Epistemic status: This post is meant to be a conversation starter rather than a conclusive argument. I don’t assert that any of the concerns in it are overwhelming, only that we have too quickly adopted a set of media communication practices without discussing their trade-offs.

Also, while this was in draft form, Shakeel Hashim, CEA’s new head of communications, made some positive comments on the main thesis suggesting that he agreed with a lot of my criticisms and planned to have a much more active involvement with the media. If so, this post may be largely redundant - nonetheless, it seems worth having the conversation in public.

CEA adheres to what they call the fidelity model of spreading ideas, which they formally introduced in 2017, though my sense is it was an unofficial policy well before that. In a low-fidelity nutshell, this is the claim that EA ideas are somewhat nuanced and media reporting often isn’t, and so it’s generally not worth pursuing - and often worth actively discouraging - media communication unless you’re a) extremely confident the outlet in question will report the ideas exactly as you describe them and b) you’re qualified to deal with the media.

In practice, because CEA pull many strings, this being CEA policy makes it de facto EA policy.  ‘Qualified to deal with the media’ seems to mean ‘CEA-sanctioned’, and I have heard of at least one organisation being denied CEA-directed money in part because it was considered too accommodating of the media. Given that ubiquity, I think it’s worth discussing the policy more depth. We have five years of results to look back on and, to my knowledge, no further public discussion of the subject. I have four key concerns with the current approach:

  • It’s not grounded in research
  • It leads to a high proportion of negative coverage for EA
  • It assumes a Platonic ideal of EA
  • It contributes to the hero-worship/concentration of power in EA

Elaborating each…

 

Not empirically grounded

The article assumes that low-fidelity spreading of EA ideas is necessarily bad, but doesn’t give any data beyond some very general anecdotes to support this. There’s an obvious trade-off to be had between a small number of people doing something a lot like what we want and a larger number doing something a bit like what we want, and it’s very unclear which has higher expectation. 

To see the case for the alternative, we might compare the rise of the animal rights movement in the wake of Peter Singer’s original argument for animal welfare. The former is a philosophically mutated version of the latter, so on fidelity model reasoning would have been something that’s ‘similar but different’ - apparently treated on the fidelity model as undesirable. Similarly, the emergence of reducetarianism/flexitarianism looks very like what the fidelity model would consider to be a ‘diluted’ version of the practice of veganism Singer advocated. My sense is that both of these have nonetheless been strong net positives for animal welfare.

 

High proportion of negative coverage

If you have influence over a group of supporters and you tell them not to communicate with the media, one result you might anticipate is that a much higher proportion of your media coverage comes from the detractors, who you don’t have influence over. Shutting out the media can also be counterproductive - they’re (mostly) human, and so tend to deal more kindly with people who deal more kindly with them. I have three supporting anecdotes, one admittedly eclipsing the others:

FTXgate

At the time of writing, if you Google ‘effective altruism news’, you still get something like this. 


 

Similarly, if you look at Will’s Tweetstorm decrying SBF’s actions, the majority of responses are angrily negative responses to a movement that consorted with crypto billionaires, as though that’s all EA has ever been about. It seems we’ll to have to deal with this being the first impression many people have formed of the movement for quite some time. 

 

‘The child abuse thing’

A few years ago I was at a public board games event. Sitting at the table to introduce myself with my usual social flair, I decided to mention that I was into EA as a conversation starter. My neighbour’s response was ‘effective altruism… oh right - the child abuse thing.’

I won’t link to the source that informed that delightful conversation, but in brief: a former EA with serious mental health issues had committed suicide after allegedly being sexually harassed by rationalists and/or EAs - she had written an online suicide note that didn’t distinguish between the two groups, and that made a lot of allegations against the broader communities, most of which I believe demonstratedly lacked justification. But evidently, this was passed around widely enough by people who disliked the movement that it was literally the only thing my interlocutor had heard of us.

 

‘Noisy fuckers’

Shortly after CEEALAR (then the EA Hotel) was founded, I was contacted by an Economist journalist excited about the project who wanted to write about it. Not knowing then of the CEA policy I invited him to come and view it. I mentioned this to a friend, who informed me of the CEA policy and, on the basis of it, strongly urged us not to engage.* So we backtracked and asked the journalist not to visit. He did anyway, and we literally turned him away at the front door. You can read the article here[1] and form your own opinions - mine is that the last paragraph feels very like a substitution for what would have been an engaged look at what people were doing in the hotel if we hadn’t both reduced the substance of the journalist’s story and presumably pissed him off in the process.

*[edit: she pointed out in the comments this was mostly advice from her own experience, not based on CEA policy

edit 2: to be clear, we weren't aware of any pressure from CEA to do so - just that they had published articles advising against engaging with journalists]

Assumes a Platonic ideal of EA

One of the most acclaimed forum posts of all time (karma adjusted) is Effective Altruism is a Question (not an Ideology). It is hard to square the letter of that post, let alone the spirit, with the thought that sharing EA ideas among the masses will distort them into ideas that are ‘related to, but importantly different from, the ideas we want to spread’ - and that this will necessarily be a bad outcome. 

The fidelity article describes EA as ‘nuanced’, but honestly, I don’t think it particularly is at its core. People who publicly condemn it don’t seem to have got any factual details wrong. They either have a different emotional response to it, or they’re critical of how it’s put into practice. In the former case, maybe there was nothing we could have done - or maybe more exposure would have made the ideas feel more normal. In the latter case, if we withhold the logic behind these practices, we give up ~8 billion chances for it to be improved by critical scrutiny.

 

Contributes to the hero-worship and the concentration of power in EA

To my knowledge, there have been three major EA publicity campaigns. The first was the launch of Giving What We Can, which in practice (and to his chagrin) focused the attention on Toby Ord more than his project. The second - and arguably ongoing - was the launch around Doing Good Better, which intentionally put Will in the spotlight: during and since, he has given multiple high-profile interviews and CEA pays for dozens of copies of the book to be given away at every EA conference. The most recent - and arguably ongoing - was the launch around What We Owe the Future, which intentionally put Will in the spotlight: during and since he has given multiple high-profile interviews, and CEA seem to intend to pay for dozens of copies to be given away at every future EA conference. To a lesser degree, The Precipice has also been supported, again being given away by the dozen at EA conferences.

Will and Toby are arguably the main founders of the EA movement, so it’s natural to focus on them to some extent - but this effect can still cause a feedback loop that amplifies their opinions beyond what seems epistemically healthy.

Also, identifying the movement with a small number of individuals creates a huge failure mode, which we might be in the middle of facing. If Will’s reputation is tarnished by the above association with FTX, however unfairly, the movement will suffer, to say nothing of the fact that SBF himself was one of the few EAs whose media engagement was encouraged. Even if those associations fade over time, the risk remains that highlighting a very small number of thought leaders inevitably gives the movement critical points of failure. 

It may also be bad for Will himself, since it puts him under an incredible amount of pressure to adhere to middle-of-the-road social norms, some of which he may be uncomfortable with.

