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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Walk Like a Sabermetrician:  Meanderings

Yahoo, Patriot…worlds of fun!

The best attribute of sportswriters is how ignorant they tend to be. When someone writes invective against sabermetrics, or displays a complete lack of understanding of statistics or economics or probability, it is easy to simply laugh them off. A huge number of sportswriters fall into this toss category.

As an aside, if I didn’t come to the table with a pre-conceived dim view of the world view held by most mainstream journalists (non-sports), it would be difficult for me to believe how ignorant they are. When I read news stories about topics on which I am well-informed, it is rare to go through an article that does not contain an outright falsehood, a statement of surprise at something that is blindingly obvious, or a quote from a clearly biased source that is allowed to pass without noting that bias. And when I see this occur in articles about a topic about which you know more than the journalist, it naturally gives me great pause about what I read about topics on which I am seeking to learn more.

Unlike many people inclined to interest in sabermetrics, I am not at all looking forward to the rapidly approaching day in which any aspiring young mainstream baseball scribe will be fluent in sabermetrics and not prone to dismissing non-traditional viewpoints. While this will have a limited positive effect of reducing the amount of idiocy we are all exposed to, it will make it that much harder to simply ignore a writer with cause.

My biggest problem with sportswriters is not that they are ignorant—it’s that they are self-righteous, prone to pop psychology, and often downright nasty to their subjects. The new breed of baseball writer will still display all these traits, but without the casual ignorance of logic when it comes to strategy and evaluation of players. The perfect symbol of this new breed is Jeff Passan. Passan is as smarmy and as prone to being a jackass as your garden variety Murray Chass-era hack. But because Passan incorporates sabermetric statistics and thinking as appropriate, he is much more likely to get a pass for being a jerk than is a sabermetric ignoramus.

Repoz Posted: January 22, 2013 at 06:17 AM | 19 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history, sabermetrics

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   1. danup Posted: January 22, 2013 at 07:00 AM (#4352373)
I'm glad somebody's around to tell us which dim, biased ignoramuses are also overgeneralizing jerks who treat their subjects badly.
   2. fra paolo Posted: January 22, 2013 at 11:41 AM (#4352456)
Journalism is a job that everything thinks they can do, but only those who practice it really understand the problems.

#1 - The customers of journalism want to hear from people who agree with them. Thoughtful journalists are liable to disagree with their audience, which is bad for circulation or listernership or viewership. Thoughtless columnists get pilloried regularly here, QED.

#2 - Journalists are required to be the 'jack of all trades, master of none', and to explain things at the level of the common denominator for their audience, which means that they have to simplify ideas that they themselves might not fully understand. The people they talk to in order to get the 'news' often cannot explain what they mean fully, either because they are trying to hide something or because they can't dumb themselves down enough to that common denominator level.

#3 - This has to be done under a tight deadline, and with the reporters or columnists suffering a lack of control over the final product, as someone along the line is going to edit their piece, possibly adding new material the reporter or columnist won't see until it is out in front of the audience. This is in part because the journalist has to spend time networking both with other journalists and with potential sources. There is tremendous pressure to get the next big story, which means you want to finish your last story as quickly as possible.

#4 - In this system, a mistake can lead to a lot of trouble, including high financial penalties if slanderous or libelous material makes its way to the audience. Furthermore, while the original reporter might have a good knowledge of the subject, a subsequent editor may not, and may not be able to refer back to the originating reporter before the story goes out. Plus, you want to avoid alienating your audience, because they'll just go somewhere else for their news.

#5 - All of this now has to be done with fewer people and at a lower cost than before. Journalistic standards have suffered, because the audience has been taking decisions to make that so. The risk of losing your dwindling audience simply compounds the problems inherent in the system.

I am not trying to excuse weak or bad journalism. The whole system is poisoned by pressures over which journalists have little or no control.

Life is too short to take bad journalists too seriously, as if they were authorities on baseball (or politics or much of anything else for that matter).
   3. Petunia inquires about ponies Posted: January 22, 2013 at 01:17 PM (#4352565)
To your #s 2 through 4 I say, tough titties. Lots of jobs involve quickly synthesizing or summarizing relevant bits of information on topics you're not necessarily expert in to people even less familiar with it than you are. If you don't have that skill, you shouldn't be a journalist, because you suck at it. Consequences for mistakes at basic job functions impress me even less.

That said, I agree with your conclusion, but your conclusion agrees with the piece - specifically paragraph 2 of TFE, which I do find quite convincing, though I also agree with the overall dismissive tone of [1] with regard to the author of TFA perhaps wanting to take a moment to look in the mirror.
   4. Joey B.: posting for the kids of northeast Ohio Posted: January 22, 2013 at 01:41 PM (#4352589)
In this system, a mistake can lead to a lot of trouble, including high financial penalties if slanderous or libelous material makes its way to the audience. Furthermore, while the original reporter might have a good knowledge of the subject, a subsequent editor may not, and may not be able to refer back to the originating reporter before the story goes out. Plus, you want to avoid alienating your audience, because they'll just go somewhere else for their news.

