How Jose Mourinho explains the problems with US media

In the last week, I’ve written a series of posts about home field advantage in soccer. I plan on writing more posts on soccer in the next week.

There are a few reasons for this. First, I really love soccer. Second, I’m learning a new statistical program (so long, Excel, you served me well) and soccer provides interesting data. But mostly, it is because in the month since the election, I haven’t wanted to write about politics. There is much to say about the incipient authoritarianism of the president-elect, but I will try to keep my sanity and let others say it, at least until the New Year.

And yet… even when staring at lines of code, thinking about Serie A and La Liga and Manchester United, the parallels to politics still arise. So here’s a post on how Jose Mourinho, one of the best soccer coaches of all time, is a similar to why the American press failed so spectacularly in 2016.

The epistemology of Mourinho

Jose Mourinho is well known for parking the bus in big games. He is especially known for parking the bus in big games away.

There are particular tactical considerations for each time he does so, but an acceptance of the phenomenon of home field advantage seems to be one of the bigger ones. When United went to Anfield this year, Mourinho set his team up for a draw — which he presumably would not have done had the game been at Old Trafford.

This strategy might be right. But it could be self-fulfilling. Sure, Mourinho got a draw and a point at Liverpool. But his team is behind Liverpool in the table and could have used a win. What if he cost his team 2 points because he believed before it started that home field advantage was strong? And then what if he uses the fact that they only got a draw to justify the existence of home field advantage?

That may or may not be true in that particular game, but the theory behind it means that we can never truly know what is the importance of home field advantage in soccer.

The home field advantage conundrum

Home field advantage exists in all sports to varying degrees. You can read why that might be in my previous posts.

Since it exists, it must have some significance. Let’s call that X. The amount to which a team will get a boost from playing at home is X.

It is difficult to measure X, but each manager must make an approximation of its strength in order to factor it into his strategy. The manager’s approximation of home field advantage is Y.

The manager executes the strategy and plays the game. The game goes into the books and is now part of the dataset that all managers rely on when they decide on the importance of home field advantage. That dataset is Z.

That creates a dilemma.

We are searching for X, the true value of home field advantage. But the only thing we can examine is Z, the dataset of all games that have been played. That dataset is a product of every manager’s estimation of home field advantage, or the aggregate of Y. Managers then use Z when creating their personal estimate of Y.

The process is similar to the following:

We know that the true value of home field advantage will in some ways influence the dataset. No matter what managers do, the fundamentals of the game will have a big impact, and the decline in home field advantage since the 1970s testifies to that. Z is affected by both X and Y. But to find the precise value is impossible, because the observers of the phenomenon are also actors shaping what we can observe.

How does this relate to the election? It seems like you’re really stretching here.

The media coverage of the election was abysmal. There is good reason to think that it delivered the White House to Donald Trump. You may remember that, one week before the election, the New York Times devoted a front page to a story that turned out to be absolutely nothing in a way that made one candidate look like she faced a major scandal.

Seen here is a journalistic disgrace.

Nate Silver echoed my emotions when he wrote after the election that: “Nothing makes me angrier than when editors and reporters deny their own agency over coverage choices.”

There are many things to analyze about media failure in 2015 and 2016, but this last, perhaps most important one, is explained by the Mourinho conundrum.

Each news story has a certain level of importance.

We may not know what it is precisely, but we know that it exists. Every editor in America knew that the lead story on December 8, 1941, was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The news value of that story was so much greater than all others on that day, that choosing which story to put on the front page of their papers was easy.

While we accept that most coverage decisions are far more difficult, we know that in theory, each story has a news value, which we’ll call X. The aim for editors is to cover stories and present them in an order ranked by X.

But as with home field advantage, since X is not a perfectly known quantity, every editor must approximate what that is (Y). That contributes to the overall media environment (Z). The editor then adjusts his or her own value of Y based on what is seen in Z.

How stories get out of hand

This allows, far more rapidly than in soccer, for the true value of a news story to diverge from what editors think is its value, how X and Y start to move far apart.

As soon as editor over-adjusts and puts a story on the front page, other editors consider it to be a front page story and put it on their front pages, which embed the idea of it as “front page news” in the minds of others. Once that value is embedded, it’s easy for a story to become “known” as a big deal and merit huge coverage.

This is how a minor story about a particular email system initially got more attention than it deserved, then that attention gave it the reputation as a big deal, and then its reputation as a big deal got it even more attention.

If the Clinton email server had initially been dismissed as a minor issue of less importance than policy positions, would everyone have freaked out two Fridays before election day? And if the first stories about the Weiner laptop had been framed as “Emails found on new device, probably duplicates, highly unlikely to change anything,” would the story have dominated cable news for days? Probably not.

It’s also how many stories got undercovered, like Trump’s far-right policy agenda. Because it was undercovered, the policies became “known” as a minor story. Because no one was thought to care about his policies, they then got even less attention later on. And so only now are Trump voters discovering that they elected someone devoted to gutting their health care.

Remember reading about when Hillary laid out a groundbreaking policy for mental health?

I do. Briefly.

Observers are also actors

This entire article is a plea to those working in media to remember that they are actors. Mourinho and all the other coaches in soccer may distort the dataset they’re working with through their decisions, but at least they recognize that their decisions matter, and that they’re trying to make their own estimates as close to reality as possible.

Editors, and to some extent, reporters saying they just “report the news” is a cowardly cop-out. Through their coverage choices, they decide what is the news, which shapes what others decide to report. It’s true that we will never know they perfect news value of every story and the journalism industry is facing heavy cost pressures. But they could at least try to find out, with the goal of identifying what matters — not what gets the most page views.

If a coach is too late in correcting his perception to the reality of home field advantage, he will hurt his team’s chance to win a game. But there are always more games to be played and the impact of home field advantage isn’t the most important factor in sports.

If the media is too late in correcting what story has news value, it could be too late for all of us. We might wake up to find that shoddy journalism and herd mentality has helped elect someone who is manifestly unqualified for the job of Presidency.

And despite what some United fans around the world believe, that’s far worse than losing to Liverpool.


Originally published at www.chrisoates.info.

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