On methodology, character assassination and Twitter (are the last two redundant?)

Exhibit 6,028 on why overexposure to Twitter makes me want to take a shower:

So on Wednesday Dwayne Winseck, a communications professor and telecoms expert at Carleton University, posted a lengthy response to a journalist’s request for a methodological clarification about a report he’d written for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s in the Bell-Astral merger hearings in front of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. (Disclosure: Winseck is a colleague and friend with whom I’ve shared a couple of beers.)

The reporter, one Greg O’Brien, who runs cartt.ca, a website “geared specifically towards the men and women working in the cable, radio, television and telecom industries in Canada,” questioned the methodology Winseck used to measure media concentration. This is obviously a key point in a hearing that centres on whether Bell’s takeover of Astral will unduly increase media concentration in Canada. Specifically, he wanted to know why the report didn’t use the most up-to-date measure used by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Department of Justice.

Winseck offered a very complete response (tl;dr: the new U.S. one isn’t an academic or universal standard, and the choice of scale didn’t change the underlying results). He also included some comments to the effect that:

I tapped out a response for you last Friday (May 17) shortly after receiving your query but then thought best to wait a few days until the proceedings in the Bell Astral case closed before sending it. Oddly, the wait was opportune because I see that Bell raised exactly the same point that you did about the HHI in its final reply yesterday (Tuesday, May 21; see Bell Final Reply, page 2).

So, good question, to be sure, and either you and Bell have great minds that think alike or there’s something else going on, but let’s put aside that unseemly prospect, at least for this post, and trust that you’ve come by your query honestly.

Not knowing the deep history of the Bell Astral case, or O’Brien’s background, I ignored the insinuation that O’Brien had been fed the question by Bell and instead focused on the substance, which was convincing and, more importantly, an honest engagement with his questioner. It was a fair question, and people can disagree about methodology. What’s not to like?

Fast forward to yesterday, when O’Brien attacks Winseck on Twitter, not just for insinuating that his question had come from Bell

@mediamorphis 2 There was and is no communication, at all, between #BellAstral and I. None. I would thank you to stop lying about that.

but on his response

.@mediamorphis 4 I think the response you published to my question is mostly utter bullshit.

.@mediamorphis 5 You want to use US gov’t standards to calculate media concentration but…

and then alleges that he cooked the results

.@mediamorphis 5a …Your paper ignored the fact those standards changed in 2010, likely b/c it didn’t support your conclusions.

.@mediamorphis 6a I think you just didn’t realize the standards had changed and you published yesterday’s tap-dance as a way out because…

.@mediamorphis 6b …if you were a decent researcher, you’d have explained all you said yesterday DIRECTLY in the paper submitted…

.@mediamorphis 6c …About why using the old #s was necessary, but you didn’t. The paper acts as if the old #s were still the standard…

.@mediamorphis 6d …And that was not addressed until your post yesterday.

From my own experience as a journalist, I know that reporters often ask questions that they’ve been suggested (or, less generously, fed) by people on the opposite side of an issue. I did it when I was working as a reporter and when I was interviewing people for my PhD. But I also know how the publication you work for has a tendency to influence the focus you put on a story. So from that POV I can sort of see how O’Brien could get his back up on being accused of bias for doing that.

That’s all, I should note, without knowing the specifics of the relationship between Winseck and O’Brien. But I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

That said, O’Brien’s response – particularly given that it was in a public venue – was inappropriate and highly unprofessional on at least two levels.

First, so what if someone thinks you’re taking questions from an industry source? A reporter accused of bias? Grab a soother and get in line; it comes with the territory. Sometimes the accusation comes from a partisan, other times it comes from an unfamiliarity with how journalism happens. Either way, what does a reporter, whose livelihood depends on getting people to talk (and to explain things to them) have to gain from insulting someone in public? Especially someone who is likely to have knowledge or contacts that may come in handy in the future?

Would it have been so hard to smile, even through clenched teeth, say thanks (sincerely; this wasn’t the type of post you just throw together) for a substantive response and move on, instead of throwing a hissy fit that had nothing to do with the substance of the issue under discussion?

Which brings us to the second point, O’Brien’s accusation that Winseck deliberately “ignored the fact those standards changed in 2010, likely b/c it didn’t support your conclusions.” At first glance, this is really over the top, especially since
Winseck points out that the choice of scale didn’t affect his paper’s findings. Quite frankly, it also doesn’t cast O’Brien in the best light when it comes to suspicions that he may have it in for Winseck, for whatever reason.

But what’s nice about this accusation is it allows us to move from feelings and insinuations to substance. Winseck has defended his report on Twitter and in a lengthy blog post. O’Brien is accusing Winseck of ignoring the new guideline “likely b/c it didn’t support your conclusions.”

This kind of dishonesty is a serious charge, at least in academia. Winseck has given his defense, showing that this report’s findings aren’t sensitive to the choice of scale. If O’Brien is going to accuse someone of cheating, it’s incumbent on him to show how the choice of thresholds doesn’t support Winseck’s conclusions. Otherwise, if I were a cartt.ca subscriber, I’d be wondering about the quality of information I’m getting.

At the end of the day, I know this is just people behaving badly on Twitter, and criticizing it is kind of like criticizing Rob Ford for making an ass of himself. But wouldn’t it be nice if we (reporters and academics) stopped snarking on Twitter and tried focusing on substance?

ETA: And, of course, the cartoon is from xkcd.

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1 Response to On methodology, character assassination and Twitter (are the last two redundant?)

  1. Pingback: Methodenstreit: A Reply to a Question from Greg O’Brien @ Cartt.ca about Media Concentration Research Methods | Mediamorphis

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