 

Some (over?)generalisations of the concern

I have a couple of broader hypotheses about shortcomings of EA epistemics to which this is related. Both deserve their own post, but since it might be some time before I can write those posts, it seems worth raising them here, for potential side discussion. Needless to say, my own epistemic status on these is ‘tentative’:

  • both CEA and the wider EA community should take more seriously the idea that when someone rejects an EA idea (perhaps beyond the foundational notion of ‘optimise do-gooding’), it might be because they have some insight into the ‘question’ of effective altruism - not just because they didn’t understand it. This dismissive attitude seems to inform, for example, the focus on recruiting young people to the movement, which seems to have been justified in part because they’re basically less likely to reject our way of doing things.
  • the EA community seems far too willing to rely for long periods on rough and ready heuristic reasoning, often based on a single speculative argument, on some very important questions which deserve serious research. This is a theme I’ve raised and seen raised in[2] various other contexts

 

Concrete(ish) suggestions

With all that’s going on at the moment, this might be an inopportune time for everyone to start rushing out to chat to journalists. So I don’t have any specific replacement policy in mind, but I want to propose some ideas:

  • Public discussion of the policy between EAs, CEA employees, and the employees of other EA fundmakers - including the latter making explicit to what extent media engagement will be a consideration in their funding decisions
  • More explicit acknowledgement from CEA of the epistemic and PR problems of promoting a very small number of thought leaders
  • More of an experimental approach to media policy in ways that wouldn’t be too damaging if they went wrong. For example, CEA could start by trying a more liberal policy in languages with relatively small numbers of native speakers
  • Some kind of historical/statistical research into the outcomes when other groups (and early EAs) have had to make a similar choice
     

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Linda Linsefors, Ze Shen, Michal Keda, Shakeel Hashim, Siao Si Looi and Emily Dardaman for feedback and encouragement on this post.


 

  1. ^

    I’m able to access the article freely, but at least one person said it was paywalled for them, so the paragraph in question is this - though I would suggest reading the rest of the article for context if you can: 

    'If residents tire of their selfless work, Blackpool’s central pier—home to a “true Romany palmist” and scores of arcade games—is a short stroll away. Visitors are welcome at the hotel (partly to deter “cult-like tendencies”), though prices for non-altruists are set above market rates. None of the residents was keen to talk to The Economist. So far, the new arrivals do not seem to have caused much of a stir in Blackpool. But one hotelier complains that a recent party kept up his guests. “They’re noisy fuckers,” he grumbles of the do-gooders. Keeping the volume down would at least be one easy way for altruists to improve the lives of locals.'

  2. ^

    Luisa’s post starts with the epistemic status ‘In general, I consider it a first step toward understanding this threat from civilizational collapse — not a final or decisive one’, but in conversation she said she had the sense people have been treating it as a concrete answer to the question.

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I really want to be in favor of having a less centralized media policy, and do think some level of reform is in-order, but I also think "don't talk to journalists" is just actually a good and healthy community norm in a similar way that "don't drink too much" and "don't smoke" are good community norms, in the sense that I think most journalists are indeed traps, and I think it's rarely in the self-interest of someone to talk to journalists. 

Like, the relationship I want to have to media is not "only the sanctioned leadership can talk to media", but more "if you talk to media, expect that you might hurt yourself, and maybe some of the people around you". 

I think almost everyone I know who has taken up requests to be interviewed about some community-adjacent thing in the last 10 years has regretted their choice, not because they were punished by the community or something, but because the journalists ended up twisting their words and perspective in a way both felt deeply misrepresentative and gave the interviewee no way to object or correct anything. 

So, overall, I am in favor of some kind of change to our media policy, but also continue to think that the honest and true advice for talking to media is "don't, unless you are willing to put a lot of effort into this". 

I think almost everyone I know who has taken up requests to be interviewed about some community-adjacent thing in the last 10 years has regretted their choice

Would be interested in hearing more, like what those interviews were about and whether the interviewed people were mostly from the Bay area and/or part of the rationality community. Could imagine that I wouldn't want to strongly extrapolate from those experiences to potential media interviews for learning about EA in Germany, for instance.

In 2014 or 2015, several of us in Seattle talked to a journalist who we were told was doing an article on young philanthropists. 3 or 4 people had long interviews with her, and she also took over an EA meeting she'd been invited to observe. When the article came out, it was about how awful young people were for caring about 3rd world poverty instead of the opera. 

I also sounded like a goddamn idiot. The journalist asked an absolutely ridiculous question, I worked to answer in a way that wasn't "I'm sorry, you think what?", and the quote got used. It accurately reflected my opinion ("no, opera outreach programs aren't more important than malaria nets") but I sound stupid because I couldn't think fast enough to sound smart and not-hostile.

FWIW I remember reading that article and thinking that the net takeaway (from people we want to attract) is neutral or positive towards us. Like if someone doesn't even believe in the idea of cause prioritization, we are not the right community for them. 

Yes I don't think you sound stupid at all Elizabeth, I think EA comes across reasonably well in the piece and the kind of person who'd be interested in effective giving might Google it because of you.

Yeah I think this was a relatively gentle introduction to misleading journalists, in that the article's slant was so obvious and enough people were not on its side that it wasn't damaging. 

I’ve had a similar experience in Berlin around the same time. A journalist was there for presentations and in-depth discussions on EA topics at, I think, two meetups, and seemed perfectly genuine to me. And then she wrote an article that just poked fun at us. It was subtle enough that I didn’t notice it (it just sounded vacuous to me), but many friends of mine confirmed that the article was just making fun of us.

I stopped talking to journalists then, but I also had good experiences before that. One of the “good” journalists is involved with EA now and seems to have switched careers. :-D

This seems like the sort of thing where it would really help to have a public database of 'journalists who we've discovered are sucky and journalists who we've discovered aren't sucky', both as a very mild deterrent and more importantly so future EAs can  avoid talking to this particular person.

My guess is that there are far too many journalists in the world for this to be very useful. Though I like the idea, if only to give a more visceral sense of base rates (though obviously myriad selection effects)

I appeared on a radio program on behalf of EA London in 2018 and don't regret it. I thought the coverage was fair to positive.

In terms of understanding the causal effect of talking to journalists, it seems hard to say much in the absence of an RCT.

Someone ought to flip a coin for every interview request, in order to measure (a) the causal effect of accepting an interview on probability of article publication, and (b) the direction of any effects on article accuracy, fairness, and useful critique.

(That was meant as a bit of a joke, but I would honestly be delighted to see a bunch of articles about EA which include sentences like "Person X did not offer any comment because we weren't assigned to the interview acceptance group in their RCT". Seems like it sends the right signal to the sort of people we want to attract.)

In any case, until that RCT gets run, maybe it would be worthwhile to compare articles informed by interviews and articles uninformed by interviews side-by-side, and do what we can with the data we have. It's easy to say "I talked to the journalist and the article was inaccurate". But claiming that the article ended up worse than it would've been in the absence of an interview is harder. (There are also complicating factors: an article with quotes from relevant people may seem more legitimate to readers; no interview might mean no article.)

It is a joke, but it's an appropriate one.

EA has a pathology of insisting that we defer to data even in situations where sufficient quantities of data can't be practically collected before a decision is necessary.

And that is extremely relevant to EA's media problem.

Say it takes 100 datapoints over 10 years to make an informed decision. During that time:

  • The media ecosystem, the character of the discourse, the institutions (there are now prediction markets involved btw) and the dominant moral worldviews of the audience has completely changed, you no longer need the answer to the question this data answers.
  • You have already been assassinated for not engaging in a principled and decisive way.

I should assume that I'm talking to someone who has this pathology and needs me to explain what the alternative to "defer to data" even is: Get better at interpreting the data you already have. Seek theories of communication that're general enough and robust enough that you don't strictly need to collect further data to validate them. Test them anyway, but you can't wait for the tests to conclude before deploying.

You make good points, but there's no boolean that flips when "sufficient quantities of data [are] practically collected". The right mental model is closer to a multi-armed bandit IMO.

That might at least be a good way of establishing a lower bound for EV from talking to journalists.

