Yesterday, gay statistician Nate Silver unveiled his new “data journalism” site FiveThirtyEight which promises to apply a scientific and quantitative approach to news analysis by questioning the numbers and variables present in most news stories.
In an essay outlining his new site’s aims, Silver calls his correct prediction of all 50 states in the last U.S. presidential election, “a tremendously overrated accomplishment” and explains the gap FiveThirtyEight hopes to fill in the traditionally narrative media cycle:
“In conventional journalism, predictions are often treated as a parlor game, involving little effort and less accountability… while individual facts are rigorously scrutinized and checked for accuracy in traditional newsrooms, attempts to infer causality sometimes are not, even when they are eminently falsifiable… Predictions are usually outsourced to opinion journalists, who may have less subject-matter knowledge than reporters do.”
"No matter how well you understand a discrete event, it can be difficult to tell how much of it was unique to the circumstances, and how many of its lessons are generalizable into principles… [Thus] The problem is not the failure to cite quantitative evidence. It’s doing so in a way that can be anecdotal and ad-hoc, rather than rigorous and empirical, and failing to ask the right questions of the data.
"Narrative accounts of individual news events can be informative and pleasurable to read, and they can have a lot of intrinsic value whether or not they reveal some larger truth. But it can be extraordinarily hard to make generalizations about news events unless you stop to classify their most essential details according to some numbering or ordering system, turning anecdote into data.”
However, Silver also acknowledges that he and his staff have “the utmost admiration for journalists who gather original information and report original stories” and that “using numbers is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce good works of journalism.”
His site will operate under the patronage of ESPN with 20-plus full-time journalists covering politics, economics, science, life and sports:
“In addition to written stories, we’ll have interactive graphics and features. Within a couple of months we’ll launch a podcast, and we’ll be collaborating with ESPN Films and Grantland to produce original documentary films. You’ll find us on television and radio, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We’ll share data and code on Github.”