CRAWFORD | On the bracket, the media, 'fake news' and the dangers of prediction
Eric Crawford talks about the dangers of prediction in a media world beset with charges of "fake news."
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- “I don’t need to know what happened. I need to know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
An old railbird at Ellis Park Race Course once gave me that journalism lesson when I told him I was waiting to talk to a jockey who’d just won a race.
In a lot of ways, all the world’s a racetrack, and all the men and women merely players, waiting in line at the windows. And occasionally shoveling out stalls.
As a sports columnist, I am called upon regularly to demonstrate what I often remind people -- I’m not as smart as I pretend to be on television, or the Internet. At least, in this I am not alone. I have confessed many times that I must have missed the class in college when they taught us how to know what was going to happen in the future. Like the great sportswriter Dan Jenkins’ hero in the novel “You Gotta Play Hurt,” if you want my pick for who will win the Kentucky Derby, I predict a horse will win it, most likely.
All of this comes up because of the NCAA Tournament bracket. I’ve been fascinated with the bracket since childhood. Raise your hand if you drew out your own bracket with a ruler. Go ahead, you’re not alone. There is magic in those lines, for a lot of us.
And one of the most magical things is this: It’s a yearly reminder that nobody has all the answers.
Still, we fall into the trap. If you know what you’re talking about, the thinking goes, then you’ll know who is going to win when Michigan faces Oklahoma State.
That, of course, is a fallacy. Nobody knows what is going to happen when the Wolverines play the Cowboys this week because human beings are involved. Some might guess the right outcome. Some might even make a guess based on some solid data. But nobody knows.
That’s why -- stop me if you’ve heard this -- they play the game.
Here’s why I’ve chosen to write about this now. There’s a huge market for prediction in this country. In my business, there’s nearly as big a market for prediction as there is for actual news. And the prediction game, I’ll call it, has thrown the news business, and the business of journalism, off the tracks in some ways.
A great quantity of journalistic credibility was lost during the last presidential election, when many pollsters and news agencies decided that the electorate’s decision had been made and the outcome cemented before the polls even opened, when in reality the opposite was true.
The reporting from that assumption, that one side had it locked down, and that the other was on the ropes, colored much of what people saw on their nightly news and in their daily newspapers. It was so pervasive that, when the opposite turned out to be true, many in the media were dumbfounded. They were unprepared to cover what actually happened. It was not a good night for the nation’s mainstream mass media. Much of its coverage looked blindsided, and in many ways, the nation was blindsided.
All because of predictions gone wrong.
The question of bias and wishful thinking in media is a related but separate issue, and certainly a separate column. But from a news standpoint, when the prediction is bad, here’s what happens.
First, an incorrect prediction, put forward by a reputable pollster or news outlet, can help shape the narrative of reporting. A poll shows a politician trailing. Soon the news stories begin to reflect that. The politician is said to be “scrambling to regain his standing in the polls” or “involved in the race of his (or her) life.”
And soon, instead of reporting on the campaign, or the issues, or even the candidate in any real depth, you begin to get “horse race” stories of who is ahead, how the race changed based on that day’s events, or, in the aftermath of the election, long explanations of why the polls were wrong or why the public behaved unexpectedly.
You see it all the time on ESPN. Instead of talking about the game or what happened, talk, as early as late January, goes from what just happened to “what it means for the resume” of this team or that. The problem is that, with the exception of the top 16 teams -- released by the NCAA in February -- all of that talk is speculation.
After Syracuse beat Duke on John Gillon’s buzzer-beating three on Feb. 22, the consensus from ESPN was that the Orange were in. Joe Lunardi, its resident bracketologist, had Syracuse in the bracket consistently from that point on.
Which illustrates a second problem with a bad prediction. The news reporting is just plain wrong. We told you x was going to happen, then y happened. Credibility is lost. Often, the mistakes are compounded because outlets double down and report on why x should have happened but didn’t, instead of why y happened, or instead of just giving comprehensive coverage to what actually took place.
I try this every year to explain why my Kentucky Derby pick doesn’t pan out. “Sometimes,” I faithfully tell you, “the wrong horse wins.” (That’s actually true, but nobody seems to buy it!)
Years ago, in an interview on the “Freakonomics” podcast, psychology professor Philip Tetlock said that the increased public demand for prediction creates “fake supply.”
“I think there is an enormous demand for accurate predictions in many spheres of life in which we don’t have the requisite expertise to deliver,” Tetlock said. “And when you have that kind of gap between demand and real supply you get the infusion of fake supply.”
Sometimes, in 2017, they also call it fake news. It’s not the things reported by news outlets that just don’t turn out to be true -- though there are plenty of those. No, this is the bracketology report in January by Lunardi. The world’s most famous bracketologist does a good job projecting the field in his final bracket. But in January? It’s crazy. Or how about the incessant mock drafts that nobody bothers to compare to the actual draft when it happens. It’s the entire field of recruiting rankings.
Back in my days as a beat reporter, University of Louisville recruiting was part of my coverage responsibility. In the absence of news, people would write me asking, “Can’t you just write about what you think will happen? Or any rumors?”
They wanted rumors as much as they wanted hard information. They wanted a guess as to what a kid would decide. Sharper operators than I was recognized this demand and began posting what I would’ve considered excessive and useless information at all hours. It worked. They built large followings, many of them. I never could accept the notion that I could spend months covering a high school player's “decision process” only to have him choose some school I didn’t cover. Wasn’t all that time wasted? It wasn’t, if you consider the web clicks it created, but I finally determined that it wasn’t the best venture to embark on if I wanted to try to focus on those things that matter most.
The bracket is great, because it’s a tentacled reminder that we can’t predict the future. We can get a few games right here and there. I love the NCAA Tournament, more than any sporting event. But the bracket is a good reminder of how much we don’t know.
It’s a perfect media event, of course, because it’s entirely predicated on prediction. People love to see who you’re picking, and react to it, one way or the other. It’s always worth noting just how often the “experts” are completely wrong, and not just in sports.
It would be great if everyone in the prediction business, when they came on screen, had their “batting average” under their name. Rick Bozich and I, on our weekly webcast, pick football games every week. The next week, our record for the season and for the previous week is on the screen. We rarely hear, “Here’s Charles Barkley, his accuracy in the NCAA Tournament has been . . .” And God forbid we read, “Here’s Paul Krugman, his political predictions in 2016 panned out at x percent.” Weather guys? Why not? They’re right more often than you probably would realize. (They’re dealing with difficult-to-predict natural phenomena, but also with an element somewhat more predictable than human behavior.)
Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of that. It would embarrass many of us in the media who like to pretend we know what’s going to happen, but really don’t. We celebrate our wins. We don’t talk about our misses. It’s the American (media) way.
As well, it should be noted that there is a place for speculation in the news. Debates like the one under way as to how changes to national health care law will change life for people, or how changes in the state's education laws might affect children, are worthwhile and healthy. Even in those, however, predictions should be viewed critically, with more attention on their substance than the predicted outcomes.
The bracket serves as a good reminder to the media that, no matter what the folks at the racetracks want, our business in news departments should not primarily be prediction -- no matter what the demand for it.
The problem is that human endeavor defies prediction. The unexpected happens. It’s what makes sports, and life, special.
Try to remember that when you’re filling out brackets this year. And especially try to remember it when you read mine!
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