I think almost everyone I know who has taken up requests to be interviewed about some community-adjacent thing in the last 10 years has regretted their choice, not because they were punished by the community or something, but because the journalists ended up twisting their words and perspective in a way both felt deeply misrepresentative and gave the interviewee no way to object or correct anything.

Do you have thoughts about the idea of creating a thread on a site like the EA Forum or Less Wrong where someone takes questions from the media and responds in writing publicly? 3 birds with one stone: written responses can be more considered, public source material discourages misrepresentation, and less need to respond to the same question multiple times.

(This was Wei Dai's idea for handling journalist questions about Bitcoin.)

I think something like that is a better idea. Or separately, for people to just write up their takes in comments and posts themselves. I've been reasonable happy with the outcomes of me doing that during this FTX thing. I think I've been quoted in one or two articles, and I think those quotes have been fine.

I agree that public communication is risky, but I think that plenty more people are qualified to do it than just CEA and the movement's "big three" public intellectuals (MacAskill, Ord, and Singer). My comment here was partly a response to this one.

I think almost everyone I know who has taken up requests to be interviewed about some community-adjacent thing in the last 10 years has regretted their choice, not because they were punished by the community or something, but because the journalists ended up twisting their words and perspective in a way both felt deeply misrepresentative and gave the interviewee no way to object or correct anything. 

I upvoted this comment because it matches my intuitions, however I think this section is exaggerrated.

When this was brought up on Twitter, someone brought up a survey for how much people who were involved in events felt journalists accurately characterized them. iirc it was something like 20% substantively/entirely accurate, 60% minor errors but broad gist is true, 20% majorly false. 

I couldn't find the study again and I don't know how good it was. But at least your comment seems maybe an overestimate.

Is this an EA-adjacent sample?

And yeah, seems plausible that I have heard more about the negative cases than the positive cases. 

No, I think it was a study that sampled relatively normal people.

I've tended to be pretty annoyed by EA messaging around this. My impression is that the following things are true about EAs talking to the media:

-Journalists will often represent what you say in a way you would not endorse, and will rarely revise based on your feedback on this, or even give you the opportunity to give feedback

-It is often imprudent to talk to the media, at least if you are not granted anonymity first, because it shines a spotlight on you that is often distorted, and always invites some possible controversy directed at you

However, the advice is often framed as though a third thing is also true:

-It is usually bad for Effective Altruism if Effective Altruists talk to the media without extreme care

My personal impression has been that the articles about EA that are most reflective of the EA I know tend to involve interviews with EAs, and that the parts of those articles that are often best reflective of EA are the parts where the interviewed EAs are quoted. The worst generally contain no interviews at all. Interviews like this might grant unearned credibility, but at minimum, they also humanize us, depict some part of the real people that we are. I guess this might not be everyone's experience, but it's worth remembering that even if the parts where the EAs are interviewed are often misrepresentative, so are the parts, often to a greater degree, where they aren't. This is especially true of articles that are written in relative good faith but by outsiders briefly glancing in for their impressions, and it is my impression that this describes the overwhelming majority of pieces written on EA, especially where interviewed EAs get quoted.

Still, I don't think this advice is the main reason EA has failed so badly with PR recently. FTX was the obvious one, but in terms of actual media strategy I stand by this comment as my main diagnosis of our mistake. With some honorable exceptions, EA's media strategy this past few months seems to me something like: shine highbeams on ourselves, especially this rather narrow part of ourselves, mostly don't respond to critics directly in any very prominent non-EA-specific place, except maybe Will MacAskill will occasionally tweet about it, and don't respond to very harsh critics even this much. I think pretty much every step in this strategy crashed and burned.

It sounds like there are two main issues:

  1. When is talking to journalists in the self-interest of an individual or very small org? 
  2. When is talking to journalists going to contribute positively to the world?

My gut instinct is that the latter will hold more often than the former, since it develops a wider public discussion, implying that sometimes altruists might want to talk to the media even if they feel it will cast them in a poor light. Over time, as a community we can share our experiences and  and collectively decide which publications and individuals we trust to have a conversation with, possibly on which topics or in which broader contexts. One of CEA's roles could then be to seek to build new such relationships to share with the community, widening our set of options rather than restricting it.

I was the "friend" mentioned in the 'Noisy fuckers' section and I think it's a warped summary of events written to paint CEA in a bad light.

 

My own (inline) summary

 

"Shortly after CEEALAR (then the EA Hotel) was founded, I was contacted by an Economist journalist excited about the project who wanted to write about it. Not knowing then of the CEA policy I invited him to come and view it."

An Economist journalist wanted to write about the EA Hotel and the OP planned to (but didn't?) invite him to stay for a few days. I was running retreats there at the time. [And AFAICT I never saw any sign that the journalist was "excited about the project" or cared about us at all.]

"I mentioned this to a friend, who informed me of the CEA policy and, on the basis of it, strongly urged us not to engage."

I was wary because of my and my friends' experiences with journalists and "a few thoughts from CEA" [where did "policy" come from?]. I was also worried on the Hotel's behalf about attracting freeloaders and was frankly too exhausted to host a journalist. I wasn't sure what to do.

"So we backtracked and asked the journalist not to visit. He did anyway, and we literally turned him away at the front door."

We couldn't get hold of the hotel owner so I politely refused the journalist's requested visit [AFAICT there was no invite to "backtrack" on], discouraged engagement and invited the guests to share their opinions. I also gave the owner and journalist the opportunity to connect and offered to connect the owner with a more respectable Economist journalist who wanted to write more on EA. The journalist visited anyway, we turned him away, the owner spoke to him off the record, he refused to share a draft with us, he published the piece. 

"You can read the article here[1] and form your own opinions - mine is that the last paragraph feels very like a substitution for what would have been an engaged look at what people were doing in the hotel if we hadn’t both reduced the substance of the journalist’s story and presumably pissed him off in the process."

My opinion is that it's not clear if I made the right call.

 

My longer summary

 

1. The OP plans to invite the journalist to stay at the hotel "for a few days" where I am already approaching breaking point trying to run three retreats. I don't think he actually ever did.

Which I'm grateful for, incidentally.

 

2.  The OP shares my view with other EA Hotel representatives: "she was wary that there might be some stuff there that wouldn't be great for him to see. She also echoed the concern [of another EA Hotel rep] that it would net us a bunch of would-be freeloaders"

It looks like the OP and I chatted on the phone so I don't know what I actually said to him, but he doesn't mention CEA when communicating my views.

 

3. If the OP did invite the journalist to stay, it's max. two hours before I tell the journalist (cc the OP) that we can't receive visitors because we're full, busy and the owner is away, but I give him and the owner the opportunity to connect for an interview.

"Unfortunately with [the owner] away and full occupancy, the current Hotel Manager is extremely busy as are the guests, and we are not currently in a position to receive visitors. However, [the owner] has informed us that he will be contactable once again from this weekend at the earliest, and you are welcome to contact him directly yourself: [email address]", forwarding to the owner, "Hope that was an okay response. Personally I don't see much upside to coverage but I do see risks. Thought I'd let you make the call."

 

4. Three days later, the journalist says he's coming anyway.

"I'm planning to come up to Blackpool tomorrow." No one has been able to get hold of the owner so I repeat a few hours later that, "I'm sorry that I can't be more helpful, but as I said, we are not currently in a position to receive visitors. All residents are agreed on this, so I don't want you to waste a journey tomorrow." The following morning the journalist replies, "I'm afraid I'm already on my way and my editor definitely wants the piece this week."