In theory, but in reality, journalists can usually get away with darn near almost anything, and winning a lawsuit against a media organization is next to impossible, even for an ordinary individual. If you're high profile enough in the business, you can even falsely accuse an innocent person of being a mass murderer without any real career repercussions, like both Brian Ross of ABC News and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have done in our recent history.
   5. fra paolo Posted: January 22, 2013 at 03:00 PM (#4352669)
To your #s 2 through 4 I say, tough titties.

One can't separate 2-4 from 1 and 5. One starts from the principle that one has to tell one's audience what it wants to hear. If self-publisher James says that Big-League General Manager doesn't know what he's about, the core audience isn't going to be all that interested in what some cannery security guard has to say about who are the good players in the Big Leagues. The reporter hasn't got time to check, it's not really his or her job, and goes with the 'acknowledged expert' that the audience wants to hear.

The problem is systemic, and rests on meeting audience expectations. There isn't really a big enough sabermetrically informed segment of the general audience for the general media to make special allowance for it.
   6. jdennis Posted: January 22, 2013 at 03:19 PM (#4352690)
Don't forget that journalism is not a rigorous academic field and its test scores are among the lowest of all majors, along with education (worst by a mile), business, and political science. Even psychology beats all those. All of those fields are populated by idiots who mistakenly think they know more than the rest of us when we could do their jobs in our sleep.

I always say that to help our education we need to adopt the Scandinavian system of making becoming a teacher way the hell harder and more prestigious. Our education majors are a joke, the curriculum is for flunkies of the actual discipline. The Scandi's have less and shorter days and slaughter us in testing, because their teachers are way smarter. My teachers were basically all morons.
   7. DJS and the Infinite Sadness Posted: January 22, 2013 at 03:58 PM (#4352714)
The biggest thing I've learned about journalism as a late entrant to the game is that being a columnist is *way* more fun than being a journalist.
   8. BDC Posted: January 22, 2013 at 04:00 PM (#4352717)
One starts from the principle that one has to tell one's audience what it wants to hear

Sports columnists are often paid to give the opposite impression, though. If people are down on the QB, tell them what a tower of strength he is. If they're high on him, tell them he's still a choker. Controversy can sell papers, but it's a kind of managed controversy: indeed, the kind of back-and-forth well-contained argument that people like to have over and over. Nobody wants to hear that it doesn't matter who's quarterbacking this team unless their OL and rushing coaches coordinate basic plays better, even if that would make an interesting insight. I'm not sure I want to read that stuff over coffee in the morning. I'm just waking up, what I want to know is if Tony Romo still sucks.

Edit: guess I was just amplifying what DJS said :)
   9. vivaelpujols Posted: January 22, 2013 at 07:40 PM (#4352969)
Completely agree about Passan, otherwise known as Asshat.
   10. Howie Menckel Posted: January 22, 2013 at 09:23 PM (#4353004)

"All of those fields are populated by idiots who mistakenly think they know more than the rest of us when we could do their jobs in our sleep."

Ok, I'll bite - what do YOU do for a living?
And you'll have to submit copies of your work to the crowd here for critquing.

   11. bjhanke Posted: January 23, 2013 at 02:04 AM (#4353104)
fra - I think your list in #2 is very good, but I'd like to add one point to it that applies only to sports journalists. They have TWO "audiences": 1) the players, managers, coaches and others who work for the team, who want the sportswriter to only say nice things about them and upon whom the sportswriter depends for quotes, and 2) the readership, who want the sportswriter to be a tabloid journalist and reveal personal stuff about audience #1. This puts the sports journalist in a bad spot, all the time. I do know that, when I wrote for the local alternative weekly (The Riverfront Times), I never went into the clubhouse (well, once just to see what it was like to do an interview with Tony LaRussa). Because I didn't do that, I was not dependent on quotes, but on my own observations and analysis. Audience #1 didn't really like that as much as they could have. But it gave me freedom; I was able to "break" two stories (neither huge) that the mainstream sports guys could not, because I wasn't dependent on what the people with the team thought of me.

Also, during my one grad school semester at the University of Missouri, whose journalism school has some reputation, I got to know a few of the journalism majors (I majored in English and wrote the occasional movie review for the student newspaper). They told me that journalism schools as a whole thought that the sports guys were the weakest end of their profession, so sports guys had to put up with years of their fellow students thinking very little of them. I don't know if this is still true of journalism students in general, but it was true in 1980. So, I do have some sympathy for sport guys with actual journalism degrees. They had to put up with some flak just to get their degrees. - Brock Hanke
   12. Howie Menckel Posted: January 23, 2013 at 09:01 AM (#4353141)

"I was able to "break" two stories (neither huge) that the mainstream sports guys could not, because I wasn't dependent on what the people with the team thought of me."

