Sorting Analysis from Fact in Reporting / by Erin Wade

An article entitled Microsoft Reports Drop in Profit by Nick Wingfield in the New York Times on 1/25/13 includes the following paragraph:

While its Office suite of applications showed weakness overall, as some customers delayed purchases ahead of the release of a new version of the product, business revenue from that division was up 2 percent and consumer revenue declined 2 percent, excluding deferred revenue.

My difficulty here is with this component of the statement: as some customers delayed purchases ahead of the release of a new version of the product

This statement is almost certainly an assumption - a belief behind why sales of Microsoft Office might be lower than in times past. But it is dropped into the middle of a paragraph, and in the middle of an article, that presents an array of factual information. Including that statement in this fashion lends it the same level of credence as the rest of the information presented.

It is more likely the case that no one is exactly sure why sales of Microsoft Office are "weak". While the statement above offers one explanation, there are several alternative explanations that seem as likely:

  • It is possible that slow economic times have caused customers to refrain from purchasing what is, frankly, a costly software bundle.
  • Customers who currently own older copies of Office may see little need for an updated product as any given user only uses a tiny percentage of the features in the product as it is.
  • Lower cost alternatives - such as Apple's iWork Suite - provide much of the functionality of Office for far less money; Google Docs offers less functionality, but is free. These options may be eating into Office's market share.
  • PC sales are shrinking, while Tablet sales are growing. iWork and Google Docs can be used on tablets, while Microsoft offers no equivalent product (Office 365 is an online service, but at $100.00/year it isn't even close to equivalent).

Now - to be clear - I have no idea whether any of these items accounts for the drop in sales of Microsoft Office. But they seem to me to be at least as reasonable - if not more - than the idea that folks are waiting with bated breath for the next version of Office to emerge.

Part of being an objective observer is being open and honest about the degree to which one understands why something has happened. Researchers are actually trained to consider alternative explanations for their study results to help stave off bias. Part of being an objective reporter of those observations includes indicating when one does, or does not understand the why.

What is likely the case here is that the one piece of clearly understood information is this: "it's Office Suite of applications showed weakness".

Full stop.

Anything explanation as to why is likely speculation or propaganda and should be identified as such.

This type of thing troubles me not because of the specific product to which it is related (though I will admit to having little love in my heart for Microsoft Office) but rather because I find it to be a common occurrence in modern reporting. When stated casually in the fashion in which it appears in this New York Times article it takes on the ring of fact, and will likely register as such for many readers. It is a practice that should be caught and corrected by editors, and of which we, as educated readers, should be aware.