Post No.: 0881
Journalists are typically rushed with tight deadlines. Word limits are useful but can be constraining. And they must follow the market forces of supply and demand.
One consequence of the latter is that the stories that journalists seek tend to be selected from the particularly bizarre, scary, shocking or ‘breakthrough’ (as in often too early or tenuous to be confirmed, like ‘miracle cures’). And they choose to cover these stories in ways that produce the most sensationalism, with either total incomprehensibility on the one paw or gross oversimplification on another.
Scientists are often portrayed as either ‘socially unquestionable authority figures’ or as ‘mad and detached from reality’. There’s a great deal of vital science being conducted around the world every day but most of it is complicated and/or serious ‘boring’ stuff – but the bizarre, scary, shocking or ‘breakthrough’ are what journalists like to report most because they must think about their target audience. These stories are more exciting to write about too.
Health is a common topic because it emotively affects everybody’s lives and so there are tons of health stories in the media like ‘chocolate is good for us’ or ‘meat causes cancer’ – stories about things that kill/harm or cure/treat us are the most attention-grabbing and motivating. Reports of threats, dangers, foul play and cover-ups consistently seize plenty of audience engagement. Scary outvies reassuring in making news headlines, even though both are equally informative. Journalists sometimes like to think of themselves as heroic whenever presenting scare stories – as if they’ve just served the good of the public.
Meanwhile, unlike shocking and rare events – slow harms/progresses or now commonplace deaths/altruism barely generate massive spikes in interest, at least as top headlines that span over multiple days. Even though slow, these things might build up/down 3% annually and thus are more impacting over the decades than one-off and temporary 20% shifts? Or we might learn about an alarming figure then forget to update it over the years hence we fail to notice the progress that’s been made? A one-off tragedy of 5 people dying in a tourist submersible generated far more interest than around 500 people dying in a migrant boat disaster during the same week as part of a statistic that thousands die in such migrant boats every single year. Meow.
Similarly, the ‘dull, boring middle-of-the-range’ things are usually neglected from our attentions, even though they tend to amount to the majority of cases. For example, the news tends to focus on the very rich or the very poor when most people are inbetween. We might therefore hold a stereotype of those who use the bus as being poor when many bus travellers aren’t. In other cases we might hold false dichotomies like ‘if someone isn’t on our side then they’re against us’ or even go as far as repeatedly asserting ‘there is no alternative’ when there is.
It’s again about the pressures of supplying what’s most demanded. Therefore the media and us as news consumers in general – for paying attention to certain news stories and engaging with and sharing those types of stories more than others – are often just as culpable for presenting and perpetuating skewed information as for-profit corporations, PR firms and politicians with their own agendas.
A lot of cheap journalism is also about interviewing people and presenting ‘he said, she said’ content (i.e. one person’s word against another without caring to fact-check those words), or presenting footage along the lines of pointing to the outside of a building and claiming that’s allegedly where weapons of mass destruction are being manufactured (when it could be any random building?) and basically journalists taking someone else’s word for it, and then hoping that we as readers will take their word for it. It’s cheap because the statements aren’t verified with any independent investigation or anything solid and less ambiguous.
Some journalists nowadays also lazily essentially scrape social media and quote random people’s posts and present this as ‘research’ and ‘content’!
It might still be the truth but the reporter has just reported as opposed to investigated. Then again, it might be down to us to recognise when something is just a report as opposed to an independent journalistic investigation. So when a reporter reports on an allegation, we must understand that it’s merely an allegation and not presume that the accused will already prove to be guilty, no matter how emotionally charged the alleged act, for instance.
A picture, video or someone’s version of events that claims to be one thing could actually be something else or from elsewhere entirely? This makes up a lot of fake news found on social media. Conspiracy theorists often appropriate footage from one event and claim it to be from another.
It’s often not something ‘caught in the act’, a non-coerced confession or something else concrete and verified. This kind of social media news relies on presenting a conclusion that’s emotional and hoping that these emotions we feel will make us apply confirmation bias on the supposed evidence to confirm that the conclusion must be true, when in fact if one takes a dispassionate step back, that evidence is ambiguous or false.
If you want to find something, you’ll eventually find something that appears to match it if you look hard enough – but what you find might’ve been totally interpreted through the lens of confirmation bias. That’s why it’s relatively easy to trump-up charges or dox someone. You can always find what you think is evidence of what you really want to find, like that intelligent extraterrestrial life has visited Earth recently.
