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Comments by YACCS

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Friday, March 15, 2002
Garbage reporting
Most of the time, when people talk about "media bias," they're talking about partisan bias, the idea that a reporter favors liberals or conservatives (usually liberals). But reporters try to be fair, and the real bias tends to show up in more subtle ways than trashing of politicians. Most of the time. But how about this New York Times story on recycling? Now, this isn't on the Op/Ed pages. This isn't in a column, or one of the "fluff" sections like Arts or House & Home. This isn't even labeled "news analysis," the Times' disclaimer that they're going to editorialize in the news section.

The headline alone gives away the bias: "Bloomberg puts doing well ahead of doing good," setting up the two schools of thought on recycling as the people who want to do good things and the people who want to save money. The Times does cite the mayor saying that some forms of recycling (non-paper) are fiscal negatives for the city, and backhandedly acknowledges -- in a single, throwaway sentence -- that he's correct:
Few people dispute Mr. Bloomberg's assertion that tough times demand tough choices.
But it then goes on to disparage the decision:
But to a great degree, experts in consumer behavior say, the mayor's proposal -- and the anguished reaction that some people have had to it -- says a lot about the long strange trip that recycling has been through over the years.
A reaction "that some people have had?" How many? Is it really "anguish?" Is it more or fewer people than were "anguished" over the departure of David Duchovny from the X-Files? Shouldn't we try to reserve "anguish" for events like plane crashes or terrorist attacks? Do we have any facts here at all, or is this just the reporter's personal opinion?
Psychologists do not have a firm answer why saving and sorting took such root in the American psyche. Some think that it tapped into a frugal frontier impulse that is also behind the phenomenon of swap meets and garage sales, that one person's junk must surely be good for something. Other say it became a crutch, a way for Americans to feel as if they were contributing to the environment without actually changing their consumption driven behavior.
Do psychologists have "firm answers" about anything? Wouldn't it be nice to at least see a citation to something to show that "some" think those things, let alone that these thoughts are accurate or representative? (Remember, the Times isn't letting us know what people think here; it's assuming what people think and then letting us know what psychologists think about what people think.)
In any case, it is often said that more Americans recycle than vote.
I've heard that 72.4% of all statistics are made up. It is often said (to use the Times' passive voice) that reporters are really lazy, and can't be bothered to do any research. Do you think the Times would agree? I'm pretty sure someone, somewhere, must keep records of how many people vote. They may even print the numbers somewhere. About 105 million, in the last presidential election. And someone probably figured out at some point how many people recycle: About 136 million. Wow, that was tough. (The comparison is silly and tells us nothing about the psychology of Americans, since recycling in many places is mandated by law, and voting is not.)

So after setting up this premise, the article goes on to quote an assistant professor of sociology, who denigrates "narrow cost-benefit calculations," the Bronx borough president, who complains that "I think people are sort of in shock," an associate professor of environmental psychology and conservation behavior, who says that he "can imagine people thinking that the city is being hypocritical," and a professor of history (whose book "is considered one of the founding works in the field of eco-psychology"), who gripes that "I'm not sure what the measure is of something working in our society." Lots of experts on recycling, in other words. Oh, it also quotes the president of a company that tracks the waste industry, who says "There will be an increasing incentive to recycle," in support of an assertion by the reporter that "some researchers say that the Bloomberg administration may well have bet on the wrong horse."

There's not a single person quoted who thinks that "cost-benefit analysis" should be the basis for government decisions, let alone someone who agrees with Bloomberg's analysis that cost-benefit analysis comes out on the side of less recycling. There's not a single person quoted who thinks that recycling was a silly idea spread by environmental groups who mistakenly thought that raw materials were running scarce. There's not a single person quoted who thinks that recycling is a great idea but that it should be voluntary rather than government mandated. Is that because nobody thinks these things? I doubt it, since the Times' own columnist John Tierney has written about the bad math behind recycling economics. Couldn't this reporter at least have talked to him?

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