BOB GARFIELD: This week, the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders released its annual World Press Freedom Index, ranking the media environment of nearly every nation on earth from most free to least. On the 180-country list, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway held onto their customary top positions, while Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea brought up the rear. And the United States, well, we landed, embarrassingly, in 46th place. That’s a 13-place drop from last year and, quoting the report, “one of the year’s most significant declines.” The ranking, below Lithuania, El Salvador and Botswana, has set off a panic-stricken and, in some instances, gleeful barrage of media coverage declaring that press freedom in the US is “plunging,” “plummeting” and “profoundly eroding.”
CORRESPONDENT: Well, there’s been a significant decline in press freedom in the United States.
CORRESPONDENT: The new survey of press freedom around the world that finds the United States plunged 13 spots.
CORRESPONDENT: Some disturbing trends for journalists around the globe and at home here in America.
BOB GARFIELD: But the reports of this dramatic dissent struck Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher as suspicious. Max, welcome back to On the Media.
MAX FISHER: Thanks for having me back.
BOB GARFIELD: So the report suggests that 2013 was a really terrible year, and the reporting on this survey has been – pretty alarming and alarmist. But you say we should just all calm down?
MAX FISHER: Yeah, so I saw all of these headlines that were warning us that US press freedom is plummeting because you dropped down to 46th place, and I thought, wait a second, this exact same thing happened two years ago, and I remember because I covered it.
And [LAUGHS] Reporters Without Borders put out a very similar press release saying very similar things about how this showed a significant decline in press freedom. And I thought, how is that possible, that it could happen twice and miraculously rebound in the middle? And when I looked at the year-to-year rankings for the US, I found this happens every couple of years and then every year after that, it miraculously comes back to, you know, a free, liberal democracy. So I thought, okay, that's a sign that something here might not be right with the statistic.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s a few things going on. There's the methodology, which may be suspect, to begin with, but also has changed. The Reporters Without Borders survey seems to alter its criteria from year to year, among other problems here, right?
MAX FISHER: The first thing is that a relative ranking and a change in a relative ranking is not the same as a change in an absolute score. So the fact that the US changed its ranking could just mean that other countries improved. So I thought, all right, it’s Reporters Without Borders, they’re a credible organization. Why don’t I dig into their statistics, which they do hopefully release, and see if there are big changes in the absolute score year to year, and it turns out [LAUGHS] that from last year to this year, this big decline that they called “the profound erosion of press freedom” was a change of 4.8 points on 100-point scale, in terms of absolute press freedom. And that doesn’t actually seem like that much.
BOB GARFIELD: As measured by, which you clarify, things like prosecutions against journalists, physical attacks on journalists.
MAX FISHER: Yeah, but most of the criteria are actually subjective, and they send these forms out to hundreds of people around the world and ask them to rate things like self-censorship, how hard is it to get a TV license on a 1 to 10 scale. And the thing that a few political scientists pointed out to me when I started asking questions about this is that somebody in the US and somebody in Russia or Namibia is gonna have a very different 10-point scale. So the fact that they’re rating it differently is actually a very bad way of comparing it objectively.
But even bigger than that is the fact that the methodology and the score itself changes every year, so we’re actually measuring total [LAUGHS] different things from year to year, so if you’re changing the ranking, that actually does not tell you anything about how the US is changing, in terms of its actual press freedom. And I think that the thing that was really alarming to me about this is, you know, Reporters Without Borders is an advocacy organization, so you kind of expect them to hype things up a little bit to try to get people to write about it. The thing that bothered me was so many journalists at some very respected media organizations were taking these transparently shoddy statistics and just really bad data journalism and turning around and presenting it as fact.
And I think one of the things that's happening here is that we’re kind of figuring out in the media that charts and data and maps do really well and that people really like that and that dative journalism is important, but the thing is, is we’re not taking it seriously yet and we’re not treating it rigorously. And so, you have people reporting on data who have no idea how to read data or are not respecting the fact that data can very easily be manipulated, as it was in this case, to say things that are transparently not true.
BOB GARFIELD: As news stories go, this was the great uniter because [LAUGHS] such politically diverse news organizations as Democracy Now on Pacifica Radio and the Washington Times, a hard right newspaper, seemed equally delighted.
MAX FISHER: It serves everybody's narrative, to some extent, and that's kind of the savvy of Reporters Without Borders. And that’s also the shame of it, the fact that this is built on numbers, that it’s, it’s a ranking, right, and it's based on a study and the study has methodology.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s all formula-y and stuff.
MAX FISHER: [LAUGHS] Right, right. It was too good to check.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, my friend, as you observed in your piece, you have a more than casual interest in the shoddy reporting. [LAUGHS]
MAX FISHER: That’s right. I am part of the problem. Two years ago, when they released the same report, citing almost the identical drop, I wrote it up and I picked up their language and I said, look at this alarming, you know, erosion in press freedom. And you know what? It got a lot of clicks. Like 50, 60,000 people clicked on it. So I had every incentive to want to repeat the same thing. But I also felt like, you know what, you fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice, you can’t get fooled again.
BOB GARFIELD: Is that how it goes?
MAX FISHER: It’s the George W. Bush coinage, yeah.
Is that too obscure?
BOB GARFIELD: I, I thought you were just wrong. Now, I gather that in criticizing the, the methodology of the report and the reaction to it in the media, you're not trivializing the significance of, for example, the government's crackdown on whistleblowers and surveillance of reporters and subpoenas on reporters and the threat to jail reporters. You are not saying we have nothing to worry about.
MAX FISHER: Right. And Reporters Without Borders is doing great work tracking all of these things. And if you skip the ranking and go to the part of the report where they talk about problems of press freedoms in the United States and, you know, 160 other countries, they do a very good job chronicling the very real, very significant problems of that. You know, a 4.8 point drop on a 100-point scale, that is something that we should worry about and it’s something that we should turn our attention to, but when we overhype the problem or when we distort it with bad statistics, then we’re not doing anybody any favors.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Max, thank you.
MAX FISHER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Max Fisher is the foreign affairs blogger for the Washington Post.