What More Journalists and Reporters Should Know

There are key elements to valuable journalism. Among those are expressing important ideas with clarity and being adversarial to those who wield corrupt power at the top of society. Beyond that, however, there are also necessary critiques about the details of much mainstream press coverage that need to be seen more. This link focuses primarily on journalism and reporting related to economics, but some creativity will allow someone to see that there are similar critiques available to reporting in other fields.

And much of those similar available criticisms come down to relevance and comparisons. In foreign policy coverage, the root causes of crises (such as militarism being motivated by profits for weapons manufacturers and stateless terrorism being worsened by state terrorism) are not noted enough. There is also a disturbing trend of whitewashing war crimes and not providing context to important historical events that relate to the present, such as the 1953 Iran coup being backed by the U.S. government for oil resources. North Korea being obliterated in the Korean War (to the extent that their civilian infrastructure — notably the dams — were flattened, a war crime) is one of numerous other possible examples that reveal underlying causes of animosity in foreign relations today.

In a lot of political coverage, too much focus is on the personalities instead of on the issues. In technological coverage, it’s rarely noted that technology has no moral imperative and that it must be used appropriately to actually help people. There’s more I could say here, but the reader should understand the main point of this post by now.

Numbers in Context

There is perhaps no area of economic reporting that I find more frustrating than the failure of reporters to put numbers in a context that is understandable to their audience. I say this because it is not really an arguable point. When a news story tells readers that, “the federal government will spend $180 billion on transportation over the next six years,” it might just as well have said “the federal government will spend a REALLY BIG NUMBER on transportation over the next six years.”

The audience for the elite news outlets is highly educated, but as a practical matter very few readers of The New York Times or listeners to National Public Radio have any idea how much money $180 billion is to the federal government over the next six years. They spend their days working and their time off is with their families or dealing with other responsibilities. They are not reading documents from the Congressional Budget Office or Office of Management and Budget. On the other hand, if these outlets reported that it would be 0.8 percent of total spending or $100 per-person, per-year, it would be providing meaningful information on the size of the transportation budget.

This issue of putting numbers in context comes up in a wide variety of ways but is especially important in people’s views of anti-poverty programs both domestically and internationally. If people hear that we are spending $20 billion a year on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or foreign aid (roughly what we are actually spending), they are likely to think we are spending a great deal of money in these areas. After all, almost no one will ever see $20 billion in their lifetime. In fact, very few people will even see $20 million in their lifetime. When people hear these numbers, they tend to think of them as huge sums, which of course they are.

But relative to the federal budget they are not especially large. $20 billion dollars is less than one-half of one percent of federal spending. While that comparison doesn’t mean that the sum is trivial or that we shouldn’t be concerned if it is wasted, it does mean that we will not see a qualitative change to the budget picture or our tax obligations if these lines of spending were drastically cut back or even eliminated altogether.

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Was Whistleblowing Worth It? Discussion of Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden

This is a relevant conversation between two historic whistleblowers, and they discuss the threats to press freedom and the threat of nuclear war. I would have preferred some different questions with a longer discussion, however.

Daniel Ellsberg, the US whistleblower celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, was called “the most dangerous man in America” by the Nixon administration in the 70s. More than 40 years later, the man he helped inspire, Edward Snowden, was called “the terrible traitor” by Donald Trump, as he called for Snowden’s execution.

The Guardian has brought the two together – the most famous whistleblower of the 20th century and the most famous of the 21st so far – to discuss leaks, press freedom and other issues raised in Spielberg’s film.

[…]

EM: What motivated you to take the final step in becoming a whistleblower?

DE: I would not have thought of doing what I did, which I knew would risk prison for life, without the public example of young Americans going to prison to make a strong statement that the Vietnam war was wrong and they would not participate, even at the cost of their own freedom. Without them, there would have been no Pentagon Papers. Courage is contagious. I have heard you say, Ed, that The Most Dangerous Man in America was a factor in encouraging you to do what you did.

ES: That is absolutely true. While I was weighing up whether to come forward or not – and this was an agonising process because it was certainly life-changing – I watched that documentary. Dan’s example, hearing the arguments from someone who has lived through this, it helps prepare someone to make that jump themselves.

[…]

EM: Is the threat posed by Trump greater than that posed by Nixon?

DE: I believe this president will indict journalists, which has not happened yet in our country. We fought a revolution to avoid that. And we have not yet broken that first amendment, which protects press freedom, in our constitution. But this president is likely to do so. The climate has changed. And that was true under Obama, who prosecuted three times as many people for leaking as all previous presidents put together – he prosecuted nine. I think Trump will build on that precedent. He will go further and do what Obama did not do and directly indict journalists.

EM: Is the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and fearful of extradition to the US, one of those at risk?

ES: Julian’s best defence, perhaps his only enduring defence, is that he is a publisher and has never even tried, as far as we are aware, to publish something untruthful. There are lots of criticisms, many of which are legitimate, to be said about his political views or his personal expressions or the way he put things or his agenda. But ultimately the truth speaks for itself.

DE: Assange is in danger. There are those who say that Julian does not have to fear extradition if he came out of the embassy and served a brief sentence, if anything at all, for violating the rules. I think that is absurd. I think Britain would ship him over here [to the US] in a minute and we would never see or hear from him again … under Trump, he may well be the first journalist in this country to be indicted.

EM: What about whistleblowing to prevent a US attack on North Korea?

DE: I am sure there are thousands of people in the Pentagon and the White House who know an attack on North Korea would be disastrous because they have estimates and studies that show the outcome of a supposedly limited attack would be catastrophic in terms of hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of lives and what comes after.

ES: What would you say, Dan, to the next whistleblower, who is sitting in the Pentagon? They have seen the attack on North Korea planned, they have seen the consequences and it can be stopped.

DE: They have, of course, something I did not have then, which is they can go directly to the internet. And that is not something I would advise them to do. I think that, let’s see, in your case you went to the Guardian, you did not put the stuff on the net directly as you could have done. I think you did the right thing … If the New York Times does not do it, if the Guardian does not do it, you have the internet to go to.

EM: Was whistleblowing worth it?

DE: I once read a statement by Ed Snowden that there are things worth dying for. And I read the same thing by Manning, who said she was ready to go to prison or even face a death sentence for what she was doing. And I read those comments and I thought: that is what I felt. That is right. It is worth it. Is it worth someone’s freedom or life to avert a war with North Korea? I would say unhesitatingly: “Yes, of course.” Was it worth Ed Snowden spending his life in exile to do what he did? Was it worth it for Manning, spending seven and a half years in prison? Yes, I think so. And I think they think so. And I think they are right.