Category: Media


What the Tesla Affair Tells us About Data Journalism

Consider for a moment two scenarios.

One, a malicious energy reporter tasked with reviewing an electric car decides he is going to fake the review. Part of this fictional narrative, is that the car needs to run out of battery power sometime in the review. He arrives at one of the charging stations, and instead of plugging in, spends a few minutes circling the parking lot trying to drain the battery.

Second, an energy reporter is tasked with reviewing the potential of a new electric car charging network. He arrived at one of the charging location in the dark, and can’t find the charging station. He drives around the parking lot several times looking for it, before finding it and charging his car.

Here is the thing. As Craig Silverman recently pointed out to me, we actually have no idea, based on the interpretation of the review data released by Tesla, which narrative is true. All the data shows is a car driving around a parking lot. And here in lies the principle lesson from the whole Tesla affair: Data is laden with intentionality, and cannot be removed from the context in which it was derived. We do not know, from these data alone, what happened in that parking lot.

David Brooks touched on this very issue in a recent (somewhat overly maligned in my opinion) column on the limits to big data. While his Italian banking analogy felt misplaced, there is actually a large amount of research backing up his general themes. And his point that data struggles with context, is directly relevant to the Tesla dispute:

Data struggles with context. Human decisions are not discrete events. They are embedded in sequences and contexts. The human brain has evolved to account for this reality. People are really good at telling stories that weave together multiple causes and multiple contexts. Data analysis is pretty bad at narrative and emergent thinking, and it cannot match the explanatory suppleness of even a mediocre novel.

In the case of the Tesla review, it is this context that was both poorly recorded by Broder, and which is missing from the Tesla data analysis. This does not mean the analysis is wrong.  But it does mean it’s incomplete.

A couple of further points about the role data played in this journalistic dispute.

First, the early triumphalism against the New York Times in the name of both Telsa and data transparency, were premature. In Tesla’s grand rebuttal, Musk clearly overplayed his rhetorical hand by arguing that the review was faked, but he also overstated both the case he could make with the data, as well as the level of transparency that he was actually providing. Tesla didn’t release the data from the review. Telsa released their interpretation of the data from the review. This interpretation took the form of the graphical representation they choose to give it, as well as the subjective write-up they imposed on it.

What is interesting is that even with this limited and selective data release (ie, without the raw data), entirely different narrative interpretations could be built. Broder and his New York Times team presented one. But Rebecca Greenfield at the Atlantic  provided an even more detailed one. There are likely elements of truth scattered across these three interpretations of the data.  But they are just that – interpretations.

Second, the only person who can provide the needed context to this data is Broder, the reviewer himself. And the only way he can convey this information is if we trust him. Because of his “problems with precision and judgement,” as the New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan put it, his trust was devalued. So the missing journalistic piece to this story is lost. Even in a world of data journalism, trust, integrity and journalistic process still matter. In fact, they matter all the more.

Finally, we can’t lose sight of the outcome Tesla wanted from this. They wanted PR for their new vehicle. So amongst all of the righteous indignation, it is worth noting that journalistic principles are not their core objective – good stories about their products are. These may or may not be aligned. This is why, for example, Broder was given significant support and access during his review trip (some of which ultimately proved to be misguided).

An example of this discrepancy surrounds the one clear reality about the Model S (and presumably electric cars in general) that was revealed in the review – they lose significant charge when not plugged in during cold weather. Now, Tesla would rather this fact had not emerged in the review. But it did. And as Steven Johnson pointed out, this has significant implications, specifically for city drivers. For one, it makes parking the Tesla S on the street in the winter (what many urban dwellers would have to do), largely impractical.

So, to recap. The Tesla Affair reinforces that: data does not equal fact; that context matters enormously to data journalism; that trust and documentation are even more important in a world of data journalism; and that companies will continue to prioritize positive PR over good journalism in reviews of their products.

Crossposted on the Tow Center for Digital Journalism blog


How the New Yorker Goes Viral

Crossposted at’s Dispatch blog

For years I have read The New Yorker as a non-US print subscriber. This meant that somewhere between a few days and a week after an issue was published, it arrived in the mail. The uncertainty of its arrival is fun, and the novelty of flipping through the Goings on About Town to find the Tables for Two has never really worn off. Every once in a while a story would reach me in a different way – a Hirsch piece during the Bush administration, for example, would get wide engagement online. But for me, The New Yorker was principally a solitary print experience.  Such was its charm.  So the online transition path for the magazine has never been obvious.  Recently though, I have been engaging with the magazine in two new ways – on Twitter, and using their exceptional iPad app. The ways in which the magazine has transitioned to both are a model for a struggling form and fit into a wider shift in the international affairs conversation that the CIC site seeks to engage.

