In Praise of Analysis: What the News Media Can Learn From the CIA and Why Those Lessons Are Essential for Protecting Our Democracy

In order for the public to be informed and able to resist the efforts of both Russian and homegrown mis/disinformation campaigns, it is absolutely necessary that the media stop myopically dismissing analysis for its own sake and start realizing how centrally important it is in presenting any semblance of the big picture to the public.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse April 28, 2017

by Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter@bfry1981) April 26th, 2018

California State University, Fullerton

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AMMAN — In the Age of Twitter, a deep myopia seems to have set in among far too many editors and journalists. While the need to be competitive in a chaotic and challenging media business environment is certainly understandable, what is unforgivable is the lack respect and effort accorded to analysis for analysis’s sake.

The major media outlets often excel at providing up-to-the-minute coverage of details of big stories as they unfold. The race is on to see who can provide a new detail, and that new detail becomes the new headline, only to be eclipsed by another detail which becomes another headline. For stories that last a few cycles, this is not too bad because it is fairly easy to connect the dots even without news outlets providing analysis. Something like a sex scandal or a response to an outrageous statement or even, sadly, a mass shooting nearly always all follow predictable patterns of development and, therefore, coverage.

When dealing with incredibly complicated stories with many moving parts, however, it is necessary to take time off from the search for that new detail and take a step back to provide context and analysis to the public, free from the focus on adding new details (even if there are a few), giving the public an article that simply pauses time to say, this is what has already been reported, this is why it matters, and how much each previously-reported detail matters and fits with the other details.

Except this basically does not happen: the race for new details never stops and it becomes impossible for the general public to take stock of the bigger picture and to weight the importance of each detail; this is what matters most, in the end, but it is what gets the least attention from major media outlets, whether in print, on television, or, especially, on social media. So many new stories pop up that there is little focus or deep-diving into major stories that merit such attention, as the focus is on the newest shiny object that is part of the larger story but not the story as a whole. 

As a result, there so many big-headline new details, coming out faster and furiouser in the Trump era than ever before, that the people are simply overwhelmed. Since the race to get that new detail never stops in a competitive environment, resources—time, money, reporters—are not assigned or given time to really present the bigger picture or give stories proper depth, and, in fact, a number of individuals working for major outlets I have personally contacted seem trapped in a mentality of “If there’s not a big new specific reveal, it’s not news!”

This all contributes to an increasingly-present mentality spread throughout major media outlets and their staff that overhypes any new tidbit of information at the expense of being able to place it in its proper context. It is hard to find a story that demonstrates this troubling dynamic more than the Clinton e-mail story, as experts from the indispensable Nate Silver to those at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center have demonstrated. And, even worse, there has been very little of an honest effort at having public reflection on this, even as the media hypocritically focuses on the damage that Facebook and Cambridge Analytica did during the election.

But if the Clinton e-mail story is an example of how the media can oversensationalize details to make something minor and moderately embarrassing into a game changer, never putting it in its proper context, the Trump-Russia story is something of a flip-side of that coin: a story so complex and that takes so much time to contextualize for easily distracted consumers that outlets do a good job of keeping up to date with the breaking details but almost never give proper consideration to a bigger picture. There is almost no effort to see, anticipates, or reflect on where existing evidence will lead Mueller down the road; at best, the usually only look forward and/or backward one or two steps.

“This is good analysis,” some would say. “It’s avoiding speculation.”

Since when has solid, reasonable big-picture analysis become “speculation?” 

The CIA has desk analysts whose entire job is to put together the details collected in the field by others, to put together intelligence reports on everything from Putin’s intentions to North Korea’s nuclear program to how Cuba might transition from communism to how a two-state solution might look for Israel and Palestine. Sometimes intelligence can be wrong, but that does not make reasonable intelligence analysis “speculation.” 

Of course, they value raw intelligence at the CIA, the equivalent of journalistic scoops. But no one goes to a top general or the president or a cabinet secretary with a whole lot of scoops, one after the other, with no attempt to weight them and an opposite attempt to hype them simply because they are the latest pieces of information. The field operative might overhype the information he provides because he is personally, emotionally attached to it: it is his information he succeeded in providing, so he wants to justify his work and efforts. This is natural, and it is why field operatives are not the people who usually brief senior officials; rather, the desk analysts see what the field operative cannot see: they see the big picture and are able to put all those incoming reports together to create a portrait of the big-picture that is elusive to field personnel. It is the desk analysts or senior CIA staff using desk analysts’ reports who are the ones who generally brief senior officials, then.   