Unlike general social media content creators, proper journalists do have a firmer duty to present the truth. Yet like the former – and especially for having to compete with the former nowadays – their main motives and masters are to grab attention and to create a social firestorm that people will talk about in order to get others to talk about a story and spread it further, because that’s how they make money (usually by selling valuable advertising space that’ll have plenty of eyeballs on it) and boost their brand. Thus ‘boring’ but important stories tend to get disproportionately little coverage compared to peripheral, bizarre and over-hyped content.
Telegenic people/things also tend to get aired more, like stories of rare tapirs as opposed to even rarer salamanders, or an adorable missing child over a not-so-adorable one. Any and every single case is sad but we must note that thousands of children tragically go missing every year yet only a few of these get reported in the national media.
The opinions of famous people, including comedians and satirists or actors and musicians, also get more airtime, even when they’re no more expert on a subject than other laypeople. Columnist pieces are just opinion pieces by their authors and should be understood as such too. Even when we accept it’s just their opinion, and everyone is entitled to one – they don’t necessarily represent the views of the general public. If a famous quotable person in history said something – does it necessarily mean that everyone from that moment in history thought the same thing? Could it be just like if someone famous but controversial said something today? There are typically diverse beliefs within all populations. Especially before recording and sharing technologies were more democratised, it could’ve been just a tiny minority opinion that happened to have been preserved then later discovered by historians? So we must be careful whenever we assume ‘they all or mostly’ think or thought something, based on finding that ‘one or two of them’ said something, like that novels would corrupt the minds of the youth.
It could be like, in the future, a researcher spots a social media post from someone today ranting about ‘pigeons are just flying rats’ and then that researcher assuming that ‘they’ (as in most of us today) seriously believed that(!)
Ancient Greek philosopher Eratosthenes did work out the Earth must’ve been round at ~240 BCE. But unless his findings and lessons were taught to the entire Greek population at the time, and not just to a privileged few, and accepted – chances are that the general belief held by most ancient Greeks at that time and place was that the Earth was flat based on their intuitions. Mainly only the privileged could record and preserve their thoughts in history. This is an example of the survivorship bias. (Post No.: 0707 delved deeper into this form of selection bias in more detail.) We’ve got to consider the voices and thoughts that weren’t recorded for us to be able to examine today. The voiceless could vastly outnumber the heard? So – although it admittedly helps with brevity – be careful when using or coming across the term ‘they’ and forming generalised stereotypes that may have been or may be inaccurate.
Non-specialist journalists frequently cover science news stories but they don’t always have the skills to critically appraise such stories, and so rely on heuristics such as ‘who said something?’ and ‘who are they working for/have they worked for?’ – often assuming that if they work for the company that’s selling a particular product then they must know what they’re talking about and are therefore trustworthy and credible, as opposed to suspecting that they suffer from a conflict of interest and aren’t going to exactly be impartial about their own company’s products! For example interviewing a representative of a newfangled supplement manufacturer about the benefits of their own product. Well this doesn’t necessarily mean their research and views cannot be trusted but we’ve got to bear in mind this conflict of interest. People who have a personal stake in a product cannot be expected to be impartial about that product or those of their competitors. People who work for a firm cannot be expected to be impartial about their employer who pays their salary. Other potentially biased sources include family (although sometimes family members have strained relationships with each other and so might actually paint their relatives in a bad light).
These journalists might not question how large or randomised a sample was, whether an experiment was ecologically valid to the real world (e.g. a fluffy mouse or Petri dish isn’t the same as a living human body), how big a result was even if it were statistically significant (statistical significance indicates the reliability in a result but a reliable result might still be small e.g. an ingredient might reliably improve a health problem but only slightly, and only if you consume tons of it!) or what the confounds or counterpoints to the results might be (e.g. an intervention might do some good somewhere but might also do a lot of bad elsewhere)?
And if we as news consumers aren’t clued-up on the scientific method or statistics either then we might take these stories at face value.
So both journalists and news consumers often effectively treat news as gossip – echoing whatever they’re told in press releases and what’s popularly believed – which is the complete antithesis of the critical thinking practices required in science. Science news should be scrutinised and critiqued like all other forms or sources of information or news.
People also often do the wrong thing in order to try to serve what they feel is a bigger right thing – like blaming a vaccine for causing autism in order to attack the public healthcare system, or voting to leave an economic union in order to get the government to notice and listen to the marginalised working classes. Journalists are crucial as key disseminators of information and are necessary to hold a spotlight over accountable authorities, but this doesn’t mean they are always right, fair or fully truthful themselves because they can express their own political leanings and beliefs too.
Meow. If you’d like, please reply to the tweet linked in the Twitter comment button below to share your opinions on these journalistic pressures and habits.