Noah Brier | December 4, 2019

Why is this interesting? - The Correction Edition

On journalism, expertise, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

Noah here. A few weeks ago there was a very funny correction that floated around Twitter from the FT’s Alphaville blog. The original version of a story about the Salt Lake Tribune becoming a non-profit included mention of the papers full-time music reporter. Only it turned out that wasn’t quite right:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Salt Lake Tribune has a full-time jazz reporter. It in fact has two reporters who cover Utah Jazz, the local basketball team. This has now been corrected. 

Beyond being very funny, it made me think about the vast amounts of information you soak in as a sports fan. Sometimes I amaze myself by knowing the first name of a bit player on an NBA team or being able to name coaches in a sport I don’t pay much attention to. When you like sports at all you take for granted the knowledge gained from occasionally going on sports sites and watching ESPN (or playing sports videogames). 

Why is this interesting?

A few weeks ago when I wrote the Load Management Edition about the NBA’s approach to rest, I got grilled by Felix Salmon, an avowed sports ignoramus (his words not mine), about some of the terms I included without explanation. These included core basketball ideas like a double team, where two members of the opposing team swarm the player with the ball (leaving someone else on the court open in the process). If you’ve watched or played any basketball this term hardly feels worthy of definition. 

In the end, this gave me some appreciation for the work of writing for any kind of truly popular publication. The attention you must have to give every day at the New York Times to ensure stories don’t end up too insidery must be immense. What is worthy of definition and what has become widely known enough to be able to stand on its own must be a constant source of conversation between journalists and their editors. (The closest I ever got to a newsroom was writing for a trade magazine for six months and those exist to be insidery.) 

Links have made this process somewhat easier, though there’s still plenty of debate on how to use them effectively. Our contributor’s guide suggests: “Whenever possible link to things for context. Don’t assume people know about the inside info you do.” But as Rex Sorgatz pointed out in the edits for his Eternal Celebrity Edition, links can also act to distract. When I asked him if he had a good deepfake explainer to include, he opted out of putting it in, responding “I think linking might be a distraction here, because people love clicking on deepfakes and, in this case, it's sorta a distraction. (Also, I just think everyone knows what they are now.)”

This also leads me to a favorite idea of mine, the so-called “Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect”. Coined by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton after the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, it describes the feeling we get when you’re an insider reading something obviously written by someone who’s not.

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward -- reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate … You turn the page, and forget what you know.

The point is that expertise is a sliding scale and there’s almost always someone with a deeper knowledge than yours. Understanding where you and your audience sits on that scale is critical to offering an appropriate amount of context. Like most things, you can’t possibly please everyone. (NRB)

Cartoon of the Day:

The cartoon below, which I found in the New York Times obituary for cartoonist Gahan Wilson, is pretty amazing. (NRB)

Quick Links: 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Colin here. Hospitality brand Singita is helping the Grumeti Fund, their conservation partner in Tanzania, to raise $500,000 to support the next translocation of eastern black rhino to the Western Serengeti. This is an immensely important cause as we’ve written about in the Rhino Edition of WITI. Donate here.

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