Monthly Archives: December 2010

Skeptical mass media? Yeah right

Is mass media skeptical? If the journalists who contribute to the wealth of publications worldwide value truth and objectivity, skepticism ought be rife in popular media. Shouldn’t it?

What we find is the opposite – fringe claims, nonsense and silliness run amuck on the pages and the screen. I have pointed out a few egregious examples of outright media sloppiness on this blog before. So, why isn’t the media a reliable source of scientific information?

Here’s my take:

  • Journalists, for the most part, aren’t scientifically literate – The profession doesn’t emphasise specialist knowledge like it used to. Many people writing about science or topics that deserve healthy skepticism are not versed in science or the scientific method.
  • Balance in a science story carries an implicit bias. Balance leads to the dubious claims getting far too much weight. Further, people tend to falsely remember stories in which the false claims gets a decent hearing. A piece about weather does not require a credulous slant towards the one guy who makes a living denouncing the science of meteorology in favour of his “I can predict the weather solely by the moon” nonsense. Call it as it is – a statue bleeding oil is a fraud so call it that.
  • Media outlets are not objective – Obvious but often overlooked fact. The selection of news, the selection of facts and lines within stories and their placement in the publication all bear the stamp of organisational bias. Media outlets must sell column inches and air time so the stories will reflect what the target audience wants to hear. See Christopher Hitchens comments about objectivity that follows this list.
  • The media is designed to give readers what they want – not to challenge them – Journalist Christopher Hitchens points this out rather forcefully when he says the media generally just reinforce what people already think, not challenge. “It makes people dumber and then it takes them as being dumb and then doesn’t ask a challenging question”. He says they won’t ask a tough question that the audience can’t understand in the hope that they won’t click to another channel out of boredom.
  • Media today is part of the entertainment industry – The principle behind today’s journalism is populism and a drive to diminish information down to an entertaining bite size for consumers (the correct term as readers and viewers doesn’t capture the true relationship between sender and receiver). This arrangement is implicitly insulting to the public in the sense that the media wants to give you what you want rather than what is true.
  • Media outlets are largely concerned with controversies – The, “side with the guy cast aside by the big scientific establishment” theme is appealing to many readers, probably because it sticks up for the little guy.

People use the word objective as if it meant even handed or fair minded or impartial or bipartisan – none of these words mean objective at all, objective means that in a confrontation with the evidence you would be willing to change your mind. – Christopher Hitchens

Bad media, good media and the rise of the blogs

Turn open the pages of any newspaper, read media websites through the eyes of skepticism and see what you find. No doubt you will find examples of what I discussed above. Of course, science journalism exists on a continuum – Fox News, Oprah and ideological skewed media (The Huffington Post) at the absolutely terrible end through to rigorous scholarship at the other.

In between these extremes, where most mainstream publications sit, there are many well intentioned stories that just get it wrong. A little scientific background is usually enough to help these journalists write stunningly clear and accurate stories. This does not guarantee a well written story will make it through the editorial process in the same state, due to the biases and traits mentioned above.

I have mentioned bad science journalism in this blog before. Indeed it is my goal to “right the wrongs” of bad science stories where possible so that anyone who stumbles upon my blog might learn something. Blogging, sadly, has taken the mantle of correcting mass media inaccuracies in this the digital age.

Conclusion

Critical thinking and some knowledge about science empowers us to cut through and clarify the essence of issues, even when the writers/producers do their very best to throw us off.

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