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Positives are popular, skeptics are digital

My print copy of today’s Financial Times had this at the bottom of the oped page.

Yesterday’s FT print edition had a column by Jeff Sachs. The positive gets the column, the skeptic gets the footnote.

Bitter, who me &^%$#@?

To be honest, I get more press space (both in print and online) than I really deserve, compared to other skeptics. But, in general,  positives get more way more press than they deserve than skeptics.

It’s just simple human nature: all of us prefer inspirational stories with a happy ending to skeptical questioning that implies more work to do before the end. For-profit newspapers (currently struggling to survive at all) very understandably have to go with what’s popular (the Sachs column is currently the 2nd most popular on FT Comment, I am way too scared to ask how way down the ranks my online column is)

I have the impression that the balance between positives and skeptics is much more even in the not-for-profit online world of newspapers, blogs, and Twitter (could somebody rigorously test this please).

I went last night to a meetup of development Twitter folks in New York and was very impressed by the knowledgeable, rigorously skeptical attitude of those with whom I got to chat (including those who worked for organizations who publicly side with the positives). Many of the development Twitterati get it more right in 140 characters than the old media does in long feature stories. (There are some really major exceptions in the old media, such as insert your name here.) One Twitterati I met complained about how badly even such an august publication as the New Yorker had botched a story on Somalia.

So OK positives, you’ve got the newsprint for now, but watch out for the revenge of the digital skeptics!

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  1. jc wrote:

    unfair!!!! >:(

    Posted September 22, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  2. David Zetland wrote:

    Bill I disagree, but I am not sure how to frame this: If it bleeds, it leads means that MOST news is about death and destruction.

    Maybe Sachs gets the headlines b/c he promises to change human nature, while you merely try to work with it?

    Posted September 22, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  3. Vinnie wrote:

    I don’t mean to diminish your work or opinions in any way, but I think there may be another factor at play: Skepticism, in and of itself, is easy. That’s not to say quality skepticism is easy. It’s just that even for the most positive developments, there will always be someone who could say, “Sit tight; give it time; it’s not the whole answer” etc. A positive report–even if it’s oversold–will typically add more to the narrative because it purports progress and–well–news. After all, you can’t have skepticism without first having something to be skeptical about. Am I making sense?

    Posted September 22, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  4. William Easterly wrote:

    Vinnie, sorry, skepticism is not easy at all.

    Posted September 22, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Diane Bennett wrote:

    We’ve had 10 years to be skeptical about the MDGs. This is nothing new.

    Posted September 22, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Jess' wrote:

    Bill, I left a similar comment on your skeptical/ digital column, which I thought was overall great. For all aid’s shortcomings, and for all the ridiculous fluff of the MDGs, one thing that has emerged successfully of late is a distinct focus on women and girls. I think that is important enough in and of itself, at least for the most part. I wonder, where do women and girls fit into your trade alternate? How will greater emphasis on trade with developing countries also build in opportunities to grow women leaders, business owners, professors, etc?

    Posted September 22, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  7. Dan Kyba wrote:

    When I was a kid, I for worked for several years years as a print journalist.

    In fairness to the journalists:
    a) They rarely have the time and resources to properly research any story.
    b) News offices tend to have a hot house culture where existing attitudes are continually reinforced then projected outward in their copy.
    c) In the name of ‘balance’ and ‘controversy’ they will try have the so-called both sides of a story even when they know or regard one side as a crank.

    The risk to Prof. Easterly is that, in the eyes of the media, he does not become the official ‘other side ‘, ie the crank who will be called upon whenever Prof. Sachs and similar proponents make their comments which tend to be very much in line with mainstream media prejudice.

    Posted September 22, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Matthias wrote:

    Great blog! Just bookmarked 😉

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 6:40 am | Permalink
  9. Scott wrote:

    This is ridiculous. You once wrote a whole book review that criticized a book about Burundi because it was focusing on problems in Africa, not solutions. Just didn’t like the attention on the negative side of things. You are always critical of the portrayal of the developing world as negative. You think that story gets way too much attention. Now, a change of heart. It is the positive stories that get too much attention.

    Anyone who has ever picked up a newspaper knows that negative stories get far more ink than positive stories. But sure, theorize about human nature to explain your relegation to the ne’er read internets.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  10. Curious wrote:

    I think people have two simultaneous inclinations:

    1) to gawk at train wrecks and disasters – hence the marketability of sensationalist media.

    2) to prefer comfort over truth.

    So while negative or quircky things get more interest in terms of viewership/entertainment, its the “positive” philosophical view that is preferred when people have to think about an issue or question. By “people” I’m mostly referring to contemporary Americans and the dominant obsession with feeling good in easy ways (Oprah, new age ‘spirituality’, the self-esteem agenda, bake sales).

    So there is really no contradiction or paradox between a preference for the positive and high media ranking for negative/debased stories – it all just depends on the particular context.

    Posted September 23, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. By All the Views Fit to Print « Waylaid Dialectic on September 24, 2010 at 6:29 am

    […] Poor old Bill. Such is the life of a sceptic. While Jeffrey Sachs gets actual print column inches he’s reduced to the online edition. […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly, William Easterly, Louis Klarevas, Hugh McMullen, Federico and others. Federico said: positives get more way more press than they deserve than skeptics. […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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