Eugene Volokh on three ways to fix Slate.

June 1996 - June 2006.
June 19 2006 6:13 PM

What's Wrong With Slate

And three ways to fix it.

Editor's Note: This week Slatecelebrates its 10th anniversary, an occasion we are marking with nostalgia and self-congratulation. In the spirit of equal time, we've asked some of the magazine's most persistent critics to tell us what's wrong with Slate

Over the last decade, Slatehas consistently been at the top of my reading list. It's thoughtful, timely, and a pleasure to read. I've criticized it more than I've criticized other publications, but that's largely because I've read it more than other publications.

As a frequent reader, I'd love to see Slatebetter use both its medium—online publication—and its genre—news and policy analysis that's thoughtful and responsible, yet often light and witty. In this spirit, let me offer three suggestions to Slate's editors and writers.

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1. Use Your Medium—Link to Original Documents. Reporters, columnists, editors, I don't trust you. Don't take it personally: I don't trust anyone. Nor should you trust things I write. Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes caused by our ideological preconceptions and sometimes just by human frailty. Remember the line about a good journalist: He's the one who, when his mother tells him she loves him, tries to get it confirmed through two independent sources. Many readers approach journalists' articles the same way.

So, if, for instance, you think you've nailed President Bush in an error, link to the whole speech, so people can see the context. That way, when you're mocking Bush for saying, "I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein," readers can easily go to the full quote, and see that it says

I'm honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein. … I appreciate Joe Agris, the doctor who helped put these hands on these men. … These men had hands restored because of the generosity and love of an American citizen …

Bush was shaking the prosthetic hands of people whose real hands had been cut off by Hussein. In context, there's nothing risible about his statement (as Spinsanity also noted; for similar examples, see here, here, and here).

Because of this, I think the Bushisms column shouldn't have run this statement. But I realize that others may disagree. That's why, rather than the impossible first-best world of "always quote accurate sources, and in context," I prefer the second-best world in which writers try their hardest to be accurate, but also provide the sources so readers can judge for themselves.

Likewise, say you want to claim that "the violent crime rate in Canada is 10 times lower than in the United States." Include a link to the document that supports this assertion—or, if the document isn't on the Web, and you can't put it online, at least link to a paragraph that cites the source.

As it happens, the most authoritative sources suggest (based on 1999 data) that the violent crime rate in Canada is roughly similar to that in the United States, and certainly not 10 times less. The Canadian homicide rate is indeed much lower, but by a factor of four, not 10. The "10 times lower" claim, the Slate people told me, came from a Sept. 5, 2004 article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review; that article didn't give a precise further source, and the book it generally refers to (Seymour Martin Lipset's Continental Divide) doesn't seem to support the assertion.

Linking to the source, or at least identifying it, would alert readers that the author is (in this case) relying on a newspaper account, not on the underlying study. Having to provide this link might also remind the writer and the editor that the claim may deserve stronger support, or perhaps should be removed if no such support is available. And maybe a link would make readers trust you more, precisely because they know you're willing to provide the original sources.

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