Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?
Megan McArdle: "Before I was a journalist, I used to wonder why journalists were suppressing obvious important facts; after I became a journalist, I realized that it's often incredibly hard to know that there's a fact you're missing. I seem to recall a scathing editorial about mortgage financing in maybe 2005, in which the outraged writer pointed out that banks were booking the asset value of the loans as if they were going to realize 100% of the payments . . . even though some of those loans would go bad! Fraud! Malfeasance!
. . . er, accounting. Anyone who knows anything about accounting knows that what the writer was saying is absolutely true . . . and that if you look on the other side of the balance statement, you find that they have booked a corresponding allowance for bad debts. You can argue that in 2005, those allowances weren't big enough--hell, I think at this point, it's not an argument, but a fact. Nonetheless, the opinion column was ludicrously wrong.
And yet, understandably wrong. I'm sure that the writer had been fed the story by a consumer activist (I can probably name the group). He looked at the financial statements, and the numbers checked out. He'd never heard of such a thing as an allowance for bad debts, so how was he to know it was there?
No. It was not understandably wrong.
You write about what you know--so you know what facts to look for.
If you don't know about it, you don't write about it.
And even if you do know about it, you ask experts if you are missing something. And if you don't know any experts, you don't write about it.
The idea is to add to, not to subtract from the stock of knowledge.