Especially today, many excellent reporters are tasked with being the equivalents of both the field operative and the desk analyst, and the quality of both products suffer: journalists today keep reporting new facts in narrative way that is often highly speculative, overhyping the new information reported in analysis that does not go very deep and serves to further justify the importance of material that is not going through a serious weighting process. These trends even reinforce each other in a destructive feedback loop. 

For a great example of this, just look at the The New York Times’s front-page stories today vs. those of 15 years ago. I say this as one who finds the Times to be the best paper we have, so the criticism is meant constructively, but all the same, far too many journalists and editors look at reporting new information as the be-all-and-end-all and sneer disdainfully at pure analysis. 

Remember—and miss—the Times’ Week in Review section? It was retired mid-2011 and replaced with the Sunday Review, which was sold as something that would preserve analytical content while providing more exposure for opinion writers. A quick look at the section now shows it to be almost entirely composed of opinion pieces, and it is hard to find any hard analysis content.

I can remember when opinion, reporting, and analysis pieces were clearly delineated. But today? A huge problem for The Times is a problem that is industry-wide: opinion, analysis, and reporting are melding together in ways that should be raising alarms among not only journalistic ethicists but all of us. The Times’s current dynamic duo of Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush (both with tabloid backgrounds) are perfect poster children for this trend, one that they admittedly did not create but one to which they are contributing as much as anyone within the mainstream press (let us be clear that Fox News is not part of this crowd, as its model is the very reason it cannot be considered mainstream in the traditional sense, despite its popularity). One can look at Haberman’s and Thrush’s coverage of, say, Hillary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, and it doesn’t take long to see that within the reporting of the facts, controversial and speculative assertions are made in a matter-of-fact manner in between actual facts that do not actually back up those assertions. They and many others are basically mixing in their opinions and passing them off as analysis.

It might seem like a moot point, but the difference is actually crucial: in analysis, an expert on a subject expresses his professional opinion as to what the assembled facts mean, and either avoids venturing past where the facts create a high probability such a venture is very likely correct or explicitly states when venturing past fact-based conclusions is occurring. What compounds the problems surrounding this in some of these examples from today is that the writing of people like Thrush and Haberman mix in excellent reporting, solid analysis, poor analysis that is actually closer to opinion, and clear opinion throughout individual pieces all couched in the same newsy-tone and style. Less discerning readers (let us be honest: that would be most people) might easily confuse one type of writing for the other in such pieces and this now enters the territory of a dangerous, subtle bias that is hardly as obvious and easy to spot as Fox News-like bias.

The traditional divisions between opinion, analysis, and news also served to bolster accuracy. 

When a reporter is just reporting the facts and leaves analysis to others who specialize in that, it is relatively hard for the subject of the report to get angry at the reporter getting the information directly from the subject himself; rather, the subject’s ire will more often be directed at opinion writers or analysts who might interpret the facts gathered by the reporter in an unfavorable light. This is healthy in that the reporter can preserve access to the subject and not worry so much about the tone of his own coverage potentially limiting his access to the subject or even ending that access altogether, since tone is easy to keep fairly neutral when just reporting facts and leaving analysis to others. But when the reporter collecting the facts starts to mix analysis and opinion into stories, relationships can becomes potentially much rockier, and the reporter may soften her tone or criticism of the subject to better be able to preserve access to that subject. This creates another destructive feedback loop: the reporter keeps covering the subject more generously than the subject deserves and this means the subject keeps giving special access to that reporter because that reporter generates relatively more favorable (or at least less critical) coverage, while those being harder on the subject in a more accurate way find their access being reduced or find they are even iced out. 

This is how journalism compromises and destroys itself, and given Trump’s über-sensitive per, über-vindictive, and über-punitive personality, it is more of a problem with this presidency than any presidency in recent memory.

I would say it would be unfair to be singling out these two and the Times except they are star trendsetters on a national stage, and that makes them even more powerful and accountable for wielding that power responsibly. I am not here to specifically dissect their work, which I feel does an excellent enough job of clearly backing up my characterizations without me engaging in a guided tour; my point is to note two prominent examples at America’s premier newspaper of a disease that is destroying the walls throughout the industry between reporting, opinion, and analysis that are supposed to be the foundational structures of journalism. And to be fair to Haberman and Thrush, it so really more so the editors’ responsibility to stop them from writing like that. Instead, editors are rewarding it and elevating such reporters to their star slots à la the Times.

