Hat tip to B/R Lead Writers Editor Jake Leonard for pointing out this Vox piece headlined “15 ways to tell if that science news story is hogwash.”
As Jake points out, the wisdom in that piece, which is a guide to spotting the flaws in news reports about scientific studies, could be used when reading—and writing—sports stories based on statistics.
I would go so far as to say that the top 15 ways to tell if that stats-based sports story is hogwash are Numbers 4, 6 and 10 of Vox’s 15, repeated five times each. Here they are, in the words of Vox writer Susannah Locke:
4) Correlation and causation: Just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean that one caused the other. If you want to really find out if something causes something else, you have to set up a controlled experiment. (Chemical Compound’s infographic brings up the fabulous example of the correlation between fewer pirates over time and increasing global temperature. It’s almost certain that fewer pirates did not cause global temperatures to rise, but the two are correlated.)
This is a huge one in sports analysis. Probably the most famous example of mistaking correlation for causation is the idea that football teams have to “establish the ground game” to win. The evidence typically cited for this idea is that the winning team almost always outrushes the losing team. Of course it does: Teams that are leading run to kill the clock. Piling up rushing yardage doesn’t cause wins. It’s the reverse.
6) Small sample sizes: Did the researchers study a large enough group to know that the results aren’t just a fluke? That is, did they treat cancer in two people or in 200? Or 2,000? Was that brain scanning psych study on just seven people?
The next time you hear that a hitter “owns” a pitcher because he’s 3-for-5 lifetime against him, remember this one. For all you know, he’d be hitting .200 against the guy if he hadn’t benefited from a bad hop and a 12-foot squibber that the catcher had to take a bite out of.
10) “Cherry-picked” results: Ignoring the results that don’t support your hypothesis will not make them go away. It’s possible that the worst cherry-picking happens before a study is published. There’s all kinds of data that the scientific community and the public will never see.
In sports analysis, cherry-picking often appears in the form of selective endpoints. Here’s a piece from 2012 in which Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra chides Jon Morosi of Fox Sports for arguing that Miguel Cabrera deserved the American League MVP award over Mike Trout because he’d been much better “since Aug. 24″:
Why August 24? Do games before that not matter? Or is it because on August 23 Mike Trout had a big game, going 3 for 6 and driving in a couple of runs and after that had an 0 for 5 while Miguel Cabrera ended an 0 for 10 stretch on August 24 and hit a homer? It has to have some other significance, does it not? Because it cannot be the case that Morosi felt it necessary to cut off things on that date simply because it bolsters his preconceived notions of the matter.
Here’s another piece, from Baseball Prospectus in 2011, in which Colin Wyers talks about both selective endpoints and small sample size to assure fans of the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays that their teams could still make the playoffs even though they’d started 0-5. Only two playoff teams had ever started the season 0-5.
Playoff teams had lots of losing streaks of five games and longer, Wyers wrote. They just rarely happened in the first games of the season.
As it turned out, the Rays made the playoffs and the Sox missed by one game.
Randy Bennett of the University of Florida writes in the Huffington Post that “the future of media and journalism is really bright.” He reached that conclusion after he “attended two disparate conferences that shunned hype and hyperbole (and despair), and provided a decidedly forward-looking and practical perspective.”
Bennett is the director of entrepreneurship and partnerships at Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, and the conferences he attended were AmericaEast and Journalism Interactive. He identified several themes as emerging from the events, and if he’s right, those of us who still have some productive years ahead of us in this racket ought to listen up.
You should click through to read Bennett’s commentary on each of these items, but here are his themes:
- Data will be at the core of everything media companies do going forward.
- The future is visual.
- Community engagement is critical to business and journalistic success.
- Embrace technology to solve problems — for media organizations and their customers.
- Entrepreneurism needs to be the lifeblood of media organizations and the oxygen for journalists.
Bennet places special emphasis on that last one:
Those who ponder whether media companies should become technology companies or if journalists should develop programming skills are asking the wrong questions. The technology platforms and expertise are the easy part. What’s hard is for media managers and journalists to develop the technological proficiency to think differently and creatively about what is possible …
The takeaways from both events are not about the relative health of media companies or the importance of journalism degrees. Rather, it’s about tangible evidence that there are innovators in our midst who are passionately committed to changing the paradigm.
When I mentioned Bennett’s first theme to a co-worker, that data will be at the core of everything media companies do going forward, my co-worker said, “So we’re all going to become statisticians.” A reasonable response, or worry.
“On the journalism side,” Bennett writes, “deep data sets and sophisticated (and often free) analytical tools will advance investigative reporting; real-time analytics will impact decisions on headlines, article form and content, distribution, platform effectiveness and story placement.”
