Cloudy With a Chance of War
No one can predict the future, which is why the weatherman is often the most ridiculed member of a news team.
If the weatherman were the only one in the newsroom making predictions, the damage would be negligible. Yet the shift from reporting to predicting is widespread, and the public has come to expect it. It doesn’t matter that the media’s track record is bad.
In an article on the science of weather predicting, the New York Times in 2012 had this to say about the failure of the prediction model in relation to news:
But if prediction is the truest way to put our information to the test, we have not scored well. In November 2007, economists in the Survey of Professional Forecasters — examining some 45,000 economic-data series — foresaw less than a 1-in-500 chance of an economic meltdown as severe as the one that would begin one month later. Attempts to predict earthquakes have continued to envisage disasters that never happened and failed to prepare us for those, like the 2011 disaster in Japan, that did.
If the election of Donald Trump tells us anything, it is that the worst job the media does is predict events. The biggest media companies used the most expensive computer models, polling data and scientific analysis to determine that not only would Hillary Clinton win the election, but she would do so by a landslide. When did the science of journalism slip into the art of fortune-telling?
The issue, however, is not that journalists get a future event wrong. When this happens, we move on and adjust to reality. The real problem occurs when media predictions actively influence events, even changing their course — something that goes well beyond the definition and purview of journalism. Did many voters stay home because they assumed the outcome of the election was a forgone conclusion?
Which brings us to Israel. For years, the media have been taking a certain line on settlements. They define these as any Jewish residential areas that lie outside the 1948 armistice line (the “Green Line.”) Although those who created the Green Line were clear that it should not be a permanent border, many journalists believe that it should.
So they take the view that Israeli construction in this “disputed” area works against a potential future peace agreement.
It is one thing to report that Israel may be expanding residential housing in the disputed territories. It is quite another to report publicly that by doing so, Israel is diminishing hope for a peace agreement. This is not reportage; it is prediction. It may be true; it may not.
There are some who say that building settlements puts pressure on the Palestinians to come to the table. There are many analysts and a slew of different perspectives. To say — as fact — that settlements will have an impact on a future peace agreement one way or the other is just a guess.
When the newspapers that the politicians read every morning assert that Israel is preventing peace because it is building settlements, it has an impact on future events. Indeed, if people believe that Israeli actions are preventing a peace agreement, they will have a negative view of the country. Companies may pay closer attention to what the BDS activists have to say, because the media have “confirmed” it. This may result in the loss of millions of dollars to the Israeli economy and thousands of jobs.
When Israel expands settlements, the media should report it, but not introduce it by making predictions that can alter its course.
Many people don’t trust journalists because they have strayed from their essential task of informing the public what is happening, rather than presenting opinion as fact.
The incredible magnitude of the media’s incorrect election prediction should be a wake-up call. Journalists need to stop trying to guess at future events and stick to their actual job.
Read more at the Center for Analyzing Media Coverage of Israel.