Saturday, September 4, 2010

Crappy Umpire Romance Stories

On August 16th, ESPN posted an article that appeared to show a systemic flaw in the umpiring of Major League Baseball games. One in every five close calls, it says, are blown by the league's chosen arbiters. The only problem with the story? It had more spin than a Stephen Strasburg curveball.

At least, Nate Silver, baseball statistics guy turned political statistics guy turned New York Times blogger guy, seemed to think so. By looking at the whole story, Nate proclaims, you'll find not only that the definition of "close call" makes this ostensible mountain a molehill, but it shows that baseball has some of the best playcalling in American sport.

The intersection of data and narrative here brings up a number of really interesting questions. Of course, the first, which has a pretty easy answer, is why did ESPN sum up its data in the way that it did? It seems clear that if a content producer like that performs a study, they're going to want to post the results in a way that will attract people to reading it. Otherwise, there's really no return on the investment of doing the study in the first place. It's not necessarily wrong, it's just good business.

The better question is, what's Nate's motivation in refuting the validity of ESPN's statement? For a better look, let's examine another recent controversy.

Wired's cover story for September 2010 is entitled "The Web is Dead". The story is primarily about the decreasing internet market share of World Wide Web content. Web content is defined fairly loosely, but it appears that the article is focused on whatever is delivered only via browser. Oceans of data had been gathered that corroborated this claim, which had then been made into a handsome infographic.

Nathan Yau of Flowing Data takes a completely different tack than Mr. Silver's takedown of ESPN: he posts a link and a shot of the graphic essentially as a conversation opener, knowing that people will post their comments, and a discussion will evolve. This discussion will, of course, draw more people in, and Yau's post presumably drove traffic (and more importantly, built community) based on the strength of the topic alone.

TechCrunch was far less forgiving. Of the many rebuttals they posted, this is the best.

The operative comment is this one, from user "Speed":

Wired's job is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers. Chris Anderson has successfully recruited TechCrunch and others -- many many others -- to help them do that job.

Michael Arrington's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to get Chris Anderson to return the favor.

The idea really boils down to this: If someone's brewing a tempest in a teapot, you'd be an idiot not to break out the crumpets. So, yes, while some people are greedier, and some more altruistic, every blogger trying to make a buck is desperately looking for as many hits as possible. Don't get me wrong. I still believe that The Nates are the good guys here, exposing the big guys for their tricky expositions that may not be 100% spin-free, but honestly, if no one built controversy where it didn't have to exist, a lot of the little guys would be out of a job.

Now where are my crumpets?

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