Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

the wrong vox

The other day Vox.com ran an article claiming that the pace at which technological innovations are accepted is speeding up. The problem is, as Matt Novak pointed out, that really isn’t true. Not true at all.

And then things started getting a little weird. Vox began silently to make changes to the story, at first making slight alterations — where it has referred to “the internet” it now refers (more accurately) to the “World Wide Web.” Over the next day or so further changes were made — charts were deleted and added — still with no acknowledgement. But eventually two statements were added, at the beginning of the article:

Correction: This post originally gave incorrect dates for the introduction of radio and television technology and the invention of the cell phone. It also mis-labeled the web as the internet. We regret these errors.

and at the end:

Update: This post has been modified to include the original technology-adoption chart from the FCC that's the source for our graph. The graph has also been tweaked to more clearly denote the adoption of the web starting in 1991, not the broader internet. And Gizmodo is right: we should have noted these changes at the time. Our apologies.

“Matt Novak” or “Paleofuture” would have been better than “Gizmodo,” but this is a significant step forwards. However, it’s not all that it should be. In a smart post written before the corrections were acknowledged, Freddie deBoer wrote,

It’s okay to make corrections — better than okay, actually, it’s necessary and responsible. But you have to come out and say you did that by writing a brief section (a paragraph will do) saying “we changed X, Y, and Z, and this is why.” If you don’t, it just looks dishonest, and it risks contributing to a sense of imperiousness that is not a good look. Worse, it gives you less incentive to not make the same mistake in the future, if you just disappear the old problems. There’s an “Updated by” line at the top, but no other information, and for me, that doesn’t do enough. Don’t compound the problems, guys. Just own up to them.

By the standards Freddie lays out, which seem to me the right ones, Vox’s appended statements do half the job: they acknowledge that changes have been made, and made to correct errors, but they don't deal with the larger problem, which is that some of the key claims in the article were and remain simply incorrect. As far as I can see, Vox has corrected the factual errors which led to the inaccurate conclusions but left those conclusions in place. Which seems a little odd.

I think this little contretemps needs to be considered in light of the big essay that Ezra Klein wrote to launch Vox, “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.” Here too we find a strong argument based on what turns out to be, as Caleb Crain pointed out, a simple and straightforward misreading of the data. But Klein has made no corrections, and as far as I can discover, there’s no acknowledgement on the Vox site of Crain’s challenge.

That “as far as I can discover” is perhaps the most important point of all. Vox doesn’t have comments. There is no “letters to the editor” page. Vox has no ombudsman. You can email or tweet at its writers, but they’re free to ignore you, and who knows if the editors see any of those communications? The site has no contact page that I can find. There’s not even a search box on the site: you have to use Google to find articles. Basically, Vox.com is a black box. Now, for the “card stacks” there is apparently some kind of correction model in place — but if for card stacks why not for articles? There seems to be no policy here, and only one person — the superb tech journalist Timothy B. Lee — whom I’ve seen responding to corrections. (He’s the one who let Matt Novak and me know about the changes made to the article I refer to at the beginning of this post. If others at Vox are doing this, please let me know in the comments.)

Klein has said repeatedly — see this interview for instance — that he wants to use Vox to explain the news to people, which is cool, but the explainer model coupled with the strong discouragement of feedback sends a pretty clear message: We know, we tell, you listen.

Contrast that attitude to the the model the venerable New York Times says it wants to follow in its new endeavor, called The Upshot.

Perhaps most important, we want The Upshot to feel like a collaboration between journalists and readers. We will often publish the details behind our reporting — such as the data for our inequality project or the computer code for our Senate forecasting model — and we hope that readers will find angles we did not. We also want to get story assignments from you: Tell us what data you think deserves exploration. Tell us which parts of the news you do not understand as well as you’d like.

The staff of The Upshot is filled with people who love to learn new things. That’s why we became journalists. We consider it a great privilege to be able to delve into today’s biggest news stories and then report back to you with what we’ve found. We look forward to the conversation.

Maybe The Upshot won’t live up to these noble ideals, but such an announcement is a good start. And shouldn't a high-profile “new media” venture like Vox be even more aware of and willing to embrace the communicative possibilities of ... well, of new media? Instead, they seem to be creating a one-way street, like a Victorian newspaper. Klein has said that he and his fellow Wonkblog writers “were badly held back not just by the technology, but by the culture of journalism.” But to me, the culture of journalism is not looking so bad right now. And while Vox.com is definitely a work in progress, it's not a good sign that responsiveness to and intersection with readers doesn't seem to have been part of their initial vision at all.

I hope Vox fixes these problems. There are things about it I really like — many of the card stacks are crisply accurate and therefore quite useful, and it has some first-rate writers, like Tim Lee and Dara Lind: see Lee’s excellent explanation of the confusing Aereo case and Lind’s clear and information-rich stack on prisons. But as long as the site remains so closed-off to its readers, many people will be likely to conclude that the difference between old media and new is that the old has higher standards and more accountability.


  • I remember back when the World Wide Web was first gaining traction and many worried over its unstructured, unregulated development. Somewhat predictably, before traditional businesses adopted the Web, porn sites rushed in and drove what some estimated to be half of all Web traffic, along the way creating recognizable standards adopted and imitated by less (ahem) unsavory content providers. Somewhere in the (by now) decades-long shuffle, the idea of fixed publication and broadcasting was jettisoned in favor of evolving (continuously revised) content -- often rapidly churned over by new content -- and interactive models that award readers a voice. So-called new media have been quick to imagine new ways of delivering content, some of which have led to diminished returns or failed entirely, and the Wild, Wild West approach has never really been tamed.

    I can’t judge whether evolving standards (or no standards) are salutary, but I will offer that the entire notion of what constitutes publication is undergoing the same radical revision as attribution. Think of it, too, as the changing manners, mores, and decorum that now allow, without even batting an eyelash, some rather heinous and horrible behaviors. One might even say that perverse incentives make such distortions inevitable. It’s change, to be sure, but it’s not progress.

  • While comments sections can get nasty, off-topic, and just plain bad, two-way interaction is something I value. The "we lecture, you listen" attitude of Vox is more than a bit off-putting to me. The feedback mechanism doesn't have to be comments. I think Andrew Sullivan does ok without them (by regularly featuring reader emails), but in this "web 2.0" world, limiting a site to a one-way communication/lecture is frustrating, and outdated.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]