I’d say that doesn’t mean we’re all going to have to be statisticians, but that being comfortable with stats, with handling data, understanding it, being able to tease truth out of it and tell stories with it, is going to be an increasingly important set of skills. We didn’t all have to become computer experts when computers replaced typewriters 30 years ago, but anyone who wasn’t at least comfortable working on a computer got left behind.
It’s “Inside the Football Media” week at Bleacher Report. World Football editor Will Tidey is talking to some of the sport’s top writers and on-air talent via Google hangout. The week kicks off today with Oliver Holt of the Daily Mirror.
One of my favorite parts of the 25-minute interview is their discussion of Twitter, especially when Tidey refers to Holt’s 230,000 followers and says, “In essence, it’s like the Rolling Stones playing on Copacabana Beach, the number of people that are seeing what you tweet.”
It’s about time someone made the connection between sportswriting and rock stardom.
“Anybody who’s on Twitter, to a greater or lesser extent, there are elements of abuse which sometimes feels a little unpalatable,” Holt says, “but I think it’s more than balanced by the interesting tweets, the decent tweets, the fair-argument tweets that you get. And you know what, I find that, actually, sometimes it makes me think more carefully about what I write. Some of the people who don’t like what I write might not believe that.”
After that, around the 11-minute mark, Tidey and Holt get into the nuts and bolts of Holt’s approach as a writer, including how he decides what to write about, and the difficulties of writing columns on deadline. It’s worth a watch and listen. I suspect the rest of “Inside the Football Media” week will be too. Here’s the schedule:
Tuesday: Gary Lineker, TV pundit/presenter and former England striker
Wednesday: Arlo White, NBC commentator
Thursday: Guillem Balague, Sky Sports Spanish football expert and author of ”Messi”
Friday: Claire Rourke, Liverpool TV presenter
You might not think a college newspaper and Bleacher Report have many similarities, but I’ve found quite a few. I’ve been writing for The Daily Orange at Syracuse University for my entire freshman year, and I’ve been a part of the Bleacher Report Advanced Program in Sports Media for three months.
Though one is traditional print media and the other is the newest form of digital media, I’ve learned from both that in-depth research to paint a story is the most vital aspect in creating a polished product, no matter what it looks like.
A recent assignment for my school paper taught me that.
Not many people have heard of Syracuse softball freshman Sydney O’Hara, but the name is worth knowing. O’Hara is mowing opponents down on the mound and pounding the ball at the plate on her way to becoming the best two-way player in SU history.
As the softball beat writer for The Daily Orange, I was assigned the task of writing a back page (sports cover) story on why O’Hara could be on her way to being the best dual-threat in program history.
My first back-page assignment.
I was excited to take this on, but at the same time, writing a cover story for one of the top college newspapers in the country came with significant pressure.
The focus of the story was the comparison of O’Hara to other Syracuse greats and why she is on her way to being better than they were.
I dug deep in the school record books to piece together a distinct angle, especially since there wasn’t a strong off-the-field angle to discuss. To navigate my way through this, I made sure to have a topic that has relevance over a long period rather than just one week like most of the stories I’m assigned.
I made sure to include as much specific detail and factual evidence to illustrate my story regardless of the topic to help it come to life more. I started interviewing O’Hara and writing the story the week before it was due and showed the editors three different drafts before the story was published last week.
This was a very different writing process than how I go about writing articles on Bleacher Report, but I find I use a lot of the same tools.
In lieu of interviews, in-depth research holds an even greater importance to construct a meaningful story and convey your angle to the reader. The more details you can collect, the more succinctly your story will come across.
But instead of focusing solely on my words as I do with The Daily Orange, I’m able to turn some of my research into media, using videos, tables and more to illustrate my point and engage my audience.
The addition of multimedia further advances writer-reader interaction on Bleacher Report as opposed to in a newspaper, but in-depth detail is a common thread.
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Bleacher Report’s Facebook page reached the milestone of 1 million likes Wednesday, and those of us in the San Francisco office held a quiet celebration during which we reflected on the momentous occasion.
April must be a slow month in the job-search racket because that’s when a site called CareerCast releases its annual listing of the top 200 jobs in America.
Last year’s report got a lot of attention among the chattering classes because it had newspaper reporter at No. 200, giving newspaper reporters and former newspaper reporters a handy hook to tweet about: worst job in America! Disclosure: I am a former newspaper reporter.
CareerCast explained its methodology:
To quantify the many facets of the 200 jobs included in our report, we determined and reviewed a wide range of critical aspects and categorized them into four “Core Criteria”—that is, the general categories that are inherent to every job. These are environment, income, outlook and stress.
This year, newspaper reporter has leapfrogged lumberjack and is the 199th best job. Note: In real life, it’s not a good idea to try to leapfrog a lumberjack.
I just want to reiterate what I wrote last year, that this is a good exercise in considering the source and not buying an idea just because there’s “data” behind it. Which data is chosen and how much importance is given to different data points are huge, often subjective decisions. Here’s how I put that a year ago:
CareerCast’s methodology page explains that it took into account four factors that are inherent in any job: environment, income, outlook and stress. Based on data from various sources, mostly governmental, each job type was given a score on a number of elements within each of those four. Data!
But look at my little sub-list again, this time with income included.
49. Social Worker – $41,169
50. Physician Assistant – $89,097
51. Surgeon – $311,078
Income isn’t everything, of course. But is there any way that whatever measures of stress, environment and outlook make social worker a “better” job than surgeon, they’re enough to overcome an income that’s seven and a half times greater? Is it likely that the typical surgeon would be happy to take a job, physician’s assistant, that’s far lower in the hospital hierarchy, with less prestige and a 71 percent salary cut? Because that would be the case if physician’s assistant were actually a “better” job than surgeon. It would be an easy transition. Surgeons are already qualified to be physician’s assistants. They’d be tossing aside their scalpels from coast to coast.
It’s been way too long since the last Shoutout post on the B/R Blog. That means the pieces that our Quality Editing team have recommended for recognition have stacked up, so in the interest of this post not stretching to 5,000 words, I’m mostly just going to list them. Spend your time reading these great pieces, not this post.
But first, a short paragraph on Hillsborough Stadium Disaster 25 Years On: How English Football Changed Forever by Graham Ruthven, which was published yesterday, on the 25th anniversary of the disaster.
Ruthven recaps the Hillsborough stadium disaster with the aid of numerous historical documents and quotes from players and families who were affected by the tragedy, as well as those with more conspiratorial ideas. He frames the incident in as positive a light as possible given the circumstances, showing how English football grew from the incident.
Here is a tip-of-the-iceberg look at some other great stories from the last few weeks. What did I miss? Let us know in the comments.
Author Mark Briggs is working on the next edition of his textbook “Journalism Next: A Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing,” and last week he asked readers of his Journalism 2.0 blog for advice.
“In looking at the chapter topics, I’m wondering if I need to include a separate chapter on blogging in the next edition? Is that still relevant?” he wrote. “What about a basic understanding of how the web works? Still needed in 2014? Or audio? Is that helpful for students to learn? (I had one professor tell me yesterday that, yes, it is.)”
Briggs, the director of digital media for KING5 Television in Seattle, then listed the chapter topics from the most recent edition of the book, which I found interesting. Here they are:
1. How the web works
2. Blogging for better journalism
3. Crowd-powered collaboration
4. Microblogging and social media
5. Going mobile
6. Visual storytelling with photographs
7. Making audio journalism visible
8. Telling stories with video
9. Data-driven journalism and digitizing your life
10. Managing news as a conversation
11. Building a digital audience for news
This is not your grandfather’s textbook, with its chapters on the inverted pyramid and whether to use a tape recorder for interviews. And by your grandfather’s, I mean mine!
This is a good outline for beginner journalism students. This is not a list of things they should learn in an elective course—all of these are basic to being a reporter in the 21st century. The first and second required courses in a journalism curriculum need to cover all of these.
She goes on to talk about what she thinks is missing from Briggs’ list, as he’d requested. That includes encryption for reporters and, via some tweets from others, coding for reporters and design and visualization.
Though both Briggs and McAdams talk about what “journalism students” need to learn and know, I think it’s useful for all of us to think about these things. Media and technology change so fast now—and there’s no reason to believe that will ever cease to be the case—that we’re all students. Always. Either that or we’re eating dust.
If you want to keep up with the latest news in what I like to call Journalism Nerdworld, the quickest way to do that is by reading Mark Coddington’s This Week in Review column at NiemanLab.org, the website of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab.
Coddington is a former newspaper reporter who’s studying journalism as a grad student at the University of Texas. He’s been rounding up the week’s journalism news for a few years, and reader beware about his pieces being a quick way to keep up with the news. Start clicking the links he provides and you could find yourself absorbed for hours.
Yeah, there was something in Journalism Nerdworld called Project Thunderdome, and it was important. Here’s another mention of it on the B/R Blog. You thought Journalism Nerdworld was nerdy?
This Week in Review goes up on Friday. Look for it.