Saturday, November 6, 2010

Info Management and Media Relations: Hedging one's bets

Ever played Roulette?

To me, it's an excellent way of teaching people about probability and the psychology of chance.

I raise this because a reader pointed out that the remark about storms that occur "once in 50 years" doesn't mean that the island is innoculated against a storm of such intensity for half a lifetime after such a storm hits.

The deluge could drench the island three times within half a century, or never at all within the next 150 years. This observation is correct, going by the laws of probability.

But most heartlanders probably do not understand such logic. And when the quotable quote is made on-the-record to journalists, it is likely that the man in the street will take the remark at face value.

You cannot blame heartlanders for ignoring probability. Neither should one crucify journalists for using the quote.

Guided by the notion that the storm occurs once every 50 years, people are likely to read the remark literally while ignoring the math behind weather patterns.

I observe similar behaviour whenever I watch people play Roulette. Some gamers will dutifully note down every winning digit, studying with great care the numerals that appear more often and in what sequence.

If you pause to think about things, the probability is the same every time the Roulette wheel is spun. The fact that 17 Black appeared three times in the past 20 minutes doesn't mean this is the lucky number to punt on.

But gamers do it because it's great fun and analysing the numbers gives them a sense of self-control over a game which is ruled by chance. (Some gamers are known to count the number of times the wheel spins before it stops and time the number of circuits the ball makes before it loses momentum, reasoning that these are finite values. They make their bets by watching when the dealer releases the ball, mentally calculating how many rounds the ball would make before dropping and guessing how many spins the wheel would make in the other direction. If only life was that simple.)

Looking at the backlash that followed after people's shops and property were drenched a month after that "once in 50 years" downpour, would you have said that to the media?

That remark is factually correct if you want to point out the drainage system's design parameters. But it should be backstopped by a statement qualifying that weather patterns don't always pan out the way we predict.

The crux of the previous post on information management on nuclear energy points out the danger of making definitive statements. Definitive lines such as "ruled out", "never" and framing a situation to a timeline (once in xx years etc) and so on should be banned from newsmakers' lips. These are the kind of lines that will come back to haunt you should circumstances change.

When I was a business reporter, I noticed that one could tell the media-savvy CEOs and CFOs from the not so good ones just by watching how they fielded questions on their future growth.

Well-briefed CEOs and CFOs tended to use safe harbor provisions to qualify their statements, guiding analysts and the media on the state of play while adding in the same breath the qualifiers that manage expectations. A line as simple as "barring unforeseen circumstances" gives the company precious room to manoeuvre should something unforeseen take place. The 9/11 attacks, for example, threw almost everyone's business models out of the window.

The better CEOs and CFOs don't even use such corporate-speak but couch their replies in layman's language which made them sound perfectly logical, while innoculating their company against public relations gaffes should they somehow fail to deliver.

They know how to hedge their bets - making them formidable players should they ever step into a casino.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Boey,

I suppose this is one occasion where I disagree with you. Journalists ought to bear some responsibility. While I agree that the reporter should not be faulted for quoting the minister, I argue that the reporter needs to have a sufficient foundation in statistics (including probability) so that the news article explains a little more about what a figure or statistical term means. (The explanation can be as pithy as one or two sentences.)

My intent is not to help politicians or anyone who is quoted. Rather, I believe that journalists have a professional responsibility to not only get their numbers right, but also to make sure they are interpreted in a fair and accurate manner. In situations where statisticians and academics obfuscate the findings, journalists should probe, investigate, clarify, and perhaps even point out that there are multiple readings to the same figures.

More than once I have seen journalists get away with poor reporting in such areas. To point out one: an increase or decrease between two time period does not make a "trend". You need at least three data points to speculate a trend of increasing or decreasing pattern.

Thank you.


David Boey said...

Hi Eric,
The reader who made the point about probability cited shortcomings in news reports which exposed the media's poor grasp of math (which is probably why they became journalists in the first place).

Fair comment - much appreciate your respective contributions.

From the media officer's perspective, it pays to brief the newsmaker properly before facing the media because as the "once in 50 years" episode has shown, one cannot expect the media to take the extra step for your newsmaker.



Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Boey,

Agree with you about the media officer - the media officer's feeble grasp of statistical concepts (not necessarily math in the "calculative" sense) is prolly why he or she is a media officer in the first place. Touché. :-)

I agree with you wholeheartedly the issue cuts both ways.

The issue is not unique to Singapore. Many media reports in the U.S. don't do justice to the "100-year flood event" concept. It's also a measure of probability, calculated to be the level of flood water expected on average to be equaled or exceeded every hundred years. Said in another way, it's the "1% flood", since it is a flood that has a 1 in a 100 chance of being equaled or exceeded in any single year. Naively and (rightly intuitively), people blithely believe it's a flood that only happens once every 100 years. If only meterologists and geologists can be this precise and confident in their practice!


Raz said...

Sorry to be offtrack but I bring some news that there is a online survey regarding the presence of SAF/defence stories in the news, both traditional and new media, and how it shapes the perception of SAF and its various arms.

I got the survey through participation in an Online Paid-Survey Company. I not sure which population group they are trying to gather feedback on but I am tempted to believe that Mindef is looking to measure the perceptions of Singaporeans n PRs towards SAF/Defence issues.

David Boey said...

Hi Raz,
Belated thanks for the update.

Do you still have the survey form? :)