My problem with journalism

I’m a big advocate of anthropologists finding ways to connect with a larger audience, beyond those who read academic journals. (Sometimes I’m not even sure anthropologists read what other anthropologists write.) But then I see something like Guy Deutscher’s NY Times Magazine article “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” and I find myself wondering if the standards of journalism are just too different from those of academics? There is nothing wrong with Deutscher’s article, which seems to be an excerpt from a longer book he is writing, it is just that it was all too familiar. That’s because I’d read it all before in Lera Boroditsky’s article “How does Language Shape the Way We Think?” as well as her more recent WSJ piece, “Lost in Translation.”

I’m not saying Guy Deutscher plagiarized Lera Boroditsky’s work. What I’m saying is that if this was an academic publication he would have been expected to cite her, but because it is journalism there is no such expectation, and that bugs the hell out of me. Even blog posts are expected to link to sources. Perhaps he does cite her in his book, but again, my point is about the standards of the NY Times. Now it is possible that these are simply common stories told by people in the field, but I find it strange that Boroditsky’s isn’t even mentioned in this article. After all, Newsweek’s article on the topic focused on her research.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, and even journalists would feel something is amiss here, but I suspect not. It seems quite normal when one newspaper writes a story for other newspapers to go out and find their own reporters to give them the same story, sometimes even interviewing the same sources. In fact, I’ve even been a victim of this. An Indian TV news station went out and remade a short documentary film of ours, but since it was all new footage and interviews, there wasn’t much we could do about it. Nor am I certain that I would expect anything else from journalists if I weren’t an academic. Still, it drives me crazy whenever I see this kind of thing, and so I thought I’d vent. Am I way off base here? Or does this kind of thing bother you as well?

16 thoughts on “My problem with journalism

  1. I haven’t read Deutscher’s or Boroditsky’s articles, so I can’t comment on that particular situation. As a journalist, though, I can tell you that it does bother me when someone swoops in and writes up a story as if it’s original to him or her when someone else got there first. I’ve been on the receiving end of that a few times, and it’s sort of flattering but mostly irritating, and I try not to do it myself. Most of the journalists I’ve worked with (I’m now at the Chronicle of Higher Ed) feel the same way.

    That said, there’s often some overlap in what journalists do, just because of the way news (and I include intellectual news) bubbles up. If there’s a breaking news event, it’s reasonable to expect several different news outlets to deliver versions of the same story. But if it’s a trend or intellectual current being written about, one ought to give credit to those who spotted it and investigated it first. Some comfort for those who do second or third takes: Often there’s more to add, and the first piece isn’t necessarily the best piece.

    I do know of cases where a couple of writers were on to the same idea at the same time and one just happened to publish first. That’s tricky, because the writer who publishes second may look like s/he is ripping off an idea that was actually original. In those cases, a nod to what’s already been published is still usually a good idea.

    Thanks for an interesting post.


    Jennifer Howard

  2. I don’t think Guy Deutscher needed to cite Lara Boroditsky’s work for the reason he cited John Haviland and Stephen Levinson’s work with the Guugu Yimithirr (essentially, the work of the latter two is reproduced in Boroditsky’s work). What might be an important question is how thorough Deutscher’s investigation of the topic was? He seems to have a thorough grasp of the subject with apt examples; however, Deutscher is not an academic researcher, and therfore is not required to know the field “to death.” Thus, Desutscher may have felt having referenced research by Haviland and Levinson he had covered his bases on this particular topic of “spatial orientation in language.” (I suspect, Deutscher might have included more recent research had it contradicted or significantly added to earlier research concerning the point Deutscher was making in that section).

    I also expect he’ll, like most books written by journalists, cite sources and extra reading material in blocks in the reference section. Something like: “the following three paragraphs on language and spatial orientation are drawn from research by X, Y, and Z and can be found in A, B and C.” That this sort of stuff isn’t included in the article may have more to do with journalism practices, some of which may be carried over to the internet. Other than this idea, I can’t comment much on this. Perhaps the journalists out there can supplement my little idea.

    Finally, I must admit, faced with either “book” from Deutscher or Boroditsky, I would opt to read Deutscher’s book. It’s simply more accessible and memorable (after reading both articles, I retain more form the Deutscher article than from Boroditsky’s article). This must say something about why journalists make a living off publishing topic books. (Academics would, naturally, go first to published papers).

  3. As a journalist turned academic (teaching and researching media and journalism) I agree with you. It bugs me too.

    I’ve often described academic publishing as the thinking person’s journalism. Journalism can only, because of space and time considerations, and the demands/pressures of the commercial nature of even non-commercial institutions (such as the UK’s BBC) scratch the surface.

    I think many of us in academia feel the same. Many journalists who come over to academia do so for such a reason.

  4. Thinking some more on this, part of the problem arises when the genre requirements from one field are ascribed to another. Academic writing is just a specific genre with standards and expectations in terms of language, methods of citation, and scholarly style. Take citation, as Kerim has done. In general usage, citation may offer what is taken as the generally held view–gossip is just one such example; there is no certainty that the content of gossip is true, but that such content is the subject of gossip conveys the impression it is widely held to be true in the general speech community. Citation in gossip may take the form, “I heard it from so and so.” And, indeed, the chain of citation may go on quite a way, and even disappear into fictive sources. In gossip what is important isn’t that the citation holds up if examined (if I go ask so and so), but that it exists (its existence conveys the impression of verifiability, even though few of us would ever go about checking) to underscore the content of gossip.

    As a genre, academic writing uses citation as a foundation from which to build. Citation is not just a matter of source, but quality of source. It conveys for the reader a degree and level of knowledge–knowledge may not just be conveyed by the source, but the method of citation. Various journal citation styles and the ability of writers to naivgate between them indicates a familiarity with the journals making up a field of study. Since citation is also a mark of academic respect, there may also be an element of quid pro quo in citation (if I cite you, will you cite me in a review?). Citation is not just a matter of ensuring the article/paper has identified researchers in the discipline, but is also part of the life-blood of the discipline.

    Thus citation in an academic writing serves more to position oneself within the academic field. Citation not only shows the reader one’s leanings, but also what one is against. Associated with establishing one’s position is establishing what one has written within the field. Citation lends a certain authority to the academic paper; it calls out that the paper itself should be cited. And not just the paper, but the language of the paper itself; citation should focus the reader’s attention on quotation drawn directly from the paper, as if the paper’s language should infect the discipline. Whereas, the citation in gossip over time becomes unmoored from the source of the gossip, the same does not occur in academic writing; the discipline of academic writing ensures that citation is always proper and accords with the generic requirements of such writing (how often students have found on their essays, “cite source!”).

    Can the same be said of journalism? Does journalism exist somewhere between gossip and academic writing? What constitutes for the journalist stature in his/her field? In some sense, journalists always work with citation as they take from what other people have said. Certainly, as with academics, journalists search for the sound bite, that piece of language (citation) that enters the general language and has attached to it a source. Yet, unlike academic writing, how often do we find journalists citing each other? The genre of reportage/journalism finds some affinities with academic writing, but also with gossip. Academic writing is more concerned with citation as a chain of reference; whereas, journalism interests itself in citation for different reasons.

  5. “Thus citation in an academic writing serves more to position oneself within the academic field.”

    That’s not entirely true. When is talking about theory or describing how one’s work compares to similar works then yes, citation serves to position oneself in a field. However, when someone is making specific empirical claims then this isn’t the case. Look at any work in history and you will see many citations that have nothing to do with positioning oneself in the larger context of history as a discipline. Citations in history are generally used to show the source of certain piece of information. So for example if a historian says that the population of a specific European country doubled from 1500 to 1600, he or she will cite the sources of this information or if he or she don’t have sources that directly give this information, he or she will cite the sources that he or she used in concert with some methodological tool to reach a given conclusion. By citing in this manner historians link specific claims to specific pieces of evidence. In many ways anthropologists do this too when they cite their field notes or newspaper articles or other ethnographic studies in the context of making empirical claims.

    The problem with a lot of journalists is it’s impossible to trace the source of their information. In smaller newspaper articles or even multi-part article series there are usually citation like practices like quoting, paraphrasing and mentioning polls (or sometimes studies). These practices might not the take the same form as academic works but they give the reader the ability to determine the source of claims made in an article. The problem, I find, is when journalists move into larger formats like books. I’ve read several problematic works of pop-science and pop-history in which a journalist author made potentially broad sweeping generalizations about some topic without clearly indicating where they got their information. Often times there will be a bibliographic list in the back that doesn’t really help one track down the source of a claim or worse the author will make a vague appeal to looking at government documents or surveys without any information directing one to specific surveys or government documents. It is hard to determine the validity of a proposition when one doesn’t know how someone came to that proposition in the first place. I should note that some pop-science and pop-history works by academics can have the same problem (cough, cough, some of Jared Diamond).

  6. @ckelty That’s why I tried to be careful to frame this in terms of the standards of the NY Times not Deutscher. Like I said, it is possible that his popular book adheres to very different standards than what appears in the Magazine.

  7. It’s clearly not very practical for print journalism to write articles to academic standards of citation – the main issue would seem to be that the tendency not to cite at all has carried over on to newspapers’ online sites even though hyperlinks could allow a neat, non-obtrusive means of doing so.

    Notably some newspaper comment forums – I’m thinking of’s Comment Is Free – are starting to see some forum-users request citations from either the author or each other if a controversial statement is being made. People can obviously cite non-authoritative or biased sources that wouldn’t cut the mustard academically, but some kind of peer review (“That source is such crap! Here’s one that says the opposite”) could be said to take place nonetheless…

  8. Not saying that this is the case with the above article, but the ethics/practice of citation is a topic of conversation among some of the people I’m working with. From what I’ve gathered from my work with Print Journalists, except where it is unavoidable, the tradition is for newspapers (and other traditional media forms) tend to act as if they are publishing in a media vacuum (we are the one source and the only source). The only intertextual path one traditionally finds (outside of BIG stories) is with stories previously reported within that paper (or that family of papers).

    This has created some friction with newspaper bloggers, especially those who cross over and have their journalism or commentary also run in print. Typically these writers tend to rely heavily on intertextual, cross institutional linking practices for their blogs. Some, especially those who have moved from blogging to print journalism, have openly complained about the fact that when they write for print they have been discouraged from bringing “blogging” style citation/intertextuality practices to their articles.

  9. I also found the attribution density in the Deutscher article very low, but I thought it might be because it’s taken from a book. In a followup interview with the Guardian it’s even worse; it almost sounds like he went to the Guugu Yimidhir area himself to do this whereas in fact his academic work has been on totally different matters.

    What Deutscher writes on gender certainly does sound like he read at least Boroditsky et al. 2003, which he does not mention there. But the main target of the article is the space research by Haviland and Levinson (and Levinson & Brown on Tzeltal).

    Anyway, everyone’s getting his own piece of the turf. Boroditsky’s WSJ piece doesn’t mention Levinson but the influence is direct, as Levinson collaborated on the Time and Space research (Boroditksy, Gaby & Levinson 2007) and Boroditsky’s collaborator Gaby was in Levinson’s research group. I guess it just works that way. When you present your work in a newspaper, you foreground your own work and background the work by others you’ve building on. Except of course Deutscher has none of his own work to foreground.

    One more thing that mystifies me is: why now? It’s quite interesting that the media have increasinly been picking up this kind of stories whereas formerly it wasn’t really en vogue. Perhaps another sign of the times; maybe syntactocentrism and anglocentrism are finally giving way to the recognition of the significance of diversity.

    Boroditsky, Lera, Lauren A. Schmidt & Webb Phillips. 2003. Sex, syntax, and semantics. In Dedre S. Gentner & Susan Goldin-Meadow (eds.), Language in mind: advances in the study of language and cognition, 61-79. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Boroditsky, Lera, Alice Gaby & Stephen C. Levinson. 2007. Time in space. In Asifa Majid (ed.), Field Manual Volume 10, 59-80. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

  10. I’m both a journalist and an academic, and I was outraged by Deutscher’s article, and by the Times’ allowing it to be published. What he did was grab many of Dr. Boroditsky’s carefully crafted examples and squeeze all the life and fun out of them. He thus robbed both his readers of the pure joy of the material, and her readers of the novelty of encountering it in her works first, in their natural state. I will not buy his book.

    Daniel Levitin

  11. Another major problem with the fact that journalists don’t have to cite their work, is the issue of how and when they report numbers or percentages, and where they get those numbers. According to journalistic method, something can be reported if it comes from a reputable source. However, because most journalists don’t always know much about the subject they are reporting, they are easily misled, which makes them fantastic facilitators of developing whatever public narrative any groups wants to develop.

    It’s so easy to just hear a news story and think nothing of the large numbers they use, that we often don’t stop to think, “where did they get that figure?” Anyone who’s worked with public number data know how little block level data there is, and how easy it is to misinterpret or shape data into a predetermined narrative. What makes this especially dangerous is the way economists have introduced the method of developing models from “assumptions;” as in a sentence beginning with the words, “assuming that…”

    I recently ran into this issue with an episode of Penn & Teller’s, “Bullshit,” show on the subject of recycling. The entire show is based on an article written by an economist titled, “The 8 Great Myths of Recycling.” I figured that I should actually read the article. It turns out that because, much of the data needed to make strong conclusions about recycling are not available, the authors uses the market value of various resources. His model, unless he controlled for it without letting us know, is based on a set of assumptions and a decontextualized set of market values. What I mean is that the market value of something like oil, is decontextualized from all of the government subsidies, including military, which are masked in its market value. True costs are completely ignored in reporting market values. This doesn’t mean the author is wrong, just that his work needs greater scrutiny. The problem is that Penn and Teller don’t seem to have any kind of a background to figure this out and they blindly report it as the word of god. Then reporters repeat this without citing, bringing us a public debate that may or may not be helpful.

    We shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook, because we are just as fallible as everyone else to this phenomenon of reporting or repeating what we want to be true, rather than developing healthy skepticism. I just looked up a factoid that I’ve repeated for years, and which I always assumed was true, “A vegan driving a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat-eater driving a Pruis.” That’s a quote from the “Omnivores Dilemma.” I never checked that fact, because I’m a vegetarian and I like it. It turns out to be a bullshit statistic, and that driving an SUV, on average, creates at least twice as much carbon emission, over a Prius than eating meat. Of course, I’m basing than on a Reuters article quoting a couple of scientists who looked into the matter.
    I think the lesson is to hold all beliefs at arms length.

  12. Alerted to this post on Language Log. My response may be more salient here, if you have read Deutscher’s reply. Here goes my summary.

    Boroditsky called out Deutscher for not citing her in his recent essay on linguistic relativity. But Deutscher was quick back on the retort, pointing out that the study she was referring to was actually originally done by a doctoral candidate in the early 90’s – Konishi. Deutscher’s admittedly harsh implication was that Boroditsky’s work was little more than an unvetted replication of Konishi.

    The irony here isn’t subtle. Boroditsky was calling out Deutscher for not citing her on work that she’s not been citing Konishi on for the better part of the last decade.

    The proof is in the absence. That gender study is one of Boroditsky’s go-to examples in interviews and in her popular essays. Yet somehow, in the many public spaces in which she’s discussed this work, she never once refers to Konishi. Weirder still, a quick glance over the two papers reveals that Boroditsky’s preferred examples (bridge and key) aren’t even part of her materials. They’re straight out of the Konishi paper; Boroditsky used a slightly modified set that didn’t include these.

    You wrote : “I’m not saying Guy Deutscher plagiarized Lera Boroditsky’s work. What I’m saying is that if this was an academic publication he would have been expected to cite her, but because it is journalism there is no such expectation, and that bugs the hell out of me.”

    In fairness, Deutscher did cite her in his book. For future reference, this might be something to think about re: Boroditsky.

  13. In a very interesting development, note that Boroditsky’s newest article on this kind of topic (doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00244) cites Konishi 1993 and Sera et al. 1994, but not Boroditsky et al. 2003!

    The opening paragraph:

    Previous work has examined the role of grammatical gender in linguistic processing and semantic judgments in laboratory tasks (e.g., Konishi, 1993; Sera et  al., 1994; Flaherty, 2001; Vigliocco et  al., 2004). Here we take a different approach and consider a pattern of behavior in the real world: personification in art.

    It is difficult to see this as anything else than an indirect response to Deutscher’s critique that she often failed to cite previous research in this area.

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