You must not have ever met any decent reporters, then. The whole "beat guys have to kiss up to players and coaches because they depend on them for quotes" is nonsense at the pro level.

If you're a standup person, and don't stab people in the back, you'd be surprised how tolerant athletes and coaches can be. a little secret: if they expect to see the worst in the next day's paper, or online that night, the actual story - unless it's a hatchet job - will almost always have them thinking, 'Ok, that wasn't as bad as I feared. And it was fair. And the writer had the guts to talk to me about it beforehand, and to show up the next day in case I wanted to gripe.' [the latter is VERY important.]

It is true that sports journalists often are looked down upon in the field, sometimes for good reason: There are sports 'fans' who try to bluff their way into the business, in the sense that they care more about the fan stuff than journalism. But those get weeded out pretty quick: You'd be hardpressed to find a veteran traveling beat guy who gives a crap if 'his team' does well or not that season. There are plenty of good stories to write about bad teams, too - in fact there usually are more. On the other hand, you get better play and more space when the team does well, so either result has its benefits (a .500 team is the worst scenario).

   13. depletion Posted: January 23, 2013 at 09:32 AM (#4353145)
"All of those fields are populated by idiots who mistakenly think they know more than the rest of us when we could do their jobs in our sleep."

Ok, I'll bite - what do YOU do for a living?
And you'll have to submit copies of your work to the crowd here for critquing.

Howie, all jobs are easy and done by morons, except mine.

Actually, this talk of "X doesn't understand baseball statistics, thus is a moron" is pretty revolting to me. I never found the people who are very esteemed in a technical field, including two physics Nobel winners and a president of the American Mathematical Society, to display this attitude. There is no upper limit on math knowledge so all of us are in a relative state of ignorance.
   14. bobm Posted: January 23, 2013 at 09:40 AM (#4353149)
#1 - The customers of journalism want to hear from people who agree with them. Thoughtful journalists are liable to disagree with their audience, which is bad for circulation or listernership or viewership. Thoughtless columnists get pilloried regularly here, QED.


So, the thoughtless columnists are popular here as fodder for discussion, and popular elsewhere since they are not threatening. Got it.

I think the demise of print journalism actually has as much to do with the disappearance of critical thought and analysis from mainstream media (independent of political viewpoint or pretenses of objectivity) as it does with technology reducing barriers to entry for advertisers and writers. If newspapers were providing content deemed worthwhile, regardless of format, would their circulations and readership be declining so rapidly?

A newspaper full of wire stories and regurgitated press releases and junk columns, eg the Boston Globe, is worthless to me.
   15. Bitter Mouse Posted: January 23, 2013 at 09:43 AM (#4353150)
My least favorite thing about this site is the bile throw at Journalists. They are not paragons of virtue nor are they idiots, they are people with the normal range of skills and such. And I am positive that it is much harder and more complex than outsiders understand (like pretty much every real job actually).
   16. AROM Posted: January 23, 2013 at 10:51 AM (#4353196)
And you'll have to submit copies of your work to the crowd here for critquing.


Been doing that for the last 10 years.
   17. vivaelpujols Posted: January 23, 2013 at 01:49 PM (#4353406)
Ok, I'll bite - what do YOU do for a living?
And you'll have to submit copies of your work to the crowd here for critquing.


I don't know what Patriot does to make money, but he's absolutely an expert at sabermetrics, so it's fair game for him to criticize sportswriters on the ground they misuse baseball statistics. Unless you're saying that everyone is a special ####### flower and can have whatever ignorant opinion they want.
   18. Howie Menckel Posted: January 23, 2013 at 02:03 PM (#4353428)
I believe I am as opposed to ignorance as you are.

It's fair to criticize specific perceived misuses, of course. It's broad-brush stereotyping that I find - well, ignorant.

Do you disagree?

   19. CrosbyBird Posted: January 24, 2013 at 04:25 AM (#4353849)
Actually, this talk of "X doesn't understand baseball statistics, thus is a moron" is pretty revolting to me. I never found the people who are very esteemed in a technical field, including two physics Nobel winners and a president of the American Mathematical Society, to display this attitude. There is no upper limit on math knowledge so all of us are in a relative state of ignorance.

How would those scientists react to someone criticizing their work in print, indeed, their own understanding of the subject they have spent a lifetime mastering, by someone who misrepresents their position and argues from a position of ignorance?

I think a basic knowledge of baseball statistics, and the development in assessing player value, is a vital part of being educated about the sport, and that it's inappropriate to cover a topic without being reasonably educated about it. It's especially inappropriate to take a strong critical position on something with such a major hole in your understanding.

It doesn't help that so many bad articles are posted here as pinata bait.

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