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When it Comes to Local vs. National Coverage, Consider the Fox & the Hedgehog

| October 9th, 2019


Last January I had a flight booked for Chicago, a flight I had to re-book multiple times because I had an ear infection and then vertigo.

I also had a ticket bought for the game (which Jeff still owes me for) and was consuming as much talk about the Bears as I could find. I didn’t miss one of what must have been 70 episodes Hoge & Jahns did leading up to the game, and also listened intently to a bunch of national podcasts for any mention of the team. 

And mention them they did.

I vividly remember listening to Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal breaking down the playoffs on the plane. Their analysis of the Bears, representative of the national media at large, all revolved around one man: Mitchell Trubisky. Will he be able to beat the Eagles? What can he do with his feet? Is he a liability or an asset? The Bears’ fortune, in their eyes, was completely dependent on our second-year quarterback. That’s not unreasonable, of course. Trubisky clearly had some ups and downs in the season and, more importantly, every fan of the team has a long-developed, involuntary flinch when their QB drops back for a deep pass.

So that’s what Hoge and Jahns were talking about, right?

Nope.

They spent the whole episode on the kicker.

That conversation, of course, turned out to be prescient; not because they had some magical ability to predict the future, but rather they’d watched all the games. Like the rest of us, they knew the Bears had a huge liability at the position and, with a defense led by Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson, there was a good chance this game would come down to Cody Parkey’s ability to put the ball through the uprights. (Something he had been pretty terrible at for 17 weeks prior.)

I was thinking about this again going into the Raiders game. Reverend Dave and I were talking about the national versus local conversation surrounding Trubisky. ESPN was reporting that Nagy had been frustrated with his QB since training camp – disappointed that he hadn’t progressed as much as he should in his second year in the system. If that’s true, it’s not something we’ve heard from the local beat guys. And aren’t they the ones who actually hang out around Halas Hall every day and were in Bourbonnais for training camp?

So why is that?

One way to think about it is as the difference between a fox and a hedgehog. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The distinction, originally from the Greek poet Archilochus, is generally linked back to an essay of the same name by Isiah Berlin. It’s been picked up by serious forecasters like Philip Tetlock as a way to explain the different ways people make predictions and I think it’s a decent way to explain the distinction between the job of local beat guys like the Adams and those that sit behind the desk on ESPN and the NFL Network. Here’s how Tetlock describes it in his book Superforecasting:

[Tetlock’s expert political judgment research (EPJ)] revealed an inverse correlation between fame and accuracy: the more famous an expert was, the less accurate he was. That’s not because editors, producers, and the public go looking for bad forecasters. They go looking for hedgehogs, who just happen to be bad forecasters. Animated by a Big Idea, hedgehogs tell tight, simple, clear stories that grab and hold audiences. As anyone who has done media training knows, the first rule is “keep it simple, stupid.” Better still, hedgehogs are confident. With their one-perspective analysis, hedgehogs can pile up reasons why they are right—“ furthermore,” “moreover”—without considering other perspectives and the pesky doubts and caveats they raise. And so, as EPJ showed, hedgehogs are likelier to say something definitely will or won’t happen. For many audiences, that’s satisfying. People tend to find uncertainty disturbing and “maybe” underscores uncertainty with a bright red crayon. The simplicity and confidence of the hedgehog impairs foresight, but it calms nerves—which is good for the careers of hedgehogs.

So as you’re watching and listening to the national coverage in the bye week and wondering why it’s significantly different from what you’re hearing from the folks who hang out around the building day-to-day, ask yourself whether you want to trust a fox or a hedgehog.

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