Does The New Yorker Suck?

by F.

The New Yorker recently ran a piece about bonobos by Ian Parker, who argued bonobos were not the free-loving, metrosexual, irenic primates made popular by Frans de Waal and others.

The frame of the story was clear: “Scientists used to think X, but new evidence suggests ~X.” This is a basic science lead. It almost always works because it starts with something you probably know and then gives you the news. This is easy on the mind: familiar before unfamiliar, old before new. That’s the way we like to get info, if Joseph Williams is right (and I think he is.)

The “news” part of this formula is key, because most of us read for surprise. “A good style in literature,” said Ford Maddox Ford, “if examined closely, will be seen to consist in a constant succession of tiny surprises.” When I saw this article in The New Yorker, it piqued my interest. (Although I let out a little mental sigh as well, wondering whether the news was true.)

Most science stories come from a few sources: Science, Nature, PLoS and other journals. Science journalists read these publications and attend big scientists meetings where new paper are presented. Then they summarize the results and mount the summary inside a tried-and-true story frame. In addition to “We thought X, but now we see Y,” there is the “scientist as detective” story, the “maverick” whom the establishment ignored, the “scientist as shaman” and others.

(Access to information and the summary are, essentially, commodities, so the frame becomes important as a “competitive differentiator.” As does being able to render the piece in the “house style” of the target periodical.)

But this Parker story is misleading if not downright wrong, and Franz de Waal nails Parker on it. The New Yorker is famous for its fact checking. Doubtless it checked the facts for this piece, which were (I guess) that Parker went to the Congo and looked at some bonobos, talked to some people, and flew home. So factually, the story is correct in a sense. And yet, as de Waal shows, it’s presented almost as a science piece, which is pretty misleading.

Framing a story is necessary. But the frame should enhance the story that’s really there, not make us see pictures on a blank canvas.

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