 

5. I express my doubts to the owner based on a CEA doc, my own experiences with journalists and worries about attracting freeloaders, but say I'm unsure. I offer to connect the owner with another Economist journalist I know who seems a lot more decent and wants to write more about EA.

I say to the owner, "It's not clear if publicity in media outlets is generally good for EA" and link to an old CEA advice doc that has since been updated (so I don't know what it said at the time). I also share details of my and others' mixed experiences with journalists and advise, "I think it mostly turns on: How much they get it, how much they support it, and the track record of the particular idea being communicated in a helpful way. With this piece, if Hamish is a supporter of EA then it could be good publicity for EA, not clear (maybe it makes us look more like a cult, or maybe Hamish makes too many rookie errors in describing the ideas and gives the impression that we're all about killer robots / sticking plaster solutions / massaging the egos of the elite etc). But wrt the hotel specifically, I'd have thought that the last thing you want is publicity to non-EAs?...Actually, if you actively want publicity in The Economist, maybe a better shout is to reach out to [other Economist journalist] with the idea - we know at least that he's done a seemingly good job of this before."

 

6. I tell the guests that a journalist may turn up uninvited tomorrow and invite them to share their views.

"I may well be being paranoid here, so I encourage others to share thoughts (I'll paste some of mine below)...My argument against talking to him is basically that if coverage in The Economist is something we actively want, I already know a journalist there who did a pretty good of it before IMO, is genuinely enthusiastic about EA and puts in weeks/months of full-time research, and is looking to write more on EA. https://www.economist.com/international/2018/06/02/can-effective-altruism-maximise-the-bang-for-each-charitable-buck Given the riskiness of media coverage (a few thoughts from CEA here https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jU4snbnAIq-q4Dl_mIF0JyTT_bQrvS1wdBhQC1H-Bv8), better to say "no" until [the owner] is in a position to think about this. Also someone just told me that [the owner] is contactable by now, so I'm taking his silence as a lack of enthusiasm for this article....Oh, and free[loaders], forgot to mention that, that's a pretty big reason! I don't know have a good sense of how easy this would be, but publicising free living for 2 years in a national media outlet when you already have access to publicity among your target audience seems like a recipe for disaster (not just because of the potential for accidentally accepting free[loaders], but because of the number of disgruntled, rejected applicants you might end up with who then might be interested in pursuing legal action on discrimination grounds)...To clarify, "attempting to pursue legal action" ;-) Even if you've done nothing wrong, it's still a headache to deal with and if the number of attempts are high enough, one of them might succeed anyway."

 

7. The journalist turns up, we turn him away, he goes knocking on doors.

 

8. Another EA Hotel representative joins the guests' group chat and urges us to go and talk to the journalist.

The Hotel rep says he wants to talk to the journalist to get him "on our team". Three people encourage the rep to ask for it to be off the record and the rep disagrees.

 

9. The owner talks to the journalist off the record but then tells us, "He's writing the piece anyway...can't run a draft by me first"

I say to the owner, "if you're going to talk to him obviously feel free to paint me in whatever light is most useful (e.g. if you think it will help you to establish rapport by distancing yourself from me, saying I handled it badly etc, go ahead, he's probably feeling pretty pissed off with us at the moment)." Other Hotel rep says, "I've looked into it, OTR is not a thing" and when challenged says, "It's not legally binding." A guests adds, "have had multiple friends, including various in EA e.g. MIRI, be screwed and misrepresented multiple times by journalists." The Hotel rep says in a separate chat, "It's a basic prisoner's dilemma and we defected".

 

10. I apologise to local hoteliers.

I write apology cards to local hotels "apologising for the recent noise and explaining that I'd been leading evening activities while the owner had been on holiday and I have no intention of returning, so I'd expect noise levels to be more reasonable going forward."

 

Maybe I messed up. (In fact in my first draft of this comment I said I did.) Perhaps we changed our decision on him staying without me knowing, but if so it happened within two hours, it was three days before his visit, and it was with a polite email that offered an explanation and an alternative. He responded by coming up anyway and refusing to run a draft by us. I don't know if this kind of journalist would have mocked us less or more if I'd let him observe and interview us for a few days.

And maybe I shouldn't have been a noisy fucker.

But you're not blaming CEA for this.

Fwiw many of the details of this I didn't know, and many of the rest I'd forgotten. But overall it seems  consistent with what I said, with a couple of caveats:

I was wary because of my and my friends' experiences with journalists and "a few thoughts from CEA" [where did "policy" come from?]

I've edited the OP to say that this was mostly based on your own experience. Re 'policy' - it was somewhere in the aftermath/discussion of this experience that I learned of CEA's stance. Fwiw the guide you linked to looks very much like a policy to me, albeit a slightly differently emphasised one from the OP.

AFAICT I never saw any sign that the journalist was "excited about the project" or cared about us at all.

My memory is that on the phone, he came across as excited and very positive about the project. I didn't have any further interaction with him after that. 

The OP plans to invite the journalist to stay at the hotel "for a few days" where I am already approaching breaking point trying to run three retreats. I don't think he actually ever did.

I think he already had the idea of visiting, and asked me about the possibility, and IIRC encouraged it at the time - I didn't realise how overloaded you were, and if you told me since I've evidently forgotten, so rather belatedly, sorry for dropping that on you :(

it's a warped summary of events written to paint CEA in a bad light.

I don't think this is justified. I'm criticising the policy of isolating from the media that CEA have advocated  for several years, and which the hotel de facto implemented on grounds that were, at least in part, informed by CEA writings. I'm not saying anyone involved did anything wrong at the time (including the journalist), just that this is some light evidence that CEA's policy can be counterproductive - depending on your reading of the final article.

The tweaks above notwithstanding, even after reading your full description I would think it reasonable to write much the same synopsis and argue for much the same conclusion from it.

As I write this, the commenting guidelines say "Aim to explain, not persuade" and "Approach disagreements with curiosity". It doesn't feel like the media policy embodies those values! Whenever I've seen media/outsiders criticize EA, EAs react defensively - which is a very normal human reaction, but hardly the kind of thing that should be coded into CEA policy.

My two cents is that if anyone is contacted by the media to discuss EA, they have no obligation whatsoever to follow CEA's media policy. This isn't a political party.

The media is an extremely different discursive environment than the EA forum and should have different guidelines.

I don't want to assume that the public sphere cannot become earnestly truthseeking, but right now it isn't at all and bad things happen if you treat it like it is.

Fwiw, I'm strongly in agreement that people do not have an obligation to follow CEA's media policy (I work for CEA, am not speaking in that capacity exactly, but obviously it's relevant!) I'm confused about what the ideal media policy is from an instrumental perspective, I found some of the ideas in this post and comments somewhat persuasive re: maybe instrumentally more EAs should be talking to the media, but on a community level, while I think there's some context it would be good to have before talking to media (how it tends to work, whether a given journalist has an axe to grind, other things, though I don't know exactly what happens when people contact CEA for media advice), I don't think it's people's obligation to talk to CEA first (though I could end up thinking empirically it's a bad and poorly judged decision to talk to media without guidance!).

if anyone is contacted by the media to discuss EA, they have no obligation whatsoever to follow CEA's media policy. This isn't a political party.

This specific statement is an extreme mischaracterization. Political parties have strict media policies because it is instrumentally convergent to avoid letting random strangers control your fate, and they have sufficient experience with the media for most members to know several reasons why this is the case.

It's effectively the same class of fallacy as saying "EA is not an autocracy, therefore there should be no leadership at all". EA requires a less strict media policy than political parties, not a total absence of a media policy at all.

Whenever I've seen media/outsiders criticize EA, EAs react defensively - which is a very normal human reaction.

I want to clarify that this is true and helpful to introduce to the conversation.

Thank you for posting this! I've been frustrated with the EA movement's cautiousness around media outreach for a while. I think that the overwhelmingly negative press coverage in recent weeks can be attributed in part to us not doing enough media outreach prior to the FTX collapse. And it was pointed out back in July that the top Google Search result for "longtermism" was a Torres hit piece.

I understand and agree with the view that media outreach should be done by specialists - ideally, people who deeply understand EA and know how to talk to the media. But Will MacAskill and Toby Ord aren't the only people with those qualifications! There's no reason they need to be the public face of all of EA - they represent one faction out of at least three. EA is a general concept that's compatible with a range of moral and empirical worldviews - we should be showcasing that epistemic diversity, and one way to do that is by empowering an ideologically diverse group of public figures and media specialists to speak on the movement's behalf. It would be harder for people to criticize EA as a concept if they knew how broad it was.

Perhaps more EA orgs - like GiveWell, ACE, and FHI - should have their own publicity arms that operate independently of CEA and promote their views to the public, instead of expecting CEA or a handful of public figures like MacAskill to do the heavy lifting.

Perhaps more EA orgs - like GiveWell, ACE, and FHI - should have their own publicity arms that operate independently of CEA

I think GiveWell (at least, and maybe ACE too) is already very independent of CEA. The fact that they also haven't done mass media outreach is probably a result of an independent assessment that it isn't particularly in their interests to do so. They do have significant marketing and media outreach, e.g. I've seen YouTube sponsorships, and I know they're on podcasts sometimes, so I feel safe guessing that media exposure they haven't had is because they haven't pursued it rather than because they don't have the expertise to do so.

Great points.

There's an unfortunate dynamic which has occurred around discussions of longtermism outside EA. Within EA, we have a debate about whether it's better to donate to nearterm vs longterm charities. A lot of critical outsider discussion on longtermism ends up taking the nearterm side of our internal debate: "Those terrible longtermists want you to fund speculative Silicon Valley projects instead of giving to the world's poorest!"

But for people outside EA, nearterm charity vs longterm charity is generally the wrong counterfactual. Most people outside EA don't give 10% of their earnings to any effective charity. Most AI work outside EA is focused on making money or producing "cool" results, not mitigating disaster or planning for the long-term benefit of humanity.

Practically all EAs agree people should give 10% of their earnings to effective developing-world charities instead of 1% to ineffective developed-world ones. And practically all EAs agree that AI development should be done with significantly more thought and care. (I think even Émile Torres may agree on that! Could someone ask?)

It's unfortunate that the internal nearterm vs longterm debate gets so much coverage, given that what we agree on is way more action-relevant to outsiders.

In any case, I mention this because it could play into your "ideologically diverse group of public figures" point somehow. Your idea seems interesting, but I also don't like the idea of amplifying internal debates further. I would love to see public statements like "Even though I have cause prioritization disagreements with Person X, y'all should really do as they suggest!" And acquiring a norm of using the media to gain leverage in internal debates seems pretty bad.

Yeah, it's the narcissism of small differences. If we're gonna emphasize our diversity more, we should also emphasize our unity. The narrative could be "EA is a framework for how to apply morality, and it's compatible with several moral systems."

Perhaps more EA orgs - like GiveWell, ACE, and FHI - should have their own publicity arms that operate independently of CEA and promote their views to the public, instead of expecting CEA or a handful of public figures like MacAskill to do the heavy lifting.

More spending and effort placed into publicity arms makes sense. Less cohesion and coordination is a hard sell though, that's more points of failure at best, and at worst risks exploitation/playing both sides by clever outsiders, or inter-org conflict/retaliation that is triggered by accident instead of deliberately. 

There needs to at least be an apparatus for negotiation.

For what it’s worth some anecdotal evidence from myself (Founder of Effektiv Spenden → effective giving organization working in Germany and Switzerland and in the last three years the main contact for every journalist coming through effektiveraltruismus.de → the by far most frequented German EA website).

 

I have been in contact with I guess 20 - 30 journalists in the last 3 years. Spoke to everyone and never turned anyone down. Never asked to be off the record (but I usually do ask to see drafts to make sure there are no factual errors → ask ≠ require). So far only positive experiences (100%) including three tv features and even more radio features (including discussions with critics). I’m not saying that I’m happy with every single word of every single article etc. but I’m pretty sure that all features, articles… have been net positive and that my views have been by and large presented correctly.

 

My situation is (very?) special though: Focus was mostly on giving to neartermist causes which might be easier to explain and less loaded + Germany and Switzerland have a much smaller EA community and far less people know about EA so questions are probably more basic. I might also have been more lucky and/or more talented than I think I am. So what has worked for me might not work for you.

I'm sad that The Scout Mindset didn't get more of a media push, and didn't get handed out at EAGs, despite me suggesting this on a few occasions.

Thank you for writing this. I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree, but it seems like a case well made. 

While I do not mean to patronise, as many others will have found this, the one contribution I feel I have to make is an emphasis on how very differently people in the wider public may react to ideas/arguments that seem entirely reasonable to the typical EA. Close friends of mine, bright and educated people, have passionately defended the following positions to me in the past:
-They would rather millions die from preventable diseases than Jeff Bezos donate his entire wealth to curing those diseases if such donation was driven by obnoxious virtue-signalling. The difference made to real people didn't register in their judgements at all, only motivations. Charitable donation can only be good if done privately without telling anyone. 

-It is more important that money be spent on the people it is most costly and difficult to help than those whose problems can be cured cheaply because otherwise the people with expensive problems will never be helped. 

-Charity should be something that everyone can agree on, and thus any charity dedicated to farmed animal welfare is not a valid donation opportunity.

-The Future of Humanity Institute shouldn't exist and people there don't have real jobs. I didn't even get to explaining what FHI is trying to do or what their research covers; from the name alone they concluded that discussion of how humanity's future might go should be considered an intellectual interest for some people, but not a career. They would not be swayed. 

Primarily, I think the "so what?" of this is trying to communicate EA ideas, nuanced or not, to the wider public is almost certainly going to be met with backlash. The first two anecdotes I list imply that even "It is better to help more people than fewer people." is contentious. Sadly, I don't think most of what this community supports fits into the "selfless person deserving praise" category many people have, and calling ourselves Effective Altruists sounds like we've ascribed ourselves virtues without justification that a person on the street would acknowledge. 

Accepting some people will react negatively and this is beyond our control, my humble recommendation would be for any more direct attempt to communicate ideas to the public gets substantial feedback beforehand from people in walks of life very different to the EA norm. People are really surprising.  

I'm not surprised people with those sorts of views exist, but to some degree I'd expect them to diminish with familiarity. It's easier to sneer at things when you don't have multiple friends openly doing or supporting them.

There's also a question of how much harm comes from such people hearing more about EA, even assuming they don't change or just reinforce their views. It seems unlikely they'd have been won over by a slower, more guarded approach, so the question would probably be something like 'are those people likely to become more proactively anti EA such that they turn people away from making effective donations on net, despite the greater discussion around the idea of doing so?' That certainly seems possible, but nonetheless I would bet at pretty good odds against it.

Writing this, it occurs to me that one effect of a more open media policy might be to blur the lines further between EA as 'a social movement' and EA as 'a certain way of donating money, that loads of people do without getting engaged'. That again is plausibly bad, but I would bet on being net good.

The first point here seems very likely true. As for the second, I suspect you're mostly right but there's a little more to it. The first of the people I quote in my comment was eventually persuaded to respect my views on altruism, after discussing the philosophy surrounding it almost every night for about three months. I don't think shorter timespans could have been successful in this regard. He has not joined the EA community in any way, but kind of gets what it's about and thinks it's basically a good thing. If his first contact with the community he had was hearing someone express that they donate 10% of their income or try to do as much good as possible, his response in NATO phonetics could be abbreviated to Foxtrot-Oscar. 

In the slow, personal, deliberate induction format, my friend ended up with a respectful stance. Through any less personal or nuanced medium, I'm confident he would have thought of the community only with resentment. Of course, there's no counterfactual of him donating or doing EA-aligned work so this has not been lost. The harm I see from this is a general souring of how Joe and Jane Public respond to someone identifying as an EA. Thus far, most people's experience will be their friends and family hadn't heard of it, don't have a strong opinion and, if they're not interested, live and let live. I caveat the next sentence with this being a system 1 intuition, but I fear that there's only so much of the general public who can hear about EA and react negatively before admitting to being in the community becomes an outright uncool thing, that many would be reluctant to voice. Putting the number-crunching for how that would affect total impact aside, it would be a horrible experience for all of us. I don't think you need a population that's proactively anti-EA for this to happen, a mere passive dislike is likely sufficient. 

Hey Arepo,

I’ve been taking time off work and haven’t been looped into any of CEA’s discussions about media strategy, so here I’m speaking only for myself.

Clearly recent events have been a disaster in terms of media, which means we should reassess our strategies, so at a high level, I agree.

However, I think I mostly disagree with what I understand to be the more specific claims. I've tried to split these up as follows:
 

  1. CEA has a policy of minimising the total amount of media engagement.
  2. EA should have sought even more media coverage than it did in recent years.
  3. CEA’s policy is effectively EA’s policy.
  4. There should be a wider range EA public figures, but CEA has prevented this.
  5. A significantly wider range of people in the community should speak to the media even if they don’t have approval or training from others in EA.

Here are some very brief comments on why I disagree or feel very unsure about these. These are big topics so it's hard to give much of my reasoning.


On 1) my understanding (not speaking for them) is that CEA had a policy of minimising engagement around 2017-2019 (along the lines of the fidelity post), but my understanding is that from 2020 onwards they became significantly more pro media coverage. EA then received dramatically more media coverage 2020-2022 than it did 2017-2019. This uptick can be seen on 80k's media page: https://80000hours.org/about/media-coverage/ and then there were also the campaigns for the Precipice, WWOTF etc.

That said,  with regards to FTX they seem to have reverted to a policy of less engagement. What to do here just seems like a really hard call to me. You point out there's a high proportion of negative coverage, but I don't see a straightforward route to drowning that out with new positive coverage in the current environment. A more realistic option would be to try to more to make the coverage less bad (and there is some of this happening) or do more to tell our own narrative about what happened; but that could easily have the effect of EA being given greater prominence in the negative stories, or make whatever narrative the journalist has more credible etc.

 

On 2) I feel pretty unsure even more media coverage would have been better.

One point is that it seems likely that EA is getting way more negative coverage now because it was fresh in journalists’ minds from Will’s summer media campaign. If there had been less coverage of EA over the summer, I expect there would be fewer negative articles about EA now. So overall I'm tempted to draw the lesson from this that less media is better.

Another point is that most surveys I’ve seen show that only ~5% of people come into EA via the media, but the media is how most people have heard of EA. This means it creates only a small fraction of community members, but perhaps the majority of haters.  I think that suggests there’s still a lot to be said for a strategy that involves a small media footprint (i.e. maybe you get 95% of the recruitment but with only 20% of the haters).

On noisy fuckers, I think the EA Hotel is a bad look for EA (Edit: I want to clarify that I don't have a problem with the EA Hotel as a project, I just think it's not a great media story) . Although turning the journalist away at the door also worked out badly in hindsight, I think the bigger mistake was accepting the journalist’s invite in the first place, so if anything I think this example updates me towards a stronger non-engagement policy.

(Also the fact that the journalist came even after you'd turned down the interview is pretty aggressive of him, suggesting the story could have been a lot worse.)

The way I agree with (2) is that it’s a big shame there wasn’t more positive coverage out about longtermism 1-2 years ahead of the launch of WWOTF, which would have meant Torres didn’t drive the discourse around it as much as they did.

More broadly, generating high-profile positive coverage is hard - pushing into more marginal opportunities can easily lead to stories that are more ambiguously positive, or simply have little reach, or require doing a ton of work, and there's always the question of opportunity costs.

 

On 3), I think you’re overstating CEA’s influence. The large orgs (GiveWell, OP, FP, TLYCS, ACE, 80k, Singer etc) all have their own outreach people and decide their own strategy. CEA provides advice to some of these orgs, but I wouldn’t say it’s the main driver of what’s happened in recent years. Far more funding comes from OP than CEA. CEA does not ‘appoint’ the representatives of EA.

 

On 4), I agree it would be great if there were more EA public figures, and having a small number of faces of EA is a big risk for the reasons you say. But my impression is that Will, CEA and 80k have all been trying to find and encourage such people. (If you’re reading this and interested in trying, please apply to 80k advising asap.)

The reason it hasn’t happened isn’t because CEA doesn’t want it, but rather because it’s a shitty and difficult job. Even if someone can match e.g. Toby in terms of communication skills and charm, very few people can tell the kind of story he can, and match the level of coverage he’s able to get. And results are heavy-tailed – it’s almost bound to be that a couple of people receive the majority of the coverage. (Unless those people step back, in which case the total amount of coverage will likely drop.)

So I would really like this to change, but I think it’s going to be a slow process. 

 

On 5), I disagree for similar reasons that others have said in the thread. It’s pretty hard to make media go well and generate positive coverage. I think if lots more people tried without making it a major focus of theirs, the results are as likely to be bad as good.

Since media coverage affects the brand of the whole movement, I think it’s an area where it’s easy to be unilateralist, so it’s reasonable to adopt a rule of thumb like “if a significant number of people think this coverage would be bad, don’t do it.” I’m not sure how this should be implemented in practice, and maybe right now things are too centralised, but I think something like having a media team who can provide quick guidance on whether something seems good or bad seems like a reasonable way to go.

I’m sorry I don’t have more positive suggestions about how things should change going forward (and they probably should) but maybe this helps identify the best criticisms of the old approach.
 

Hey Ben,

Let me clarify a couple of my views first:

  1. CEA has a policy of minimising the total amount of media engagement.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I'm obviously not claiming they've sought to minimise it, but to control it.

2. EA should have sought even more media coverage than it did in recent years.

I don't think they necessarily should have, and definitely not in a cavalier 'all publicity is good publicity' way. I think they should have experimented more, and been generally less willing to promote  a doctrine laid out in a few hundred words based on nothing but anecdote for nearly as long as they did.

4. There should be a wider range EA public figures, but CEA has prevented this.

I would say more that they've strongly singled out Toby and especially Will for promotions than that they've prevented individuals from becoming public figures (with the caveat on their influence I discuss further down in this comment). For example, the majority of opening and closing talks at most EAGs until at least 2020 seem to have been by Will or Toby, as well as maybe half the fireside chats - with hardly anyone else seeming to have given more than one. Meanwhile, the promotion they've given What We Owe the Future, Doing Good Better and The Precipice is extreme. Many other books have been written on similar subjects without getting anywhere near the level of support (eg Reese's On the Future, MacFarquahar's Strangers Drowning, Russell's Human Compatible - even Singer's The Most Good You Can Do).

5. A significantly wider range of people in the community should speak to the media even if they don’t have approval or training from others in EA.

