ideas Supplement,, pollster Nate Silver found Strategic Vision’s response—they planned to sue the Association—a bit odd.

So he decided to do his own analysis on the polls. According to the New York Times story:

Silver took the results of every Strategic Vision poll question — from more than 100 polls on political races and issues of every sort — and analyzed the "trailing digits" in the results. (If a poll found that one candidate led another by 52-48, the trailing digits were 2 and 8.) Silver thought that, given the wide range of poll topics, the distribution of trailing digits should be more or less random. Instead — shades of "C.S.I." — he found a highly abnormal distribution of digits. For example, there were nearly 60 percent more 8s than 2s.

In other words, the statistical likelihood that these results would occur of these results is slim. And if the results did not occur naturally, then they probably occurred by some other means. And that raises the question of the credibility of these polls.

Questionable Tech Reporting

Of course, few people like to have their credibility called into question. But Ed Bott’s blog posting, “What the ‘Black screen of death’ story says about tech journalism” (Ed Bott’s Microsoft Report Blog on ZDNet,, suggests that several tech news reporters did a “sloppy” job of reporting.

Rather than carefully research a news story to ensure its accuracy, they chose the easy way out—adding a few words to a web story and publishing online. Briefly, on the Friday after the U.S. Thanksgiving (essentially, another holiday), an “obscure” consulting firm published a “blog post post accusing Microsoft of releasing security patches that cause catastrophic crashes in Windows PCs. The inflammatory headline reads: Black Screen woes could affect millions on Windows 7, Vista and XP.”

The story sat during the holiday weekend, but Monday morning, a reporter with IDG notices the posting. Rather than verify it, he, instead, posts it—almost guaranteeing coverage. Afraid of being scooped, several other “reporters” and bloggers carried the story either verbatim or close to it, without verifying the facts.

Scoop first, retract later.

And like the balloon boy, the supposed attack on Washington, and a host of other non-stories that could have been verified with one or two phone calls before their unnecessary publication, this one went on for days before being resolved. In this case, there was no black screen of death on Windows.

But it represents a black mark on journalism. But we don’t need to look at wide circulation press for this type of “reporting.” Consider the article,HR Technology: A Cost-Effective Business Solution, recently published online in the December 2009 Talent Management Magazine ( The author asserts that even in a downturn, this is a good time to invest in a talent management system—one that can cost an organization tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in some case, millions.

To what does she attribute this? A series of uncited facts. What’s her credibility? She’s the”Public relations coordinator at iCIMS, the third-largest provider of talent acquisition solutions.”

In other words, the hard-working editors at CLO Media have filled their pages by republishing a press release and saving themselves the expense of a reporter.

Questionable Knowledge

Not all cases of journalistic laziness are so blatant. Timothy Egan (Clueless in Costco, New York Times Online, December 16, 2009, reminds us that even the members of the mainstream press can have myopic minds. On their geographic illiteracy:

A New York book publisher, and Harvard grad at that, once asked me if I ever take the ferry up to Alaska for the afternoon. No, I replied: do you ever go to Greenland on a day trip?

And even though it’s not a journalist, this one about a discussion between a customer in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a customer service agent for the Salt Lake City or Atlanta Olympics:

“You’ll have to go through your own embassy,” a resident of Santa Fe was told when trying to order Olympic tickets for games on American soil.

Unquestionable Corporate Reporting

Fortunately, those are the noteworthy exceptions. Lest you think all communicators and researchers incompetent, I’ll close with a couple of encouraging notes.

Although most annual reports “don’t”…treat readers like “human beings,” according to the Financial Post’s Ian McGugan (When an annual report speaks volumes, December 18, 2009,, some do. Among those he cited were Warren Buffet’s Bershire-Hathaway, which has a reputation for open, honest communications.

If communicators and researchers were holding back on checking facts or accurately reporting information for fear of being sued, the Canadian Supreme Court handed reporters a pair of victories at the end of the year that provide the Canadian with much stronger support.

What was equally noteworthy about these judgments is not only that they were reported in the Canadian press, but also in some American papers (Canada’s Free Press, New York Times,

No comments: