Monday, October 1, 2012

Devils In The Details

Sunday's Double Take 'Toons feature on NPR dealt with polling and whether or not the numbers were what they purported to be. The second of the two cartoons was drawn by Milt Priggee, who, according to NPR: "thinks the economy is about to catch up with Obama's approval ratings." In the cartoon, a think black line plunges from charts near the ceiling straight through the floor, while a pair of pitchfork-wielding devils, complete with horns, hooves and tails, look on. "Number of employed or consumer confidence?" one asks, to which the other replies: "More like Obama's approval rating..." Many NPR readers pounced, noting that the Presidents approval rating was not, in fact dropping sharply. In the comments, one reader accused him of "living in a dream world," another said that the cartoon was "untrue to boot."

There's only one problem. The cartoon in question is not current. It was published 25 months ago, back in 2010. By most measures, two years is quite some time. In politics, it's an eternity, especially considering that this would have been only several weeks prior to the 2010 midterm elections, when the Democrats famously took a "shellacking" at the hands of Republican candidates.

Even after this was pointed out to NPR, the description remained unchanged, and people continued to vote up incorrect criticisms of Milt Priggee. NPR should have made clear that the cartoon was not recent, rather than present a featured cartoonist as either incompetent, or a partisan hack. (It should be noted that unlike many political cartoonists, Mr. Priggee freely goes after all parties, calling them as he sees them without regard to party or ideology.) Inaccurate journalism is worse than useless because it gives people an understanding that they are informed about something, while leaving them functional ignorant about it.

People have short memories, and so this will quickly be forgotten, in the grand scheme of things. But in the meantime, it's another reminder that a constant skepticism concerning information is always a useful tool.

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