Perhaps nothing is more illustrative than that last point as to why we got the type of woefully inadequate media coverage across the board from the major outlets during the 2016 election cycle, as Harvard’s Shorenstein Center has pointed out quite masterfully. For reporters to dismiss solid analysis as “speculation” would be like analysts dismissing news reports as a mere string of factoids, and both attitudes are wrong. It would be absurd for CIA field operatives to deride the work of desk analysts, and it is absurd that so many journalists minimize the value of analysis. But while analysts are consciously in debt to those getting the primary information they are analyzing, the reporters getting the info often do to not return the respect to analysts (“armchair reporters,” they may say).

One particularly excellent reporter even went as far as to tell me the whole reason the U.S. is in this mess of having such a dysfunctional society (media, government, & president) today is that too many people writing the news are not out there getting new information for themselves. I found this to be incredibly odd considering the opposite is, in fact, the truth and is also a much better explanation for why “we’re in this mess.”

In our current era, so many journalists are out there chasing new pieces of information that they are basically throwing puzzle pieces in the public’s face; the pieces hit people and fall to the ground in clumps, often unrelated to each other. At best people start putting a few pieces—maybe even a section—together, but before there is ever a chance to actually put the puzzle together, or even a majority of it, the whole press corps is back, flinging their individual pieces or a few pieces joined together back in people’s faces, and the whole process repeats, until people are buried by small clumps of pieces that turn into mountains of confusion, ones that obstruct the larger picture since it is not being assembled, and the continuous piling of new chunks prevents this from ever happening.

*****

Much like the intelligence community separates and values intelligence gathering and desk analysis as two separate yet inextricably linked processes, each held in high accord and given proper resourcing to function and produce its independent products, knowing that the latter has nothing without the former but that the latter is really the end product formed from multiple instances of the former, it is time for newsrooms—reporters, editors, managers, and funders—to realize that analysis for its own sake, not forced to be just background for the latest developments, is an integral and crucial part of the whole concept of news and of making sure the public is properly informed. 

It is the lack and a strong analytical core in today’s media landscape that explains why coverage of Clinton and Trump failed so miserably to provide a sensible, accurate sense of who they were and what they stood for to the public, but instead presented something of Picassos of each. And it is also this lack of strong analytical core that the Russians found so easy to fill with their information warfare, with which it twisted and warped the mainstream media to unwittingly do its very bidding.

Since Russia won what I call the (First) Russo-American Cyberwar, countries like France and Germany faced the same threat but handled it with far more mature media and public responses that gave pause for analysis and context to be emphasized, reducing the effects of Russian (dis/mis)information warfare. 

If America is going to be serious about confronting Russia’s information warfare in the future, there will surely need to be a robust government response, one far tougher than anything either Obama did or Trump is doing. 

But just as importantly, America’s fourth estate needs to be conscious of efforts to twist and weaponize it, to first acknowledge to itself and then come clean publicly about its responsibility in letting itself be weaponized by Russia in the 2016 presidential election, and to have a clear plan to avoid the mistakes of 2016 going forward. Perhaps most terrifying for those who truly understand how well Russia played our system in 2016 is that neither the government nor the news media seem to be taking even the most modest and basic steps to be better prepared for this information warfare.

A great starting point for the media would be to realize that its role vis-à-vis the public is much the same as the intelligence community is for the government’s decision-makers: not one of throwing a bunch of pieces of information at people, but one of collating the pieces, putting the puzzle together into a faithful representation of what rigorous analysts indicates it (very likely) is, and presenting that picture to the public, caveats and all. Even worse, most outlets do not even have staff that would be the equivalent of CIA desk analysts. Even now most outlets and reporters bristle at constructive criticism of their work, with the spats between Nate Silver and Maggie Haberman being quite telling. As long as the news media continues to overemphasize collection while dismissing analysis as somehow not being journalism or just being mere “speculation,” it will be impossible for it to fulfill this necessary role as a bulwark of a free and democratic society; rather, it will play into Putin’s hands all too easily (again).

© 2018 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981

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