In October, I read a fascinating article on GQ.com about head injuries among former NFL players. Written by Jeanne Marie Laskas, the article was a forensic detective story, documenting a little known doctor’s efforts to bring the brain trauma issue to the attention of the medical community, the NFL, and the general public. It is a great read – an in-depth investigative piece with engaging personalities and plenty of intrigue.
A few weeks later, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker on my way home from Pittsburgh. I was surprised to see, on the cover, a promo for an article by Malcolm Gladwell about – you guessed it – brain trauma and the NFL. After having read both articles, I was surprised by how much these two investigative pieces differed. At the time I thought about doing a visualization to investigate, but somehow the idea slipped out of my head.
Until this weekend. I spent a few (okay, more like eight) hours putting together a tool with Processing that would examine some of the similarities and differences between the two articles. The most interesting data ended up coming from word usage analysis (I looked at sentences and phrases as well, but with not much luck). The base interface for the tool is a XY chart of the words – they are positioned vertically by their average position in the articles, and horizontally by which article they occur in more. The words in the centre are shared by both articles. Total usage affects the scale of the words, so we can see quite quickly which words are used most, and in which articles.
By focusing our attention on the big words which lie more or less in the center, we can see what the two articles have in common: brains, football, dementia, and a disease called CTE. What is perhaps more interesting is what lies on the outer edges; the subjects and topics that were covered by one author and not by the other.
Laskas’ article is about Dr. Bennet Omalu, dead NFL players (Mike Webster), Omalu’s colleagues (Dr. Julian Bailes & Bob Fitzsimmons) and the NFL (click on the images to see bigger versions):
Gladwell’s article, on the other hand, focuses partly on another scientist, Dr. Ann McKee, the sport of football in general, as well as s central metaphor in his piece – a comparison between football and dogfighting (the bridge between the two is Michael Vick):
The gulf between the two main scientific personalities profiled in the articles is interesting. Omalu and McKee are both experts in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) so it makes sense that they each appear in both articles (Omalu was the first to describe the condition; McKee. However, we see when we isolate these names that Laskas references Dr. Omalu almost exclusively (Omalu is mentioned 96 times by Laskas and only 6 times by Gladwell)* – it’s worth noting here that the Laskas article is 11.4% longer than the Gladwell piece – JT:
In contrast, Laskas only refers to McKee once (Dr. McKee is mentioned by Gladwell 21 times):
What is the relationship between Dr. McKee and Dr. Omalu? McKee is on the advisory board for the Sports Legacy Institute, a group which studies the results of brain trauma on athletes. SLI was founded by four individuals, including Bennet Omalu and the group’s current head, Chris Nowinski, a former professional wrestler. Omalu and the other three founders of SLI have now left the group, but it apparently continues to be a high-profile presence in the CTE field. Laskas writes:
“Indeed, the casual observer who wants to learn more about CTE will be easily led to SLI and the Boston group. There’s an SLI Twitter link, an SLI awards banquet, an SLI Web site with photos of Nowinski and links to videos of him on TV and in the newspapers. Gradually, Omalu’s name slips out of the stories, and Bailes slips out, and Fitzsimmons, and their good fight. As it happens in stories, the telling and retelling simplify and reduce.”
I wonder how much the path of an journalistic piece is affected by who you talk to first? If I had to guess, I’d say Gladwell started with the SLI, whereas Laskas seemed to have began from Dr. Omalu. This single decision could account for many of the differences between the two articles.
Other word-use choices might also give insight into editorial positions. Laskas, for example, uses the term NFL (below, at left) a lot – 57 times to Gladwell’s 11. Gladwell, on the other hand, talks more about the sport in general, using the word ‘football’ (below, at right) 40 times to Laskas’ 23:
According to Laskas, Dr. Omalu has been roundly shunned by the NFL – they have attempted to discredit his research on many occasions (attention that has not been so pointedly focused on Dr. McKee and the SLI). Though both articles are critical of the League, it seems clear both from the article and the data that Laskas and GQ have taken a more severe stance – the addresses the NFL much more often, and with more disdain.
This exercise of quantitatively analyzing a pair of articles may seem like a strange way to spend a weekend, but it helped me to more clearly understand the differences between the two stories and to consider my reactions to each. I uncovered a few things that I hadn’t picked up at first, and at the same time was able to reinforce some of the feelings that I had after reading the two articles.
It was also another opportunity to build a quick, lightweight visualization tool dedicated to a fairly specific topic (though in this case the tool could be used to compare any two bodies of text). This strategy holds a lot of appeal to me and I think deserves attention alongside the generalist approach that we tend to see a lot of on the web and in data visualization. It seems to me that this type of investigative technique could be useful for researchers of various stripes.
I will be releasing source code for this project as well as compiled applications for Mac, Linux & Windows. In the meantime, here’s a short video of how the interface behaves: