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Journalists, Don't Let Good Stories Overshadow Factual Stories

02/20/2014 05:15 EST | Updated 04/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Many journalists do not have highly specialized knowledge as a professor would, and yet people expect these scribblers and editors to keep them up-to-date about even the most complicated of matters. In these instances, it would appear as though the uninformed have been tasked with educating the uninformed.

As a scribbler myself, I once dealt with an editor who walked around a mountain of social science to get his point across. This editor, who also happens to be a reporter for one of Canada's top news outlets, told me that the Ontario government's recent move to index its minimum wage to inflation will "obviously" put more money into the pockets of "many" workers. In fact, he believed it so strongly that he told me to state it in an article I had been writing without attributing it to a source.

This is wrong for a few reasons. The statement that hiking the minimum wage will obviously put more money into the pockets of many workers is a testable claim, and, according to the available evidence, is not obviously true. Even the Ontario government's minimum wage advisory panel understood that much.

Journalism ought to be about producing factual work, pursuing the truth regardless of the sentiments it may evoke. Telling a good story is important to producing great journalism, to be sure, but letting a good story get in the way of the truth defeats its purpose. I do not mean to suggest that journalists intend to violate the rules of their trade, of course -- they obviously do whatever they can to be true to the ideal. It is curious, however, that the editor I once dealt with is not the only one who ignored the literature on the minimum wage as it pertained to the Ontario government's announcement.

In mid-January, the Toronto Starpublished an editorial in which it declared that the minimum wage should be raised in accordance with the government's past approach, namely, 2.5 times faster than the rate of inflation. It makes no sense to put off raising it when a "few extra dollars in the wallets of Ontario's poorest workers could help their families -- and the economy. Most will spend their money on much-needed items so the money will go back into local businesses," the editorial read, without any mention of the evidence.

Two weeks later, after the advisory panel issued its final report and the government planned to index the minimum wage to inflation, the Toronto Starvented its frustration through another editorial. "Minimum wage increases were once a cornerstone of the Liberals' war on poverty...This issue requires more leadership than the Wynne government has shown so far," the editorial read, even though the evidence the advisory panel reviewed points to the minimum wage as a limited tool for alleviating poverty.

This past December, the Huffington Post's associate business editor Jill Berman committed an even deadlier sin. In what is presumably supposed to be a piece of objective work, she misrepresented the American debate on the minimum wage.

That hiking the minimum wage hurts the people it intends to help is a "notion that's been proven wrong by some economists and remains hotly debated," Berman wrote. Despite what she seems to believe, however, the traditional view of the minimum wage -- or, more formally, price floors -- has decidedly not been proven wrong.

In the 1990s, some economists called the traditional view into question when they started to conduct research in which they relied on new ways to control for factors that affect employment other than the minimum wage. By doing this, they thought they were better isolating the effects of the minimum wage and thus painting a more authentic, truthful picture of reality. Still, there are economists who reasonably disagree that this research paints a picture any truer and more authentic than does the past research. Indeed, the final verdict on the minimum wage has yet to be delivered.

That the textbook view of the minimum wage has been proven wrong, then, is simply not true, for the textbook view has only been challenged and is consequently being subjected to further scrutiny. For journalists to state otherwise -- either wittingly or unwittingly -- is to mislead their readers, irrespective of how upstanding their intentions may be.

I am sure that some people would love to refer to these very cases, raise their fingers as high as the clouds, and point out that they are exemplary of the media trying to ram its purportedly left-wing agenda down some throats. But, if I had to guess, I would say that these journalists simply made up their minds about the minimum wage before they rationally consulted with the evidence. In the case of the Toronto Star, since its second editorial seems to look away from the advisory panel's findings, perhaps no evidence in the world would have convinced the person, or people, who wrote it. None of this requires that there be a conscious conspiracy against free-marketeers and conservatives, though. It only requires that these journalists be human.

Research suggests that this irresponsible way of thinking is without borders and applies to countless people.

Most people overestimate the probability that their decisions will produce good outcomes, and they systematically underestimate the possibility that things will go badly. People also tend to uncritically accept any evidence that supports their already established opinion as true, and they tend to reject or be instinctively suspicious of any evidence that runs against it. People also tend to want solutions now rather than later. These deviations from rational thought have been called the optimism bias, confirmation bias, and action bias, respectively.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that a handful of journalists have overestimated how desirable an outcome a minimum-wage hike will generate and ignored or paid less attention to the evidence that suggests otherwise. And that some journalists think that the minimum wage should have been raised in the name of fighting poverty long ago, as opposed to waiting for a less unreliable, more evidence-based solution to reveal itself, is equally predictable.

If good intentions and a virtually unshakeable code of ethics were enough to produce quality journalism, this would not be problem. Unfortunately, good intentions and unwavering ethics alone do not suffice, for, if more and more journalists churn out such uninformed work, more and more consumers of it will be deluded into thinking that traditionally accepted research has been proven wrong or that they need not consider the evidence that runs against their views when thinking about policy.

By some accounts, the public already fails to think rationally about many policy issues. Economically speaking, the public's opinion tends to diverge from the expert opinion when asked about some admittedly complicated subjects. Journalism ought to be a way to educate the public, not a way to further misinform it.

I may not know how to prevent journalists from occasionally misleading the already misled public, but I do strongly believe that they need to stop. In light of the journalist's job to lubricate the cogs of democracy, it would appear as though the journalist's solution cannot always keep the complex parts of the machine operating smoothly.

This article was also published in the Prince Arthur Herald.

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