Take last weekend, for example. Over the weekend, a pre-release of Nicholas Schmidle’s expose of the Bin Laden raid went viral on Twitter. Virtually all of the 100 or so foreign policy specific handles I follow posted it immediately, and it then crossed into most other online conversations. Instead of reading it online, I checked the New Yorker iPad app, and there was Monday’s issue ready to be downloaded. The New Yorker’s iPad app does something quite remarkable.  Leveraging the iPad’s elegance and engagement features, the app perfectly balances its focus on writing, journalism and style in a way that lets the magazine breathe. Each week, a new issue pops up in the app, and it takes a satisfying minute or two for the whole 140mb of issue to download. Last week, the New York Times outlined the success of the app in a piece that also got a lot of attention.

So on a lazy Sunday morning, I tucked into Schmidle’s article in this great reader-centric format. The piece itself was astounding in both its detail and style. A decision had clearly been made in the Pentagon or White House to provide the definitive account of the raid to The New Yorker, and that account will surely become the basis for movies and books.

But because The New Yorker pushes content aggressively and effectively online, the reach and life of the piece extended far beyond a limited number of solitary reading indulgences. The New Yorker has now, somewhat unexpectedly, become a hub in the international affairs conversation and can position pieces cleanly and effectively in the international debate.  It is no longer simply the rag of the elite and well-bred. It is fuel in a community of international affairs journalism, being spread and multiplied by innovative websites, Twitter and diverse networks of engaged readers.

Take two examples. Foreign Policy Magazine has in the past few years transformed itself from an austere print publication skimmed in airports, to a leader in pushing diverse content online. This has meant changing both how they write, who writes for them, and where and by whom the content is seen. I would argue they are significantly more influential now than they ever were in their limited and isolated print days. They are certainly more interesting.

Second, consider three emergent international affairs leaders on Twitter. Covering the Arab uprisings for the New York Times, Chris Chivers (@cjchivers) has demonstrated a best in practice use of Twitter for the foreign correspondent.  At times, when connections were poor, he would literally file in real time via Twitter. But he goes further. Because Twitter is a two way conversation, followers can pose a question to him, about a particular rebel group he was embedded with, for example, and often get replies. If blogs personalized the journalist and author and allowed readers to comment, Twitter has moved engagement into real time.  Again, this is a case of an at times austere publication, the New York Times, becoming more influential not by isolating itself in hallowed halls but by experimenting and engaging.

Andy Carvin (@acarvin), a reporter with NPR, has literally created his job description – Twitter curator for international affairs. When the uprisings were breaking in Egypt, there was a flood of tweets documenting the events on the ground. Carvin filled a need for a filter and served as the go-to hub to make sense of this massive flow of information.

Finally, Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM), back at Princeton after time as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, where she led the Obama Administration’s social media outreach to the middle eastern uprisings, has become a figure head of sorts for the emergent online international affairs community. She mentored and enabled two young social media leaders at State, @JaredCohen (now at Google Ideas) and @AlecJRoss, has begun a new project with the Atlantic Monthly to capture the paradigm shifts happening in the practice, scholarship and communication of international affairs, and has become a champion and curator of these conversations on Twitter.

These examples are simply to point out that the conversation has moved online, and that the organizations and publications that are currently the most effective, influential and interesting are those making innovative use of the medium.

So back to The New Yorker and the “Getting Bin Laden” story. Over the course of the week, the article was built on, added to, debated, challenged, promoted and celebrated in countless online spaces. It became the focus of an international conversation in a manner that would have proved impossible with a New Yorker piece even five years ago. Because the magazine has pushed content online, via the web, Twitter and a brilliantly conceived app, it remains at the center of the journalism game.

I take a number of lessons from this. As a neophyte professor in a school of journalism, it provides a shining success story of leveraging one’s assets into the online space. It is of course idiosyncratic – it’s The New Yorker after all. As the Financial Times’ and the New York Times’ pay walls are ill-suited to most papers, the particular New Yorker model will not be the solution for most magazines. But it is nonetheless well-conceived, and shows that no one online model will work for all.

As the editor of the CIC site, the lesson I take is that constant innovation from day one, is the only viable model. This means, as Emily Bell, formerly of the Guardian, now at Columbia Journalism, has said, being first and foremost “of the web, not on the web”. It means rethinking the site, and evolving constantly – we are, for example, re-launching in September with new features, adjusting what hasn’t worked, building on what has. Finally, it means thinking of the site as part of an emerging and rapidly changing international discourse , one which includes the top policy makers, journalists and academics in the world, and is radically democratized by the form it is taking. It has never been a more exciting time to be in this business.