At the risk of sounding pedantic-er, I would restrict myself to the weaker claim that lack of training or official approval should not be a strong deterrent to people who are thinking of speaking to the media about EA-related subjects in a positive way and that, to the extent that CEA have publicly discouraged this (which, if I understood Shakeel's comment on my original doc he agrees they have), they should stop doing so (which, again, it sounds like is what he intends).

Re your arguments:

my understanding is that from 2020 onwards they became significantly more pro media coverage

That might be true. I don't know what their policy is internally, only what guidance they display publicly. That said,

This uptick can be seen on 80k's media page: https://80000hours.org/about/media-coverage/ and then there were also the campaigns for the Precipice, WWOTF etc.

Excluding those campaigns, which are a large part of the phenomenon I'm criticising, I don't see an uptick. Just going by those links, and ignoring 2022 which was mostly WWOTF, there seems to have been a cycle of increased  coverage every ~3 years, in 2013, 2015, 2018, and 2021.

That said,  with regards to FTX they seem to have reverted to a policy of less engagement. What to do here just seems like a really hard call to me. You point out there's a high proportion of negative coverage, but I don't see a straightforward route to drowning that out with new positive coverage in the current environment.

I basically agree here. Now is probably a particularly bad time to talk to the media casually - I'm claiming (weakly, and more that these are claims we should be testing) that a) we would be in a better situation now had we had more exposure earlier, and b) once this stuff dies down, a more liberal policy will reduce the risk of such a negative-PR-singularity in future.

One point is that it seems likely that EA is getting way more negative coverage now because it was fresh in journalists’ minds from Will’s summer media campaign. If there had been less coverage of EA over the summer, I expect there would be fewer negative articles about EA now. So overall I'm tempted to draw the lesson from this that less media is better.

Fwiw I interpret this as supporting my case. The level of EA-media engagement in Will's summer media campaign was, as you imply highly unusual. Had there been a steady stream of articles, some good, some bad, on a wide range of EA topics for years and then 2022's articles happened to include (but not exclusively be) a large number about Will's book, I think the 'man-bites-dogness' of EA = Will = FTX would have been much reduced.

Another point is that most surveys I’ve seen show that only ~5% of people come into EA via the media, but the media is how most people have heard of EA. This means it creates only a small fraction of community members, but perhaps the majority of haters.  I think that suggests there’s still a lot to be said for a strategy that involves a small media footprint (i.e. maybe you get 95% of the recruitment but with only 20% of the haters)

I don't update in either direction based on this. This sounds like standard marketing logic - you irritate the majority of people who see your ad and engage the minority who matter. I don't see how that makes a case that less marketing means fewer people will buy your product.

I also think this kind of data is very hard to interpret, in much the same way - few people will consciously go through an internal monologue resembling 'ah, I heard about EA in the New York Times, so I'll donate some money to Givewell', just as few people will say 'Ah, having seen that ad for Coca Cola I'll go out and buy a bottle'. It's all about priming, which is incredibly hard to self-report, even if people are perfectly scrupulous about it (which they're probably incentivised not to be). If marketing departments - both of for-profits and nonprofits - have for  decades thought this was a good trade-off, I think we need some pretty robust evidence to confidently claim it won't be in our case.

Non-rhetorically-intended question: other than producing bad media, do you know of any instances of 'haters' actually impeding EA activities? Otherwise, this claim seems to be 'more media attention on EA will produce more of both good and bad media', which seems uncontroversial - the question I want us to investigate is in what proportion it does.

Although turning the journalist away at the door also worked out badly in hindsight, I think the bigger mistake was accepting the journalist’s invite in the first place, so if anything I think this example updates me towards a stronger non-engagement policy.

I think this is fair (both in that I made a mistake and that that's a reasonable interpretation). I presented it because it's not my interpretation, and it seems a relevant discussion point.

(Also the fact that the journalist came even after you'd turned down the interview is pretty aggressive of him, suggesting the story could have been a lot worse.)

Without knowing what pressures he was under, having possibly told his boss he had been offered an interview, needing to get some article out by a deadline, I don't think this is fair to him.

I think you’re overstating CEA’s influence. The large orgs (GiveWell, OP, FP, TLYCS, ACE, 80k, Singer etc) all have their own outreach people and decide their own strategy. CEA provides advice to some of these orgs, but I wouldn’t say it’s the main driver of what’s happened in recent years. Far more funding comes from OP than CEA. CEA does not ‘appoint’ the representatives of EA.

This is true, but somewhat misleading in that of these orgs, only CEA has meaningfully funded individuals . More subtly but IMO with similar effects, EA Funds have been the group most explicitly funding EA startup projects - the others you mention mostly review existing charities that would counterfactually exist, albeit with a reduced budget absent their support. So CEA has wielded existential power over orgs who are the most likely to be explicitly EA aligned. There also seems to have been some amount of deference from the other funders, who sometimes seem to contribute to some project if and only if CEA  do it first.

Having said that, as I understand it EA Funds are now separate from CEA, so this is a primarily historical concern. But CEA still run the forum, the EAGs, and have a large hand in EAGxes. So they probably still have an outsized influence on the community comprising the most engaged non-billionaires. Also, they seem to have been much more proactive than the other orgs both in engaging and deterring engagement with the media.  Lastly, there's a huge amount of cross-pollination between these groups, with many of the staff at them having come via one of the other orgs, or being employed by one while being a trustee or advisor for another, etc. 

Even if someone can match e.g. Toby in terms of communication skills and charm, very few people can tell the kind of story he can, and match the level of coverage he’s able to get.

I don't buy this. I'm a big fan of Toby, but I don't think he's especially adept at public speaking, and I don't think it's a common view that he is.  Sure, his story is 'I started the movement' (at least, I think so. Jonas is disagreeing below), which is worth a lot, but if you look through the thousands of actively engaged EAs I'm sure there are plenty of others with at least as good a human interest angle.

But my impression is that Will, CEA and 80k have all been trying to find and encourage such people. (If you’re reading this and interested in trying, please apply to 80k advising asap.)

The reason it hasn’t happened isn’t because CEA doesn’t want it, but rather because it’s a shitty and difficult job.

This is perhaps a quibble, but I think considering it as necessarily a 'job' is part of my concern. Often the story is just going to be 'person X did something the media are interested in' and the question is whether they do or should feel pressure not to speak to the media even if they feel like it's a  good idea.

On 5), I disagree for similar reasons that others have said in the thread. It’s pretty hard to make media go well and generate positive coverage. I think if lots more people tried without making it a major focus of theirs, the results are as likely to be bad as good.

I don't think there's a strong case to be made either way yet - again, I want to see more exploration, not sudden adoption of a policy with the opposite emphasis. Fwiw by my count more of the comments on this thread are positive than negative wrt the idea of at least somewhat liberalising the historical policy.

A minor point, but:

So we backtracked and asked the journalist not to visit. He did anyway, and we literally turned him away at the front door.

The bad results from this seem unsurprising; this to me sounds more like a poor implementation of the policy than an issue with the policy.

Will and Toby are arguably the man founders of the EA movement

FWIW, I think this is false as stated; several others have played a similarly large (or larger role) in my view, and in general it was more decentralized than it might seem. E.g., Bostrom, Holden, Eliezer seem similarly/more important to me, and I probably forgot some names.

The main difference between Will / Toby and those other names is that Will and Toby deliberately marketed themselves as EA co-founders on a couple of occasions, whereas the others didn't.

Disagree. Many people have made important contributions over the years, but that doesn't make them founders of the effective altruism movement.

