The Soothsayers  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   December 2002

The Soothsayers   

It?s time to back off on the speculating and predicting.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


I once knew an editor who banned the word "reportedly" from appearing in his newspaper. "Reportedly," he liked to say, "means 'We don't know.' "

"We don't know" is a good way to describe a lot of what news organizations printed and broadcast in connection with two major stories.

Take the sniper saga. In the harrowing weeks before the two suspects were apprehended, an awful lot of airtime was devoted to the musings of criminal profilers, experts who from a distance describe the likely characteristics of evildoers.

These guys (and they were mostly guys) seemed to be everywhere, nowhere more prominently than on the cable news networks. (See "Off Target") And they were pretty precise about who was behind the carnage.

A middle-aged white male, said one. Probably a fireman or construction worker, said another. Some introverted guy living by himself, said a third.

Turns out there was not one suspect but two, according to law enforcement officials. And they're both black, which no one predicted.

One profiler did say that there were two people carrying out the mayhem. Trouble was, he said they were two skinny white teenagers inspired by the Columbine killers. One of the sniper suspects is not only black but 41 years old. Those minor discrepancies didn't stop this profiler from proudly taking a one-out-of-two-ain't-bad approach to his prediction. Maybe he had no clue about their characteristics, but there sure were two of them.

You'd think we'd have learned from the past. Remember the wizards who initially said that Middle Eastern terrorists were likely behind the Oklahoma City bombings?

The problem, of course, is that profilers may have a statistical composite of those most likely to commit a certain type of crime, but that's not necessarily very helpful when it comes to identifying the perpetrator of a specific act.

It's easy to pile on the profilers, who couldn't resist TV's siren song. But let's not let off the hook the networks and other news organizations that paid so much attention to their guesswork.

The cause of precision journalism also didn't get much help from campaign coverage, in particular the plethora of pieces predicting Election Day winners and losers. While few pundits had the Democrats winning the House, rare was the soothsayer who had the GOP picking up seats. And the cognoscenti seemed confident that the Democrats would retain control of the Senate.

Erskine Bowles was sneaking up on Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina. Tom Strickland had a great shot at knocking off Wayne Allard in Colorado. Golden oldie Walter Mondale would keep the Paul Wellstone legacy alive by outpolling Norm Coleman in Minnesota.

When the votes were counted, it turned out none of those Democrats came close to earning a trip to Washington.

There were plenty of reasons for the gulf between conventional wisdom and reality. President Bush's frenetic campaigning gave the GOP a big last-minute boost in many locales. Polling just isn't as accurate as it used to be, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an excellent piece, for reasons ranging from the growing reliance on cell phones to changing demographics. The political hijacking of a memorial service for Wellstone was a big turnoff, and not just in Minnesota.

It's no disgrace not to be able to predict the future. But since it's so hard to do, why spend so much time and space trying? Given its dubious value, wouldn't it make sense to do less of it and shift the balance in the direction of, say, issues?

In contrast to the crystal-ball gazing of the profilers and the political prognosticators was the old-fashioned police reporting on the sniper story (see "Stalking a Sniper"). Developing and mining sources was essential, since Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Chief Charles Moose was about as forthcoming with information as Dick Cheney on the identities of his energy task force advisers. The guy didn't want to confirm the day of the week.

Moose's temper tantrum over the tarot card disclosure, his rancor over reporting anything that wasn't spoon-fed, seem particularly silly now, given that the "unauthorized" disclosure of the description and license plate number of the suspects' car led directly to their apprehension.

We've made much of the increasing tendency of public officials to withhold legitimate information from the press and the public, a trend exacerbated sharply by September 11 (see "The Information Squeeze" September, and "Access Denied").

The sniper case was a vivid reminder of the value of an informed citizenry, and the importance of aggressive reporting to provide it with the information it needs.

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