Non Vox populi

I liked when it came out. The card format is cool, and the detailed yet bare-bones explainers suit my approach to many aspects of news: tell me what I need to know to understand this situation.

At first, I found the decision not to host comments interesting, but not alarming. After all, everyone knows that the Internet comments section is a bubbling cesspool, right?

But I’ve been reading Vox articles now for awhile, and I’ve noticed in too many cases, when they were just blowing it: incorrect or out-of-context facts, telling one half of an argument, or missing a crucial detail. And these are the kinds of things where a letter to the editor, or a stream of informed comments, can really make an article much more useful. I notice this particularly when Vox writes about energy, a topic I have studied in depth.

Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. In “Ignore the haters: electric cars really are greener,” they cite a new Union of Concerned Scientists report at length. But they never mention that UCS is primarily an advocacy organization, not a research one. Or that, for example, Argonne National Labs has been publishing similar research for years with similar, but with slightly more muted results. Or even that the summary in the UCS report compares EVs against normal gasoline cars, which is hardly a like-vs-like comparison, given that gasoline vehicles execute a range of missions that EVs currently cannot. As it turns out, a PHEV or even a regular hybrid does in fact outperform an EV on CO2/mile in many parts of the country, and the data in the UCS report show it. And there are additional embedded assumptions, like that the electric grid will continue to get greener. That’s probably true, but maybe not, the greening of the grid could accelerate or it could start hitting hurdles that slow it down. At the same time gasoline cars could get better or worse. Hybrids might become the norm, lower carbon fuels could become mainstream, etc. Finally, EVs cost a lot more than gas cars. For the same money, could you reduce your carbon intensity more effectively than by buying an EV? (Answer: yes.) In the end, it’s hardly journalistic to lump everyone who has questions about the superiority of EV’s as a hater.

Getting back to Vox, it’s not just the bias that I don’t like. After all, bias is a part of journalism as organic chemistry is part of life. There’s no ombudsman, there’s no straightforward place to look for corrections. (They integrate corrections directly into cards, usually by changing the text without any notation.) The whole site is a Read Only Memory. In Ezra Klein’s own words on leaving the WP to found Vox: “we were held back, not just by the technology, but by the culture of journalism.”

Indeed. So, this is the improved technology and improved culture? It’s seriously starting to turn me off. Anybody else?

2 thoughts on “Non Vox populi”

  1. I still like those thingos that have reporting but also have, uh, what do you call them–editors? (although even editors don’t guarantee quality).

  2. Those thingos with the editors are great. Sure, not perfect, but definitely better than the kind without editors.

    But, though Vox seems to have abandoned a fair bit of what “best methods” journalism while in pursuit of “better methods,” it’s not clear to me that they don’t have editors. Klein is the de facto editor and he has underlings to gather news?

    It’s hard to know. It’s all rather opaque.

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