Givewell were doing great research at the same time and probably have the next best claim, but they were explicitly neither trying to create a community nor encourage altruism per se (IIRC their early tagline was something like 'don't give more, give well'). 

Bostrom wrote a couple of essays that eventually became seminal but otherwise hasn't really engaged with the community - or, I would argue, published anything particularly significant to it since 2003 (perhaps excepting Superintelligence, which is mainly a trade book summarising what various people had written well before that point). Similarly seminal ideas came from Brian Tomasik, who wrote countless essays that inspired many people to make substantial changes to their behaviour, and Peters Singer and Unger for writing impassioned calls for people to act like EAs perhaps a little before it was culturally feasible - the first two of whom have been far more involved as the movement developed.

Eliezer started a forum, wrote a lot of fanfic and told people paperclipping AI was the main threat to humanity; there's room for wide disagreement on the  value of that, but I wouldn't call it starting a movement - and if it was, it wasn't the effective altruism movement (which still doesn't seem particularly mainstream on Less Wrong, and whose non-AI concerns were notoriously dismissed as a 'rounding error' by rationalists at early EA meetups). Seth Baum collected a bunch of people on the original Felicifia who were smaller in number but far more committed to the ethos of optimising general do-gooding, rather than focusing on one narrow cause area.

Also Zell Kravinsky continues to be massively underappreciated for taking all of these ideas more seriously than even their authors did, and earning to give decades before it was cool - not to mention being the first undirected organ donor (and he was ridiculed and  in many cases even vilified by the media for it).

You could make a case for any of these people having the most counterfactual value, but Giving What We Can was the project that explicitly sought to build a movement, and that was almost all done by Will and Toby. 

I really disagree with this and think it's an incorrect representation of the actual history of the EA community.

  • Whether someone was intending to grow a large movement seems much less important than whether someone actually did. (I.e., whether they made seminal contributions to the ideas and culture of the community that actually helped create the community.)
  • GWWC seems pretty unimportant in the grander scheme of things compared to other organizations, books, ideas, etc. E.g., I think Will's contributions to 80K, DGB, etc. seem more important than GWWC.

Right now I don't feel compelled to write a more elaborate response, but if this false founding myth keeps coming up I might write a longer post at some point.

80k certainly helped get the word out, as did DGB, but there was already a growing collection of people working on GWWC by the time 80k started (and 80k itself was basically an outgrowth of the GWWC project), and by the time of DGB, the movement was already well enough established to have had multiple EAG-like events. Growing it is not founding it (and as you say,  Will was highly involved with early efforts to do the former).

I don't think we're going to agree on this emphasis, which is obviously fine, but I don't think you should be calling it a 'false founding myth' until you've made a much stronger case.

I mostly agree with you, Jonas, but I think you're using the phrase "founder" in a confusing way. I think a founder is someone who is directly involved in establishing an organisation. Contributions that are indirect like Bostrom and Eliezer's, or that come after the organisation is started (like DGB) may be very important, but don't make them founders. I would probably totally agree with you if you just said you're answering a different question: "Who caused EA to be what it is today?"

Hmm, but EA isn't an organization, it's a movement. I don't really know what it even means to say that a movement has co-founders ...

My personal stance on the media:

  • Talking to the media well is harder than people think
  • If I know/trust a journalist and think they are genuinely interested in understanding, it's good to provide them with information
  • Explicitly ask to be off the record to start with
  • Talk as if I am on the record, at least until I trust them more
  • Talk about what I think, not what EA thinks
  • Only agree to quotes that I would have freely provided
  • Do not say things that everyone would hate if they knew I'd said them
  • Tell Shakeel who I am talking to 
  • Be open to waiting a month or so until a particular story has settled down (I was pretty moody that my friends told me not to talk to journalists around the FTX stuff, but they were right and I was wrong)
  • Don't share private information

What has been your experience with the results of this policy?

I've regretted part of a quote I gave before I decided I'd type my quotes up myself. Otherwise, fine. Have only ever contributed to articles that people I asked thought were good, but pretty small sample.

Thank you for writing this.

I have thought about writing a critical post making broadly similar arguments, but with a greater focus on how the FTX disaster played out in November.

I don't plan to do this right now. At least some of the people who are working on this have a reasonable read on my views, and there are other things I want to focus on for now.

Again—thanks for writing this. I will follow the discussion with interest—and so will many journalists!

If you haven't extensively, successfully dealt with the media, someplace where the media do not start out nicely inclined towards you (i.e., your past media experience at the Center for Rare Diseases in Cute Puppies does not count), you are not qualified to give this advice.  It should be given by somebody who understands how bad journalism gets and what needs to be done to avoid the usual and average negative outcome, or not at all.

It seems like setting ourselves up for selection bias if we take listen only to people with experience with "how bad journalism gets". We also  want to get advice from people with good experiences with journalism, because they might be doing things that make them more likely to get good experiences, and presumably know about how to continue to go about having good experiences, having gotten them.

There may be some parts of EA where the media don't start out nicely inclined to the area at hand, but I think on many topics we might care to engage with the media on, they likely would start out neutral or positive on anything.

We might take the points here with more weight if they are from someone with extensive experience, but a lack of experience doesn't invalidate the reasoning here.

Alas that I don't have the credentials to match an autodidact whose hobby is telling academic specialists that he understands their subject better than they do.

We could have a special Forum post where top-level comments represent journalists (they might just contain the name of the journalist), and second-level comments link articles. If  someone thinks that an article is high-quality, they upvote journalist and article. If it’s low-quality, they downvote them instead.

That way we’d have a public, crowd-sourced database of journalists, and if a top-voted journalist wants to do an interview, they’ll have an easy time because everyone trusts them already. If a journalist wants to break into the list, they’ll first have to start with a non-interview type article.

Plus, Kelsey Piper can post her own top-level comment and get a ton of karma. 

Similarly, if you look at Will’s Tweetstorm decrying SBF’s actions, the majority of responses are angrily negative responses to a movement that consorted with crypto billionaires, as though that’s all EA has ever been about.

Social media systems are notorious for finding galaxy-brained ways to detect unsanctioned research and researchers, and thwart their research without their knowledge, e.g. by feeding the researchers false information that strongly appears to be accurate (this has even been known to happen with sanctioned researchers as well). I'm not saying this is the wrong way to look at things in this particular situation, but in general it is a losing strategy for research. 

It seems we’ll to have to deal with this being the first impression many people have formed of the movement for quite some time.

We'll still need to wait and see, because odds are high that the scope of this phenomenon is being mismeasured by orders of magnitude, in either direction. Both scenarios are worth investment, especially extreme-seeming versions of the scenarios.

Post summary (feel free to suggest edits!):
CEA follows a fidelity model of spreading ideas, which claims because EA ideas are nuanced and the media often isn’t, media communication should only be done by those qualified who are confident the media will report the ideas exactly as stated.

The author argues against this on four points:

  1. Sometimes many people doing something ‘close to’ is better than few doing it ‘exactly’ eg. few vegans vs. many reductitarians.
  2. If you don’t actively engage the media, a large portion of coverage will be from detractors, and therefore negative.
  3. EA’s core ideas are not that nuanced. Most critics have a different emotional response or critique how it’s put into practice, rather than get anything factually wrong.
  4. The fidelity model contributes to hero worship and concentration of power in EA.

The author suggests further discussion on this policy, acknowledgement from CEA of the issues with it, experimenting with other approaches in low-risk settings, and historical / statistical research into what approaches have worked for other groups.

(If you'd like to see more summaries of top EA and LW forum posts, check out the Weekly Summaries series.)