What the Piketty-Financial Times Affair says about journalism and academia

Thomas Piketty has issued a response to the FT’s criticism claiming that bad computations and flawed estimates undermined the overall thesis of his book, namely that wealth concentration had increased. I have read the 10-page letter by Piketty and found it extremely convincing. Basically, he doesn’t give an inch, explaining each and every point that the FT raised with references either to the very dataset that the FT used, or to research papers he had published and uploaded. He concedes that a few minor points could have been more transparent in the dataset, but if anything, his response points more to the FT’s sloppiness than his own, as does another piece in the Guardian by Howard Reed. When you write a 600-page book drawing on a humongous mass of disparate data, you are bound to make thousands of judgement calls and adjustments. Keeping track of and documenting them almost takes more time than actually finding and analysing the data.

But besides the substantial points, what i found interesting about the whole FT (a commercial news outlet) vs. Piketty (an economics professor) affair is the still huge differences between the world of journalism and academia precisely at a time when these are getting closer and competing with each other.

Until recently, journalism and academia were clearly distinct. The race towards specialisation has led academics to invest in ever more sophisticated skills and take part in arcane debates that remained obscure to lay people, and journalists occasionally consulted them or reported about their research, but they held a monopoly over the means of communication of science to the public. Hence, academics tended to stay in the ivory tower, and needed journalists to diffuse their knowledge, while journalists needed the expertise of academics – or more often borrow their credibility to support common sense arguments. In many ways, roles were clearly defined. I think that things have changed recently with the development of academic blogging, where academics are increasingly investing the public sphere directly without the mediation of journalists. At the same time, the development of “data journalism” in the recent period can be understood as the diffusion of academic – essentially quantitative – techniques within journalism, and I suppose a more scientific approach to journalism. So what we have is the emergence of an intermediate sphere where both academics and journalists compete for communicating knowledge to the public. However, journalists and academics still have very different habituses – ways of seeing things, professional standards, time horizons – that make this competition a very unequal and often pointless struggle.

One of the major differences is the issue of time. Journalism needs to be fast rather than deep. Since the Pikettymania has started, I think it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of journalists reporting on “Capital in the 21st century” haven’t read the book, and have relied on second-hand accounts by other journalists instead. Of course, this is a very long book and journalists simply don’t have time to read long books, especially if they have to maintain their twitter account beside writing articles. But this has tended to create what Bourdieu called the “circular circulation of information” where most media outlets have simply tweaked the titles used by other media outlets to report about it, adapting it according to their pre-existing ideological agenda without engaging with its content. The same has happened with the FT/Piketty affair, where most media outlets have reported on the FT criticism by hyping it up and reporting on the FT’s “takedown” without engaging with or evaluating the substance of the criticism. Fraser Nelson jumped on the bandwagon right away, accusing Piketty of “fiddling” data with a somewhat idiotic and hasty Schadenfreude. The FT seems to have given Piketty 24 hours to reply to their piece in the same edition, which is preposterous to give a substantial reply if you need to teach or even do substantial research on the topic. It takes often 2 years or more between the time I write an academic article and when it is published. I write it, revise it, present it at a conference, get feedback, revise it again, submit it to a journal, it is rejected, I revise it again, submit it again, am asked to revise it, until it is accepted. Hopefully, this leads to more serious and reliable scholarship, but journalists have really a hard time understanding that making reliable science takes time.

The second difference is perhaps cohesiveness. In academia, you make a reputation for yourself by criticising what others do or what they miss, and emphasising how what you do is original. Anybody that has gone through a journal peer review process knows that criticising others is much easier than doing research yourself, and this often creates fairly nasty battles. There is surely competition and criticisms among and between media outlets, but what always strikes me is the extreme degree of corporatism of journalists as a whole. While their job is to criticise and hold people to account, journalists are actually very bad at taking criticism and being held to account for their mistakes. Attacks by outsiders on the handling of a particular news event are often dismissed as attacks against journalism or press freedom itself. Journalists are always right, and journalism is what journalists are the most interested in. This applies to every sphere: plumbers certainly consider plumbing to be a cornerstone of modern civilisation, and most academic blogs actually talk about academia rather than subjects that academics study. But the difference is that journalists have a disproportionate visibility for everybody else because, well, they work in news outlets. This has applied in the FT/Piketty case as well. First, the debate would never have been hyped up so much if it had come from an academic. As written above, journalists don’t read academic papers of even academic blogs: they read other newspapers. Hence many news reports had a manifest pro-FT bias, showing how journalists were so good at debunking theses by professional academics. This was propped up by a journalistic norm which requires journalists to give balance to a subject by always including criticism of an argument, or “the other side of the story” even if the criticism is stupid or not credible. When I wrote a piece on dualisation in academia comparing it to a drug gang, I was asked a few questions by an Australian journalist who told me she had found the piece “just brilliant”. The article they published afterwards ended with a quote from a tweet calling my piece “a load of bollocks”. I was told the tweet had been inserted to “add balance”. A good controversy is always better than one plausible argument. When the criticism comes from a fellow journalist, you kill two birds with one stone.

The third is a huge difference in standards. Almost all news reports have lauded the FT’s “very serious work” in “debunking” Piketty and digging in his data. Now this was surely good work by journalistic standards, but it must have taken 3-4 days. By any academic standard, it is a bit light to debunk a 600-page book drawing on 10 years of research. The FT piece was apparently checked by an unnamed “economics expert”, which, as far as the reader could tell, could be the author’s aunt, or a banana. It was quite striking to read journalists denouncing Piketty’s lack of transparency – “he needs to explain himself” – whereas he put all his data online. Such a level of transparency is simply never seen in journalism. In journalism, dodgy data are used every day to support doubtful theses that will sell copies, and plagiarism is common: a Google search with the keywords “Daily Mail plagiarizes” yields 8’630 (!) results, and that’s only with the American spelling. A few months ago, a Greek newspaper asked me if they could quote from a blog post of mine. I said yes, but when I saw the finished product a few weeks later, they had made up an interview with me that never happened, where they had copy-pasted and translated my blog post, inserting questions in between, presenting it, I suppose, as a sort of exclusivity next to a picture they had found online. I am not saying that these practices are generalised, nor that there isn’t bad practice in academic research sometimes, but there are much higher barriers to entry in academia – get a PhD – and this type of malpractice is severely punished. Nowadays, the multiplication of media outlets – competing for falling advertisement revenues – means that anybody can claim to be a journalist – many people are simply ready to work for free – and the standards are often simply dismal. Hence, the critique of Piketty by many newspapers in this case was not only unfair, but was also a disgraceful example of double standards.

8 thoughts on “What the Piketty-Financial Times Affair says about journalism and academia

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  2. ejh

    journalists are actually very bad at taking criticism and being held to account for their mistakes
    Not sure this is true. I spent more time than I should bringing mstakes to journalists’ attention and I find they’re usually pleased to acknowledge and correct. What they don’t like so much is being told their judgements are wrong, and there are different levels of not-liking.
    Talking of errors, you mention the Howard Reed piece. There’s a small error in it: where he says “12 percentage points during the 1970s” that should be “between 1974 and 1976″. (I queried the original on a FAcebook thread which he turned out to be reading: He corrected himself.) Fraser Nelson is a joke though: when he falsely accuses Piketty of “fiddling” it’s worth recalling that he employs and protects a notorious and shameless plagiarist. It may or may not be as common in journalism as you suggest, but it certainly has been at the Spectator.

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